Hutchinson Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Republican challenger Jim Barnett drew starkly different pictures of the Kansas economy Saturday in their first debate ahead of November's election.
Sharing a stage at the Kansas State Fair, the Democratic incumbent and the GOP state senator from Emporia also clashed on school finance and traded some personal barbs.
Supporters of Sebelius outnumbered Barnett's backers in an audience of more than 2,000, with the governor's crowd chanting "four more years" and drowning out Barnett with boos at times.
Also on hand were two abortion opponents in cockroach costumes and Sebelius masks pretending to be the governor's campaign mascot. The display was meant to bring attention to allegedly unsanitary conditions at abortion clinics - a connection few in the crowd seemed to understand.
"You have to ask yourself: Are we better off today than we were four years ago?" Sebelius, elected to her first term in 2002, told the audience.
"Our economy was struggling," she added. "We had a billion-dollar deficit. Our schools had been neglected for years by the Legislature. And our health and safety concerns had been overlooked."
She said Kansas now has a "robust economy," and she credited a top-to-bottom review of government spending that she ordered in 2003 for helping the state avoid a tax increase.
She also took credit for bringing legislators together to make a commitment to public schools.
"We are on the path of a real economic boom in Kansas," Sebelius said. "And that shows up with the U.S. Department of Commerce saying we are moving ahead of the nation, we are moving ahead of neighboring states."
Barnett disagreed, repeatedly asserting the Kansas economy was not doing as well as neighboring states or the nation in general. He said Kansas should have better-paying jobs.
"Why is our economy lagging behind? Why haven't we not been keeping up? The number one issue business will tell you is the high taxation state we live in," Barnett said.
If elected, he vowed to abolish estate taxes, give businesses a 10 percent investment tax credit and boost the income tax exemption for dependents by $500.
Sebelius responded that Kansas already will be phasing out its estate tax over the next three years. And she noted a state law enacted this year eliminating inventory taxes on new business equipment and machinery that will spur greater investment by the state's businesses.
At one point in the debate, Barnett called the governor's recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border a photo-op. Kansas National Guard troops had been sent there to help build a fence and patrol the border.
Sebelius shot back that Barnett did not understand the governor's role as commander.
School financing also proved a contentious topic. Legislators, responding to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit brought by several school districts, approved a large increase this year in state funding.
Barnett said he would deal differently with the court, "which is appropriating money, and it has no business appropriating money." He also said he would work to change the way Supreme Court justices are selected so they would better reflect what he called Kansas values.
But Sebelius said the state has made an important commitment to its school children, and it cannot back off from that commitment.