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Burdett Loomis: Competency is open to question in governor’s race

  • Published Friday, June 6, 2014, at 5:56 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 8, 2014, at 6:31 a.m.

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There’s good evidence that much of American politics is organized along a broad liberal-conservative spectrum. The commonplace story of Kansas politics is that this left-right dimension explains most everything.

Republicans historically have dominated the Legislature, but not in any extreme way. When Democrats won the governorship, they too were moderates, and scarcely antagonistic to business.

Another dimension can shape electoral politics, lurking behind the conventional liberal-conservative framework: the basic idea of competence. Almost 40 years ago, congressional scholar Richard Fenno concluded that, above all, candidates had to demonstrate basic competence. Without it, they had no chance of winning.

With many Kansans, not only is Gov. Sam Brownback’s ideology a problem, but increasingly his competency is open to question. Among a host of such issues, two recent episodes highlight this concern.

First, and most important, is the immense shortfall in state revenues. This can be measured in two ways. One is the year-over-year decline, with the understanding that 2014 revenues were destined to fall, given the dramatic decrease in, or outright elimination of, income taxes. The reduction to date is 12 percent from last year – one dollar of every eight.

This drop is sobering but pales in comparison with the $310 million shortfall from the expected revenues projected two months ago, in April. The administration first blamed the decline on President Obama and then, with May’s $217 million plunge, on federal policies generally. While there is a whiff of truth in the latter excuse, no state in the country has fallen so far short of its estimates. Both the governor and Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan have some explaining to do.

Estimating revenue can be tricky, but the big takeaways here are that the Brownback administration was caught flat-footed and that the supposed economic renaissance to be derived from tax cuts is nowhere in sight.

A second element of gubernatorial competence comes in appointing well-qualified people for demanding jobs. Monitoring the $3 billion KanCare program for Medicaid implementation, recently privatized and under great scrutiny, including an FBI investigation, certainly requires a highly qualified individual.

In April the Brownback administration chose former state Rep. Phil Hermanson, who has no college degree and no relevant experience and who also had declared bankruptcy, received a fine for campaign finance violations, and pleaded no contest to driving while under the influence of prescription drugs. Hermanson, who resigned Friday after media scrutiny, had been hired both because of his loyalty in the House and in spite of his lack of qualifications for this crucial job.

In the past two months, the governor and his administration have demonstrated a lack of competence on major fiscal issues and a crucial personnel appointment. Who knows? When voters head to the polls in November, competence – which most Kansans have taken for granted for decades – may well rival ideology as a measuring stick for the Brownback administration.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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