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Local control of elections among Wichita City Council’s priorities for 2014 Kansas Legislature

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, at 6:49 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 13, 2014, at 10:52 a.m.

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The Wichita City Council will oppose any plans by the Kansas Legislature to restrict local control of taxation or elections during the 2014 legislative session.

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner previewed the council’s legislative agenda before the Wichita Pachyderm Club on Friday. The agenda, which will be finalized at a council meeting Tuesday, seeks support from the state for city water and aviation issues but also asserts city control on other concerns.

Among the issues included in the working version of the agenda is the council’s objection to legislation that would combine city government elections with state and federal elections.

Meitzner said such a change would make it too costly for local candidates to run for office.

“I’m not excited about trying to buy radio time or billboard space and compete against Gov. Brownback, Congressman Pompeo and Senator Roberts in a November election,” he said.

“I don’t want the yards to have to look like a NASCAR auto with all the signs,” Meitzner added.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who attended the luncheon and previously served on the City Council, said bringing all elections together would increase voter turnout and save money.

“County government is in the fall with state and federal. Why wouldn’t you have the city and schoolboards, school elections with the county and state elections?” O’Donnell said.

Meitzner said combining the elections could make local politics more ideological.

“This is a local thing. It’s nonpartisan. There’s not a Democrat or Republican way to make a turn lane or fill potholes,” he said.

O’Donnell said local elections have had unacceptably low voter turnout, and that a single election date would be simpler for voters and increase engagement.

“I don’t think anyone values an election with 6 percent voter turnout,” he said. Only 6.19 percent of eligible voters in Sedgwick County voted in city and school elections last April; Wichita voters considered council races but there was no citywide vote for mayor.

“It affects your life more, I would argue, than the state Legislature where you’re getting 60-plus turnout,” O’Donnell said. “A city council and school board’s going to affect your life daily.”

Turnout for the 2012 statewide elections, which included voting for president, was 66.8 percent statewide and slightly higher than that in Sedgwick County. Turnout statewide in 2010 was 49.7 percent.

The City Council also plans to oppose any attempts by the state to restrict the city’s ability to set its own taxes.

“If the value of a property grows because they’ve taken an old building and turned it into something, then it grows and that’s for the betterment for the city,” Meitzner said, explaining the council’s objection to any efforts to cap tax revenues.

“I want to be able to grow and not have the city be penalized for true growth.”

O’Donnell dismissed the city’s concerns about taxation, saying it controlled its mill levy and ability to establish a sales tax.

State support of Wichita’s business infrastructure also factors heavily into the City Council’s legislative priorities, with a focus on the city’s water supply and aviation.

The council calls on the state to restore $2 million cut from the National Center for Aviation Training during the 2013 legislative session.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s intent to develop a 50-year plan for the state’s water resources has the council’s support, as does his plan to continue state funding for the Equus Beds Aquifer Storage and Recovery project.

Additionally, the council recommends that the state adopt the similar protections for the Equus Beds aquifer, an underground reservoir northwest of Wichita, that it has for above-ground reservoirs.

Meitzner said water sustainability is crucial to growing local businesses and attracting new ones to the city.

O’Donnell agreed that the city and state need to collaborate on multiple solutions to water concerns.

“We’re never going to be able to grow our city or our state if people are concerned about long-term water shortages,” O’Donnell said.

Several members of the Pachyderm Club bristled at what they called a liberal agenda from the City Council. One target was the council’s recommendation that the state move forward with an environmental study of a passenger rail line connecting the Wichita area with Oklahoma City, which could potentially open the door for state and federal funding.

“If somebody could make money on that they would do it. So why should the government lose money on it?” said Dan Heflin, a member of the Pachyderm Club and owner of NoMar Self Storage in Wichita.

Meitzner, a Republican, dismissed notions that the agenda was liberal or progressive, and said the council’s priority was to set up the infrastructure to allow entrepreneurs to thrive.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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