GOP candidates for governor talk education spending, taxes, marijuana in televised forum

photo by: Screenshot from WIBW-TV, Topeka.

Republican candidates for governor who took part in a televised forum Tuesday, July 10, 2018, included, from left: incumbent Jeff Colyer; Patrick "PK" Kucera; former State Sen. Jim Barnett; Secretary of State Kris Kobach; and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer.

TOPEKA — The five major Republican candidates for governor of Kansas shared their views on issues ranging from education funding and tax cuts to the legalization of marijuana during a televised forum Tuesday evening.

Incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer, who inherited the job when former Gov. Sam Brownback stepped down in January to accept a diplomatic post in President Donald Trump’s administration, offered what were sometimes sharply different views from those of his main rivals, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, former State Sen. Jim Barnett and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, as well as dark horse candidate Patrick “PK” Kucera, during the 45-minute exchange.

The first question of the night focused on the latest school finance ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court, which said the Legislature needs to add money to the five-year, $500-plus-million funding plan lawmakers approved this year in order to account for inflation over that five-year period.

Colyer, citing his work with the Legislature during the 2018 session, said he worked to provide that funding increase, but he accused Kobach of opposing any new funding, which he said could result in a court-ordered closing of public schools.

“I think it’s important that we work with our Kansas schools, with our teachers, parents and educators, that we look at the best solution for their communities, so that all Kansas citizens, all Kansas students have a right and a great job here in the future,” Colyer said.

Kobach, by contrast, said the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision was incorrect and would cost taxpayers an additional $300 million to $400 million over the next five years.

“And that was after Gov. Colyer signed a bill paying a $500 million ransom, thinking that that was enough. Yet, this game is never going to end,” Kobach said. “The Supreme Court of Kansas has got to get out of the business of telling legislators how much money to spend on our schools.”

Barnett, a physician who is running as a moderate against a field of conservatives, said he agreed with the court’s assessment that schools have not been adequately or equitably funded in recent years, and he said the only way the state can afford to address the shortfall is through economic growth.

“Tribune, Kansas, they have school four days a week. They can’t stay open five days; they can’t afford it,” he said. “WaKeeney — no band, no driver’s ed. The only foreign language (instruction) in WaKeeney is on the internet, but they teach immersion Chinese in Blue Valley (Johnson County) in second grade.”

Selzer called for a constitutional amendment to better define the term “suitable” in the Kansas Constitution, which currently requires the Legislature to provide “suitable funding” for the educational needs of the state.

And Kucera, who refers to himself as an “entrepreneurial evangelist,” said he wants to change the conversation to the subject of what is actually being taught in public schools.

“I believe we need more of an entrepreneurial mindset for a 21st-century innovative, creative, educational classroom for the students to be able to come out of school, and they ought to make money, not just create a resume, and not just look for a job that they can’t find or don’t like,” he said.

The forum was co-sponsored by WIBW-TV in Topeka and KWCH-TV in Wichita, both CBS network affiliates, as well as KMUW-FM, a public radio station based out of Wichita State University.

The simulcast in Topeka was plagued throughout the broadcast by technical difficulties that prevented viewers in northeast Kansas from seeing or hearing the entire forum.

But it was one of the few candidate forums in this year’s primary campaign when all five GOP candidates appeared together. Barnett has been barred from participating in debates sanctioned by the state party because he refused to sign a pledge agreeing to rules and conditions for official debates.

But Tuesday’s event, sponsored by the broadcast outlets, was technically considered a “forum,” rather than a “debate,” according to one WIBW official, because each candidate was asked the same question and given 45 seconds to respond, with no opportunity for rebuttal.

The five candidates were also asked about a 2017 tax bill that Kansas lawmakers passed, over then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto, that reversed course on the income tax cuts that Brownback had championed five years earlier.

That reversal of policy has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars more than revenue officials projected last year, just as the tax cuts in 2012 resulted in steeper revenue declines than they predicted at the time.

Barnett blamed the Brownback tax cuts for “nearly bankrupting the state,” while Colyer, who was Brownback’s lieutenant governor at the time, said the Kansas economy has shown signs of improvement and called for lowering income tax rates across the board.

Kobach, however, criticized the Legislature’s action last year and called for a return to Brownback’s tax policies, saying the Brownback-Colyer administrations failed to follow through on the tax cuts with commensurate cuts in state spending.

“We will lean on costs so that we do not have to raise taxes, and we will lean in on costs so hard that we will gradually reduce taxes over time,” Selzer responded.

Kucera, meanwhile, also vowed to cut taxes by putting “triggers or stop-losses” in place so that when revenues flowing into the state increase, state spending would not.

The final question of the event asked each candidate to what extent they would favor the legalization of marijuana, either for medical use or recreational purposes.

Colyer said he does not support legalizing marijuana in any form, saying “that is something that would really set our state backwards,” although he did sign legislation this year legalizing the industrial production and medical uses of non-intoxicating hemp.

Kucera said he supports legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana, but not recreational use, as did Barnett, who said he would review any legislation to legalize medicinal marijuana from a scientific perspective.

Kobach said he opposes any change to the state’s existing marijuana laws, while Selzer and Kucera both said they support exploring the legality of medicinal marijuana, but not recreational use.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the city of WaKeeney, Kansas.


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