Kansas Governor’s Race Heats Up

Kansas Governor’s Race Heats Up
By Karl Peterjohn, Executive Director, Kansas Taxpayers Network

The first of a series of debates highlighting significant differences between the two leading candidates for governor have begun in Kansas. The kick off was the state fair debate between Governor Sebelius and her GOP opponent state Senator Jim Barnett September 9.

The conventional wisdom is that this gubernatorial race was going to be a snoozer with Sebelius’ huge fund raising advantage but a number of minor events, none hugely significant by themselves, indicates that the Sebelius reelection campaign has some problems. A decline in poll numbers according to a Rasmussen poll in late August had Sebelius with only a 48-to-37 percent lead over Barnett.

The real problem for Sebelius is that her poll number dropping below 50 percent is bad news at a time when Barnett is not advertising on TV and Sebelius’s ads still rule the airwaves. It is a bad sign when your poll numbers are slipping and only your ads are being broadcast. The controversy over several of the Sebelius ads hasn’t helped.

As this is being written, Sen. Barnett has taken a modest lead at the state fair straw poll conducted by the Secretary of State. That’s a change from four years ago when Sebelius easily won that straw poll. Nationally, Professor Larry Sabato’s ranking on the Kansas gubernatorial race dropped a notch from “solid” to “likely” retention by Democrats.

A much larger problem is the new state’s budget estimates just came out showing that a major state budget problem is real. That is a point that Sen. Barnett has been complaining about beginning at the state fair debate. State revenues are not likely to grow fast enough to match the spending hikes demanded by the activist Kansas Supreme Court and government spending advocates. That could lead to the state needing an additional $262-to-519 million if revenue growth continue lagging.

This bad budget news is not getting much news coverage. If the average Kansan knew about this fiscal problem, the gubernatorial campaign would shift in a fiscal direction hurting the incumbent. Governor Sebelius does not want to spend the last two months of this campaign debating her 2007 tax hike proposal. In addition, she does not want to talk about the Democrat dominated Kansas Supreme Court and how the tax ‘n spend liberals from the Kansas Supreme Court, to a majority of state legislators, to the governor’s office have created a new fiscal mess.

In 2006, major tax cuts were enacted in nearby Oklahoma and Texas. Billions in property, income, and estate tax relief were enacted. Other states enacted significant tax reform too. Sadly, Kansas revenue growth in the last two years is roughly half of the national average. The large economic stimulus in neighboring states enacted this year is huge when compared with the paltry $35 million in personal property tax cuts for business enacted by the Kansas legislature over the next two years. Contrast this with the $1 billion in increased government school spending plan enacted this year in Topeka.

Two other issues where Senator Barnett scored well at the state fair debate were the role of the Kansas Supreme Court in setting spending as well as the state providing a special tuition break for illegal aliens at Kansas state universities. Judicial activism is an issue helping Barnett but the state university subsidy for illegal aliens’ tuition is one that resonates enough that the governor’s campaign felt compelled to respond with a new radio ad in mid-September.

Barnett touted his proposal for strengthening the state’s economy with four tax cuts and reducing the growth rate in state spending. Barnett also blasted the governor’s unsuccessful proposal to raise property, income, and sales taxes. Sebelius fired back criticizing Barnett for backing the Graves tax hike on sales and cigarettes in 2002.

Sebelius is at a disadvantage over four years ago since she has her record as an incumbent to defend. In addition, Sebelius’ legislative votes helped create the statewide property tax in 1992 and set a tax hike record, voted to raise that property tax again in 1994, and proposed an additional hike as governor. These are fiscal votes that will confirm the traditional, tax ‘n spend liberal label that Sen. Barnett will try to stick on Gov. Sebelius if he can raise the cash to advertise. Sebelius, who has the strong backing of Wichita abortion Dr. George Tiller’s ProKanDo PAC money, remains by far the record setting fundraiser in Kansas gubernatorial history so her ads will dominate the airwaves. Sebelius remains the favorite to win reelection despite these problems.

No matter how lively the Kansas gubernatorial race becomes during the last two months of the campaign it will struggle to come close to the intensity of newly minted Democrat Paul Morrison’s effort to remove Republican incumbent Phill Kline as Kansas Attorney General

Karl Peterjohn is the executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network and is a former California Department of Finance budget analyst and newspaper reporter.

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