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Some see local elections bill as step to partisanship

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, at 6:26 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 13, 2014, at 10:52 a.m.

City and school officials in Wichita oppose a bill that would move city and school board elections to November.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, chairman of the House Elections Committee, said his House Bill 2227, which would move local primary and general elections to August and November, respectively, would increase voter turnout significantly.

The bill allows municipalities to keep elections nonpartisan and on odd-numbered years. But opponents view it as a first step toward making local races partisan. Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, introduced a similar bill last session that would have moved local elections to even-numbered years along with state and federal elections.

Dale Goter, lobbyist for the city of Wichita, said the bill fixes something that is not broken.

“No. 1, we don’t see the need for the state to tell local officials when to hold local elections. It just doesn’t make any sense. Our folks are the ones closest to the people,” Goter said at a hearing on the bill Monday.

The Wichita school district submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill.

Schwab listed low turnout figures for Overland Park and Wichita.

“To me, that’s a problem. … Is 8 percent a problem, when you know that your mayor has a mandate of only less than 8 percent of the public that voted for him?” Schwab said.

Slightly less than 13 percent of eligible voters turned out in Sedgwick County in April 2011, the last time Wichita had a mayoral election.

Municipal governments now have the right to move election dates; this bill would require it.

The elections bill is one of several before the Legislature that would reduce municipal authority. Others would prevent municipal governments from collecting mortgage registration fees, enforcing gun ordinances and dispersing fluoride in water supplies without issuing a warning.

Goter said this has been a trend in recent years.

“I’ll tell you, the last two years it’s been that theme. … The disconnect between state and local (governments) gets more pronounced every year. Bills like this dramatize it,” he said.

Roger Elliott, a school board member in the Andover school district, said spring elections make sense because school districts begin their fiscal year in July. An April election gives newly elected board members time to shadow current members and lets them enter the position after the school year has ended and before budget decisions have been made, he said.

Schwab suggested that perhaps the bill could be amended so school board elections would be held in November but board members would not take their posts until the school year had ended.

The only person to speak in favor of the bill Monday was Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. Barker advocated amending the bill to make municipal elections partisan.

Because local elections will determine taxes and spending, voters should know candidates’ party affiliations, he said.

“Parties are designed to increase voter turnout. … Parties are also able to be a foundation for the candidates’ message. Parties are amplifiers,” Barker said. He said voters would be better informed.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said he did not object to moving the date of local races, but he worried that the bill will be amended later to make local races partisan.

“School board races and city council races in Kansas have traditionally not been partisan races, so it’s a concern that the proponent of the bill is the Republican Party and their big push is to make them partisan,” Sawyer said.

Schwab called worry over partisanship a “legitimate concern” but said it was no reason to oppose the bill.

“If that’s your only concern, then support the bill and fight off the amendment. Don’t say, ‘Well, I don’t like the bill because of what could happen,’ ” he said.

Schwab is undecided on the issue of partisan elections. He said he thinks candidates’ party registration should be listed on the ballot.

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

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