Topeka Republican Jim Barnett created a fuss by claiming during a televised gubernatorial debate that the state gives a tuition break at its colleges and universities to illegal immigrants but not to children of military personnel.
Since 1971, Kansas has permitted spouses and children of soldiers and airmen stationed in the state to pay the lower tuition rates reserved for residents. Although stationed in Kansas, military personnel often claim another state as their legal residence.
Last year, the Legislature liberalized the law as part of a "Military Bill of Rights," so those rates apply even if military personnel are transferred to another state while a spouse or child is in college. Also, the 2005 changes said dependents of any Kansan killed in combat could attend without paying tuition.
Thus, Barnett's comment in his debate with Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius seemed to her staff and allies a clear misstatement. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley called Barnett "blatantly incorrect."
"It's an example of where Jim Barnett will say anything basically to get elected governor," said Hensley, D-Topeka. "He, in this case, was completely off-base and was making what I would consider a wild-eyed statement to try and make a point."
Barnett spokesman Rodger Woods attempted to clarify Barnett's remark, saying the candidate was referring to soldiers who've never been stationed in Kansas but want to send their children to Kansas institutions.
"If somebody stationed at Fort Hood wants to send their child to K-State, they would have to pay out-of-state tuition, and somebody who comes here illegally can pay in-state."
Told of Woods' explanation, Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said, "That is ridiculous."
Barnett made his comment Wednesday night during a debate from the studios of WIBW-TV in Topeka, responding to a question about illegal immigration.
The Republican said: "We should not be giving in-state tuition when we have servicemen and servicewomen serving this country and their children are paying out-of-state tuition rates when we provide in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. The governor has supported that. I oppose that."
Barnett has repeatedly criticized Sebelius for signing a 2004 law that allowed illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. To qualify, a student must have lived in Kansas at least three years and must seek legal residency.
Barnett contends the law encourages illegal immigration, while Sebelius argues it helps young people who have chosen to stay in Kansas to pursue an education and a good job. Last fall, 221 students took advantage of the law.
The Kansas Board of Regents doesn't keep track of how many military dependents attend state universities and colleges.
Barnett is an Emporia physician and a state senator whose district includes Emporia State University.
"Unfortunately, it appears that the senator is misinformed yet again," Corcoran said. "We would hope that someone who is seeking the job of leading this state would have a better understanding of what has happened and what we still need to work for."
Woods said that if Barnett's answer was unclear, "We can always polish the delivery."