Smokers left out in the cold by the statewide smoking ban had reason to hope Thursday, when all four candidates for governor said they want to change the law to allow for more local control over tobacco use.
In a made-for-television forum Thursday evening at KWCH-TV, Republican U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, Democratic state Sen. Tom Holland, Libertarian Andrew Gray and Reform Party candidate Ken Cannon said they want changes in the ban, which prohibits lighting up inside almost all businesses and buildings open to the public.
Smokers standing outside in Old Town on Thursday night said they hope the candidates carry through on giving business owners more of a say on smoking policies.
“Amen,” said Bobbie Downey of Wichita. “That ought to be their own damn choice.” Alan Geist, also of Wichita, said he doesn’t mind taking it outside now that the weather is nice. But, he added, “Who wants to go outside in 32-degree weather?”
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The smoking ban — passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Parkinson earlier this year — contains some exceptions, including tobacco shops, buildings without roofs and rooms that are at least 30æpercent open to the elements at all times.
But the most controversial exception relates to state-owned gambling casinos.
In response to a question about whether allowing smoking in casinos is hypocritical of the state, Holland said he opposes the statewide ban entirely.
“In the Legislature, I voted against the statewide smoking ban,” Holland said. “I believe these issues are best left to local control, local units of government.”
“I think they need to be left to local units of government as well,” said Brownback, when his turn came to speak. “But I’ll tell you something else we ought to do and that’s put the ban on the state-owned facilities. That’s what the ban ought to be on in the first place.”
“That smoking ban ought to be on the state facilities and leave the other issues to the local control,” Brownback added. “That’s the best way a state can lead, doing this to itself and leading by example rather than putting it on somebody else, a burden somewhere else.”
Gray, the Libertarian, said the ban goes against his party’s philosophy of maximizing individual rights.
“We do not support the smoking ban in any way, shape or form, strictly on the basis of property rights,” he said. He said the choice should be up to business owners and their customers.
“That’s the free market at work and not the government trying to micromanage how it’s done,” he said.
Cannon made it four for four.
“We know that if we rightsize government, then there will not be over-regulating small-business people,” he said. “I’m a nonsmoker, however . . . I think that’s a decision that belongs with that small-business owner and does not belong and should not be regulated by the state of Kansas.”
But one of the Old Town smoking group, Jeana Thompson of Wichita, said she thinks the candidates’ opposition to the ban will dissipate after the election.
“They’re just saying that to get our votes,” she said.
Brownback and Holland clashed on education and property taxes.
Holland asserted that Brownback’s education plan, outlined in his “Road Map for Kansas,” would raise local property taxes.
He said Brownback has talked about changing the state funding formula for schools but has not said how — although Brownback has talked about going back to an earlier funding formula.
“This should raise a lot of red flags,” Holland said. “What it really means is more local property taxes to fund our schools. That would be a disaster for Kansas.”
Brownback retorted that Holland, a state senator, was the only one in the debate who had ever voted to raise property taxes.
His evidence for that, provided to the media after the debate, was a 2004 education funding bill. The bill did not require property taxes to be raised, but did allow local school districts to increase their property tax for one year if they so chose.
Brownback said the education funding formula, created by the state in response to litigation from school districts, serves Kansas poorly.
“What we need to do is get at the funding formula itself,” Brownback said. “It’s 55 percent of the state general fund budget and of that money, about 55 to 61 percent of it actually gets to the classroom.”
“Instead of new buildings, we need to be able to fund our teachers,” he said.
Holland said after the debate that he was perplexed by that statement because the per-pupil funding provided by the state cannot legally be spent on school construction, which is funded through bond financing.
Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Brownback wants to “tear down the silos of school funding” and give districts more flexibility in deciding how to spend their income from the state.
On schools, Gray advocated for increased school choice, while Cannon said he wanted to give school superintendents more flexibility to spend money “as they see fit.”