Incumbent state treasurer faces uphill battle

Dennis McKinney, a Democrat, is in a tough fight to keep his job as state treasurer.

But his battle is as much against the Republican leanings of Kansas voters during what is expected to be a strong year for the GOP as it is against his Republican opponent, Sedgwick County Treasurer Ron Estes.

Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in Kansas 3 to 2.

"Dennis McKinney is definitely at a disadvantage," said Ken Ciboski, a political science professor at Wichita State University.

The campaign has been relatively quiet from both sides.

Estes and McKinney agree the long-term financial woes of Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, or KPERS, are a major concern.

Other than Estes criticizing McKinney for putting his name and face on taxpayer-funded TV ads during the campaign that promoted the state's college savings plan, there hasn't been much of a stir.

Both candidates correctly point to being frugal and reducing costs of their offices.

"I think they're both qualified," Ciboski said. "No scandals, no political skeletons in their closets."

Normally, the incumbent has the advantage in such situations, Ciboski said. An incumbent treasurer hasn't lost since 1972, when Republican Walter Peery was defeated in the primary, according to the Associated Press.

McKinney took office in January 2009 after being appointed by then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to replace Lynn Jenkins, a Republican who resigned to run for Congress.

"The question is will he be viewed as an incumbent," Ciboski said.

This is the first time both Estes and McKinney have run for a statewide office.

McKinney's record

As a legislator, McKinney championed traditional Republican positions — opposing abortion and supporting construction of a proposed coal-fired plant in southwest Kansas.

McKinney served Greensburg as a state representative from 1992 to 2008 and spent six of those years as the House minority leader.

A fourth-generation farmer and rancher in Kiowa County, he said he and his family were among the first to rebuild their home in Greensburg after the town was devastated by the 2007 tornado.

"What we say in Greensburg is if you rely on your faith, listen to each other and work together, there are very few challenges you cannot overcome," said McKinney, 50.

At the same time, McKinney said his agriculture background prepared him well for state treasurer.

"I know how to manage in tight cash-flow situations," said McKinney, a graduate of Wichita State University.

McKinney took a 4 percent pay cut immediately after taking office.

He said he also "turned our staff loose to come up with ideas" for cutting costs. That resulted in a savings of more than $65,000 — about 2 percent of the treasurer's budget — at the end of the 2010 fiscal year on June 30, he said.

McKinney said he also worked with homebuilders, bankers and realtors to come up with ideas on how to free up the state's housing construction loan program, which was passed by the Legislature in 2008.

The state was authorized to deposit $60 million in banks for the plan, but only $280,000 in loans were out a year ago because there were too many restrictions, he said.

Improvements to the plan were approved by the Legislature in 2010. The revised plan that went into effect July 1 now has about $500,000 in loans out through early October, McKinney said.

Estes' background

Estes, 54, entered politics in 2004 when he was elected Sedgwick County Treasurer. He was re-elected in 2008.

A fifth-generation Kansan, he was born in Topeka but lived on a farm in Osage County until he was about 12. At that time, the family moved to Tennessee where Estes' father was transferred by Goodyear.

He received a civil engineering degree and an MBA from Tennessee Technological University.

Estes' jobs in Tennessee included working for Procter & Gamble and at a consulting firm that dealt with process improvements and computer systems.

In order to be closer to family, including his parents who still live on the Osage County farm, Estes moved back to Kansas in 1995 when he took a job with Koch Industries.

At Koch and later at Bombardier Learjet, he was a computer project and quality control manager.

Estes said the state treasurer needs to focus more on customer service and using more current technology.

"My experience in the business world has taught me how to focus on treating people like customers, making processes work efficiently and holding down costs," he said. "That's something we need more of in government."

Over the past five years, Estes said his office has turned back more than $1.5 million from the license tag operation to the county general fund.

"We had to figure out ways to have the right number of people, have the right amount of spending on the four different tag locations," Estes said. "We controlled the costs that way."

He said he has also made sure that mail-in renewals for license tags were handled promptly, reducing the turnaround time from more than week to a few days.

The KPERS crisis

One of the state treasurer's role is managing KPERS' funds and serving on its board.

At the start of this year, KPERS valued its assets at $11.8 billion, about 64 percent of what it would need to cover obligations to current and future retirees, leaving a gap of nearly $7.7 billion.

One of the things Estes said he would do is bring together a group of all the stakeholders — taxpayers, employers, schools, the state and cities that contribute to KPERS — to help develop a long-term plan.

"We want a 50- to 75-year solution to the problem," Estes said. "That may take 20 years to implement the solution, but we need to put everything on the table."

McKinney said the problem has already been studied by numerous committees. He said it's going to take increased contributions by the state and employees to help correct the problem.

"The crisis for KPERS is not next month or next year so it gets bumped," McKinney said. "The fixers of KPERS get bumped out by problems that have to be solved each year."

The state treasurer also is responsible for returning unclaimed property to Kansans.

McKinney said his office created a new website and took the message about unclaimed property to communities across the state.

A record $14.6 million worth of unclaimed property — a 34 percent increase — was returned for the 2010 fiscal year, he said.

Unclaimed property is currently at about $208 million, McKinney said.

But Estes said more needs to be done to improve the process.

"That's money that's due some citizen," Estes said. "We should find them and get it to them."