Like the political equivalent of boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, Les Osterman and Dale Swenson keep pounding away at each other in fight after fight over the south Wichita House district they’ve both served in Topeka.
And this year, in the third and rubber match in their ongoing political battle, neither of the fighters seems ready to throw a towel.
The first time Swenson and Osterman went toe-to-toe in a campaign was 2000. Swenson, the Republican, beat Osterman, then a Democrat by a 2-1 margin.
But after 14 years in the House as a Republican, Swenson switched parties in 2009. He said he was disturbed by what he saw as his party’s shift away from traditional GOP priorities such as education and consumer protection and toward policies favoring corporations and special interests.
Osterman switched too, from Democrat to Republican. And in the rematch of their 2000 electoral fight , Osterman was swept to victory in a Republican wave in November 2010. They are vying for the House District 97 seat.
Apparently relishing his role as the challenger to retake the seat he held for 16 years, Swenson’s not pulling any rhetorical punches.
He particularly pounds Osterman for supporting a tax plan by Gov. Sam Brownback that eliminates state income taxes on limited liability companies, farms, sole proprietorships and corporations organized under subchapter S of the federal tax code.
“I’m running because Osterman clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Swenson said. “He voted to create a system where the state goes into bankruptcy. Unfortunately… isn’t going to hit the fan until after the election.
“People don’t realize what Osterman and Brownback have done,” Swenson added. “The only people left paying taxes are retired and working people.”
Osterman defends the tax plan and bristles at Swenson’s implication that he and the House are a rubber stamp for the governor.
“Just because we have a Republican classification doesn’t mean we’re going to give him (Brownback) everything he wants,” Osterman said. “I’m going to vote for what’s good for my district and south-central Kansas.”
Osterman said he favored a House tax plan that that took some parts from the governor’s plan and rejected others. That bill died in negotiations with the Senate, which was controlled by moderate Republicans.
He said he voted for the plan that the Senate had approved because the alternative would have been no tax plan at all.
And while Swenson and others have characterized the new tax law as a giveaway to the rich, Osterman focuses on tax relief at the bottom of the economic scale, including doubling the standard deduction for single parents from $4,500 to $9,000.
Osterman said the tax cut will create jobs because the three main components that businesses consider when deciding where to move or expand are “lower taxes, a trained workforce and a way to move your goods.”
The administration forecasts that the tax cut will add 40,000 jobs in Kansas, and Osterman says the state’s already gained about 4,000 just from companies anticipating when it takes effect for the 2103 tax year.
“The bill hasn’t even gone into law yet and it’s already happening,” Osterman said.
Swenson scoffs at the claims that the tax plan will create jobs. He said most of the tax relief will go to companies such as law firms and real estate agencies who aren’t going to add more staff just because they’re paying less to the state.
“He repealed the Avon lady’s state tax liability,” Swenson said. “How many people is she going to hire?”
Osterman and Swenson also hit each other over the three-year, 1 percent sales tax the Legislature passed at the height of the budget crisis two years ago.
Swenson has criticized Osterman for his vote on a bill that keeps the tax in place this year.
Osterman says he voted to repeal the tax. “We lost,” he said. “If you don’t have the votes, it doesn’t go nowhere.”
Swenson acknowledged that Osterman voted to repeal the tax, shortly before he voted to keep it.
But Osterman says Swenson voted to pass the tax in the first place when he was in the Legislature.
“That’s why it kind of got to me when he (Swenson) put it on the flier he passed out in the precincts,” Osterman said.
Swenson said the real damage from the tax plan is that it will force either huge cuts in education or big increases in local property taxes.
“One of the things they (employers) look for is solid education,” Swenson said. “If they have to start closing down schools, they won’t come here. How many fewer college degrees will be good for the state of Kansas? How many fewer teachers are going to be good for the state of Kansas?”
Osterman said if he is returned to Topeka, he’ll be angling for a position on the Education Committee when the House is reorganized under a new speaker.
“I’m pro-education,” he said. “If I can get on the Education Committee, I’m going to fight for us to increase our base per-pupil (spending). I think we need to get more money for tech ed.”
Osterman supports a proposal to give school districts $1,000 for every graduate they turn out with a technical specialization.
If the student needs to take a certification test to go to work, the district would pay for as many as two tests, and then could keep any leftover money for its budget.
Swenson said it’s a good idea, but unlikely to be implemented.
“He cut off the lifeblood of education with his tax cut, so a program like that won’t get funded,” Swenson said.
Osterman, however, said that school districts can make better use of the money they get.
In Wichita, for example, “they’ve got people all over the place up there” at the district office, he said. “I guess we need a vice superintendent for each high school.”
District 97 includes areas in southwest Wichita and part of unincorporated Sedgwick County. It runs south from Maple to 57th Street South. The western boundary runs along Maize Road, Lark Lane and 119th Street West; the eastern boundary is irregularly shaped, but mostly marked off by the Big Ditch and Meridian.
At the beginning of October, the district had 2,637 Democrats, 4,564 Republicans and 4,350 unaffiliated registered voters.
The election will be Nov. 6.