Kansas gubernatorial candidates face off in first debate
Story updated at 5:34 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018:
OVERLAND PARK – The three major candidates for governor in Kansas faced each other for the first time Wednesday, offering vastly different views on taxes, education policy, illegal immigration and a host of other issues.
Democrat Laura Kelly, Republican Kris Kobach and independent candidate Greg Orman debated for an hour before an audience of about 350 people at an event sponsored by the Johnson County Bar Association.
The differences between the candidates were apparent from the start, when each candidate was asked to identify the most important issues in the race.
Kelly said funding for public education was by far the biggest issue she hears voters talk about, followed by the condition of the state’s roads and infrastructure and the need to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Kobach, by contrast, focused on his promise to cut both taxes and state spending. He also vowed to crack down on illegal immigration.
Orman, meanwhile, said the biggest challenges facing the state are the exodus of young people moving away from Kansas and what he called the state’s “reputational deficit.”
One of the biggest areas of disagreement during the debate was over school finance and the role that Kansas courts play in determining whether or not the funding that the Legislature provides is suitable.
Conservatives in the Kansas Legislature have been harshly critical of the Kansas Supreme Court for its decisions in both 2005 and 2017, in which it ordered the Legislature to increase funding for public schools.
The latest ruling resulted in the 2018 Legislature passing a funding bill that phases in more than $500 million a year in public school funding over a five-year period.
Kobach, who currently serves as secretary of state, said he supports the idea of a constitutional amendment that would limit the authority of the courts to make such decisions.
“We have a constitutional crisis right now in Kansas,” Kobach said. “The judiciary has assumed the appropriations power, which the Kansas Constitution … very clearly gives only to the Legislature.”
But Kelly, a state senator from Topeka, and Orman, a Johnson County businessman, both said they see no need to amend the constitution.
“The people of the state of Kansas made it very clear when they included in the constitution that we needed to provide a suitable education for our kids,” Kelly said. “The court just upheld that ruling. They did not appropriate that funding. The Legislature appropriated the funding.”
“I think it was helpful that the Supreme Court flagged this issue for us. Ultimately, it’s up to the Legislature and the governor to provide suitable education,” Orman said. I don’t think it makes sense to have a constitutional amendment while we’re in the middle of a lawsuit.”
The candidates also sparred over tax policy, especially the Legislature’s decision in 2017 to override former Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto and reverse course on the tax policies he had championed five years earlier.
Kelly, who was part of the bipartisan coalition that voted to override the veto, said the decision helped stabilize the state’s finances, and it was because of that decision that the state was able to provide the funding for public schools that the Supreme Court required.
Kobach, however, said the only problem with Brownback’s tax policies was that he and the Legislature did not also cut spending, which he vowed to do if elected. He said he would shrink the size of state government through attrition as older workers retire. He also vowed to limit local property tax increases by capping the annual growth in appraised property values at 2 percent a year.
Orman, meanwhile, said the best way to stabilize taxes and manage the state’s budget is through economic development that brings new jobs and industry to the state.
“If we are going to create the jobs and opportunities to keep our kids here and have the resources to invest in infrastructure, to invest in public education, to invest in health care, we have to grow the Kansas economy,” he said.
The candidates were also asked about immigration policy, and the state’s current law allowing undocumented students who meet residency requirements and admission standards to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
“I have voted for that, and I’ll vote for it again if I need to,” Kelly said. “Those kids have been living in the state of Kansas. It’s the only home they know. They’ve been attending high schools for at least three years, they graduated, they’re eligible for entrance into our Regents universities.”
Kobach repeated an assertion he has made several times, and one the Kansas Board of Regents disputes, that Kansas taxpayers are “subsidizing” the college education of illegal immigrants, and he vowed to push for repeal of the current law.
Orman also disputed Kobach’s claim, saying if those students had to pay out-of-state tuition, most simply wouldn’t go to college, leaving seats empty in the classroom, which would end up being a loss of revenue to the colleges and universities.
The three also expressed sharply different views about President Donald Trump and the federal policies he has supported that affect state and local governments as well.
Kobach, an ardent Trump supporter, said he strongly supports the federal tax cuts that Trump championed last year, and he criticized Kelly for not supporting a bill that would have prevented the state from reaping an unanticipated windfall as a result of changes in federal tax law.
Kobach also said the only thing that has disappointed him about the Trump administration is its delay in repealing the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allows certain people who were brought to the country illegally as children to obtain work permits and remain in the country legally.
Kelly, meanwhile, found it hard to identify anything Trump has done that she supports.
“I think the thing I most abhor about the Trump administration is the divisiveness, the incivility, the misogyny that comes out of that administration on a regular basis,” she said. “I think it’s tearing our country apart.”
Orman, however, was more charitable, saying he appreciates Trump’s support for apprenticeship programs and technical education. But he said he has concerns about Trump’s approach on tariffs.
“Ultimately, I understand the strategy but I think it’s a very risky approach,” he said “And if we end up in a real trade war with someone like China, it might prevent the supply chains that we’ve built from being used and ultimately lead to a devastation again for our ag economy, and that concerns me.”
The three candidates will face off again on Saturday in a debate at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, which will be broadcast on statewide radio by the Kansas Ag Network, which can be heard locally on WIBW-AM.