Tax-hike vote didn't seem to be primary issue

TOPEKA — The primary election last week in Kansas didn't significantly change the balance of power in the state House, but a bipartisan coalition that pushed a sales tax increase to passage faces another serious test in the November general election.

Conservative Republicans warned GOP moderates and Democrats that they'd be provoking voters' anger by raising the sales tax from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent on July 1.

Four incumbent House members, all Republicans, lost their primary races. But only one of the four voted for the tax increase: Rep. Jill Quigley of Lenexa.

Members of the bipartisan coalition felt relatively good about the results because most of the moderate Republicans who voted for the tax increase appear likely to return. The key question in November is whether conservative Republicans can knock off Democrats.

"It seems to me to be a draw," said Rep. Charles Roth, R-Salina, a leader of the bipartisan coalition who won 62 percent of the vote in his three-person GOP primary. "I guess we'll know more come the general election."

The results of legislative races are worth watching because Kansas increased taxes to prevent a deficit in its current state budget in the face of discontent over what some voters see as out-of-control spending by the federal government.

Also, the results have implications for the new governor who'll take office in January. U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, is favored to win, but he could have problems enacting parts of his agenda if the bipartisan coalition controls the House instead of Speaker Mike O'Neal of Hutchinson and his fellow GOP conservatives.

O'Neal is feeling bullish, even though he acknowledges the primary results were "a mixed bag" for GOP conservatives.

"Republican challengers who are more conservative than Democrats are going to have a pretty good shot," O'Neal said. "There certainly could be a very good change in the general election."

All 125 House seats are on the ballot in November, and races are contested in 79 districts. Of those contested seats, 43 were held this year by House members who voted for the tax increase.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce also felt good about the primary results, despite the lack of big changes yet in the House's makeup. Jeff Glendening, its vice president for political affairs, noted that in more than half of the primary races in which it endorsed a candidate, the one it backed prevailed. Its record was 16-11.

Victors backed by the chamber included Tom Arpke, a Salina city commissioner who unseated Rep. Deena Horst, also from Salina, in the GOP primary. Horst voted against the sales tax increase but is widely perceived as a moderate.

Quigley's opponent, Kelly Meigs, a Lenexa educator, also was backed by the chamber.

"We definitely took a step in the right direction in making the House more fiscally conservative," Glendening said. "What was really interesting is a lot of the incumbents who won who don't necessarily have a fiscally conservative voting record were using a fiscally conservative message."

Other results were harder to read, though a chamber-backed candidate, Dan Collins of Plainville, won the GOP primary for the seat of retiring Rep. Dan Johnson, a Hays Republican who voted for the tax increase.

Rep. Melvin Neufeld, a veteran Ingalls Republican, was backed by the chamber but lost to Garrett Love, a 22-year-old Washburn University graduate from Montezuma. But Love made state spending an issue, even though Neufeld voted against the tax increase.

The final incumbent to lose a primary was Rep. John Faber, a Brewster Republican who had the chamber's backing and voted against the tax increase. The winner in his race was Ward Cassidy of St. Francis.

Supporters of the sales tax increase took comfort in the fact that more incumbents didn't lose their seats.

"It once again demonstrates how often the conventional wisdom is wrong, because the conventional wisdom was if you voted for the sales tax increase, you would lose," Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson said.

Parkinson pushed the tax increase, saying it was necessary to avoid devastating cuts in education, social services and public safety programs after multiple rounds of budget reductions in 2009.

While conservative Republicans disputed those claims — and said a tax increase will slow any economic recovery — some of them acknowledged that Parkinson did a masterful selling job.

"I think the coalition fared pretty well," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who voted for the tax increase. "That seems to be a positive signal going into the general election."