Fact-checking the first Kansas gubernatorial debate

Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, left, Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach and independent candidate Greg Orman take part in the first gubernatorial candidate debate of the general election cycle on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. The debate was sponsored by the Johnson County Bar Association.

TOPEKA – Political candidates often make exaggerated or hard-to-verify statements during public debates, and Wednesday’s Kansas gubernatorial debate was no exception.

Here’s a more in-depth look at some of the claims Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly and independent candidate Greg Orman made during the debate:

Kobach on property taxes

As part of his promise to cut taxes if he’s elected governor, Kobach has also proposed reining in local property taxes by capping how much any home or business could increase in appraised value from one year to the next at 2 percent.

During the debate, he said that has been a particular problem for big-box retail stores in Johnson County.

“Big-box retail, between 2016 and 2017, increased an average of 80 — not 18 — 80 percent in appraised value in one year. I defy anyone to give me an explanation, economically, that can justify that increase.”

In interviews and email exchanges, Johnson County Appraiser Paul Welcome confirmed there had been an 80 percent hike in big-box retail appraised values, but he also offered an explanation.

Beginning in 2008, he said, big-box retail appraisals fell sharply in the wake of the real estate market crash that led to the Great Recession. He provided a chart showing that the valuation of some Walmart stores had by as much as 42 percent by 2012, from $62 down to $36 per square foot.

In 2015, Welcome said, Johnson County commissioned an independent study to look at those values. The county also looked at the actual price paid that year for one big-box store near 115th Street and Metcalf Avenue. Based on that, he said, the county raised appraised values across the board for big-box stores.

Kansas law requires counties to tax property based on its “fair market value,” and Welcome said that by 2015, Johnson County was very nearly out of compliance with state standards for the accuracy of its appraisals for that category of real estate. Now, he said, the appraised values much more accurately reflect actual market values.

Kobach and Kelly on election security

Responding to a question about the quality of Kansas voting laws, which the secretary of state is primarily responsible for administering, both Kobach and Kelly made statements that require further examination.

Kobach, who championed passage of bills requiring voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register and to show photo ID at the polls in order to vote, said those laws had made Kansas elections the most secure in the country.

“There was a real problem with noncitizens getting on the registration rolls in Kansas,” Kobach said. “We had 127 that we found, but you can’t just look at the rolls and say, ‘Oh, that’s a noncitizen.’ They were found because they did something else, like declining jury duty and saying, ‘I’m not a U.S. citizen.’ The actual number is in the thousands. One expert in the case we had estimated over 30,000.”

The case Kobach referred to was a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the proof of citizenship requirement.

The judge in that case, however, rejected the expert testimony Kobach produced, saying it was flawed and carried “no weight.” Ultimately, Judge Julie Robinson overturned the proof of citizenship law as both unconstitutional and a violation of the federal National Voter Registration Act, saying she was “unable to find empirical evidence that a substantial number of noncitizens successfully registered to vote” prior to adoption of the law.

Responding to the same question, Kelly refuted Kobach’s claim that Kansas has the most secure voting system in the country, saying a national study of state voting laws had ranked Kansas low in terms of security.

“I think, actually, there’s been a national group that’s looked at Kansas and found us to be about 48th in election security,” she said. “Nowhere near the top, very close to the bottom in terms of our actual security.”

That statement seems to have been based on a ranking study called the Election Performance Index, a project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Data and Science Lab.

That study, however, did not rank states in terms of “election security.” Rather, its “election performance” metric is based on a combination of 17 factors, including voter registration rates, voter turnout rates, the percentage of ballots that are rejected and the number of provisional ballots cast.

Kansas received low marks for the percentage of the adult population registered to vote, about 81 percent, and for the percentage of provisional ballots that are ultimately rejected, a little more than 1 percent.

But it received relatively good marks for the low number of military and overseas ballots that are rejected or never returned, and for the relatively short time voters have to wait in line at the polls to cast their ballots.

Orman on state economic development program

During the debate, candidates were also asked to identify specific state programs they believed should get more funding, and which ones they thought should be eliminated.

Orman identified an economic development program called PEAK – Promoting Employment Across Kansas – as one he said should be eliminated.

Under the program, the state gives businesses an incentive for creating new jobs by paying them up to 95 percent of the Kansas income tax withholdings for each eligible job they create. Orman called it a contributor to the economic border war that has been going on between Kansas and Missouri.

“Right here in Johnson County, we have a prime example of government waste,” he said. “Through the PEAK program, we pay to move companies from one side of State Line Road to the other. The Hall Family Foundation did an analysis and said it was $301,000 is what it costs for every job created here in Johnson County.”

Asked to cite a source for that statement, a spokesman for Orman’s campaign referred to a 2015 article in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, a publication of the University of Kansas School of Law.

In that article, author Michael T. McGee actually cited two studies that tried to assess the impact of the PEAK program. One, by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, “found that each dollar invested in the PEAK program led to $960 in total economic activity.”

The other, a 2013 study by the Hall Family Foundation, found at that time that the state had spent $140 million to bring 3,289 jobs from Kansas City, Mo., to Johnson and Wyandotte counties – a cost of $42,566 per job.

However, that study went on to point out that over the same period, Missouri spent $72 million to lure 2,824 jobs out of Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

“Thus, Kansas netted a total of 465 jobs from the $140 million it spent on incentives, amounting to approximately $301,000 per job,” the article stated.


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