They dueled with pens and camera-ready events. The two men split over what could become a defining issue in their battle to win this year’s governor’s race, and over whether Kansas needs to spend more to fix its public schools.
Gov. Jeff Colyer went to a Topeka high school early Tuesday — a performance he planned to repeat later in the day in Wichita — to sign into law a plan to balloon the money sent to local districts by $500 million-plus over the next half-decade.
“Education is one of the most important things that we do in Kansas,” Colyer said. “Our future is right here, and we have an exciting future ahead of us.”
Across town about an hour later, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach signed his own document — a campaign pledge not to raise taxes. He called Colyer’s signing of the education funding bill a mistake, accusing the current governor of caving into judicial and political pressure for spending on schools Kobach contended was simply not needed.
“He should not have signed it,” Kobach told reporters at his press conference. “(Colyer) should not have encouraged the Legislature to pass such a huge spending hike.”
So on a weekday morning more than three months before a primary election, two of the leading Republican candidates for governor sought to draw as much attention as they could to their differing views on education funding and government more broadly.
Colyer’s day cast him as the man at the helm, guiding a troubled state through the stormy waters of school finance. Kobach tacked to the right and insisted that Kansas government is fundamentally broken, needing not so much a steady hand at the rudder as a dramatic change in course.
The split comes over some of the most critical issues of state government, schools and the taxes that pay for them.
Lawmakers passed an eleventh-hour school funding bill earlier this month in the face of a Kansas Supreme Court order. They were racing toward an April 30 deadline, when legal briefs are due spelling out what action the state had taken in response to the court’s ruling in October.
Colyer, who took over the governorship from Sam Brownback in late January, had urged passage of the bill. That aligned him with Republican moderates and Democrats and against the most conservative elements in his party.
It also led him to sign into law a measure with an $80 million shortfall that legislators will have barely a week to fix. On Tuesday at Seaman High School in Topeka, Colyer used that error to make his bill signing part celebration and part civics lesson.
Legislators, he told students and school board members positioned around him, are working on a “trailer bill” to fix the funding error. Then Colyer walked a lap around the gym high-fiving students.
Last Friday, Colyer passed on a chance to respond to Kobach’s attacks at a Republican governor’s candidate forum. On Tuesday, he said the people of Kansas have a “very clear choice” in the primary.
“As governor, what you do is you make solutions. You work with people,” Colyer said. “We’re actually getting things done, and (the bill signing) is an excellent example of actual accomplishment.”
He noted his “different style” from the more cable channel-ready Kobach.
“I don’t scream and shout,” Colyer said.
In his competing news conference, Kobach did not raise his voice. But he renewed his criticism of the school funding bill (“a disaster”). He condemned Colyer for signing legislation that the secretary of state insisted would for force lawmakers to raise taxes next year.
“It is inevitable that the Legislature next year will be sending a tax hike to the governor,” Kobach said. “We need a governor who is going to veto it, not a governor who has aided and abetted such a future tax increase.”
Colyer insists the school spending plan does not require a tax increase. Along with signing his no-tax-hike pledge, Kobach called on the Kansas House to pass a tax break bill already approved by the Senate.
Kobach, like other supporters, says the bill merely prevents the state from reaping a windfall for recent changes in the federal tax code. Lawmakers should instead, Kobach said, ensure that those tax breaks flow back to Kansas taxpayers.
“The starting presumption should be that the money belongs to the people.” Kobach said. “For the state government to intercept the federal tax relief and take it away from Kansans is wrong.”
The bill allows Kansas taxpayers to itemize deductions on state tax forms even if they’re not claiming them on their federal returns. It also accelerates the restoration of certain federal itemized deductions. Current state law doesn’t sync deductions for mortgage interest, property taxes and medical expenses with federal limits until 2020. The tax-break bill moves that up to 2018.
But the measure does more than “return” the federal tax windfall. It also dramatically increases standard deductions for all Kansas income tax filers. And it allows business owners to retroactively claim tax breaks they lost in 2012 when former Gov. Sam Brownback dramatically reduced income tax rates.
Paying for those changes in the tax code could cut state revenues by nearly $500 million, or roughly what Colyer and the Legislature are adding to school spending.
House leaders have said the state can’t afford both the tax breaks and the increase in school funding. Steven Johnson, a Republican from Assaria and chair of the House Taxation Committee, said the school spending bill and a tax cut are at odds.
“There is not a way” to pay for the larger school funding plan, he said, “and return those dollars.”
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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