Sam Brownback, Paul Davis spar over education, spending in Kansas gubernatorial debate

Democratic challenger Paul Davis speaks and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback listens during their debate on Saturday at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.
Democratic challenger Paul Davis speaks and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback listens during their debate on Saturday at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis met for a fiery debate Saturday, sparring over education and the state’s financial outlook before a standing-room-only audience at the Kansas State Fair.

The candidates had several heated exchanges during the hour-long debate, and throngs of supporters competed to out-chant each other.

The governor called Kansas “a bright shining star” and contended that tax cuts he signed into law in 2012 were leading to prosperity. Davis said Brownback had treated the state as an “ideological laboratory” and warned that dwindling revenues would leads to cuts to public schools.

“The governor’s experiment is not working, and it’s not going to work,” Davis said.

Brownback did not directly answer a question about a projected budget shortfall of $238 million by July 2016. He promised that the budget would be fine and instead attacked the state’s fiscal situation under his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Mark Parkinson.

“My opponent keeps saying, ‘The sky’s falling, the sky’s falling.’ The sky fell when he ran the place,” Brownback said, referring to Davis, who served as House minority leader while Parkinson was governor and continues to hold that position.

Brownback said that when he came into office, the state had $876 cash in the bank. That figure, however, is from six months before he took office at the end of June 2010.

When Brownback took office, the state had more than $200 million cash on hand. Davis told the governor to stop using the other figure.

“You know Gov. Brownback is just sticking his head in the sand on this issue,” Davis said, contending that the state is on pace to have a shortfall of more than $1 billion in the next five years.

Brownback and Davis repeatedly sparred over education funding and policy.

“We’ve put a record amount of money in education,” said Brownback, referring to the state’s total spending on education.

“But those are numbers. I want to talk people,” said Brownback, who professed his appreciation for teachers despite clashing with teachers unions in recent months.

Davis attacked Brownback over cuts to base state aid per pupil and accused him of trying to rewrite his record.

Brownback said this cut was caused by the loss of federal stimulus money, which he blamed on President Obama.

Davis told Brownback to stop blaming others for the cut.

“Gov. Brownback is going to try very hard to rewrite his record on education. But he simply has never made education a priority,” Davis said. “He’s cut early childhood education. He’s cut higher education. We need a governor who is going to make restoring the cuts that Gov. Brownback made to our public schools the very top priority.

Brownback attacked Davis for voting against a bill, passed this year, which put $129 million toward school funding and property tax relief.

“I wish Paul Davis would’ve voted for some of the money we put toward education,” Brownback said. Davis opposed the bill because it also eliminated a job protection for teachers.

Asked about his specific plan to increase education funding, Davis referred to a plan to freeze tax rates at 2015 levels – which would make a dent but not eliminate the projected shortfall – but did not get into details.

Heated exchanges

The debate, hosted by WIBW, was often heated, with supporters from both sides cheering raucously and often booing the opposition.

Davis opened by calling himself a moderate and promising to prioritize education above all else if elected.

“Everything you’ve heard from Rep. Davis is wrong,” Brownback said in his opening statement.

Brownback said he opposed forced consolidation of rural school districts and said that Davis’ education adviser, former Sen. John Vratil, a Republican, supports consolidation.

Davis said that he opposes consolidation.

Brownback repeatedly touted his education record, but Davis had the enthusiastic support of many public school teachers in attendance.

“Brownback says that he’s supporting education, that he’s pumped money into it. I’m not seeing it in my classroom. I don’t see it on my pay stub. It’s going elsewhere,” said Linda Schukman, a high school English teacher from Leavenworth who said that her class sizes have increased to 30 students this year.

Schukman also thought Brownback dodged tough questions. “I didn’t hear a clear answer from Gov. Brownback through the whole debate,” she said.

Twila Flowers, a 79-year-old retiree from Wichita, was more impressed by the governor’s performance.

“I think he did well. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions being thrown around,” said Flowers. “I think he’s on the right track.”

Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, said he thought the governor won the debate.

“I can sum it up in one sentence. Kansas: It doesn’t get any better than this,” Goico said with a wide grin on his face.

The chants of “Davis! Davis!” at the end of the debate were slightly louder than the cheers for Brownback.

Barb Robinson, a retiree from Hutchinson, said she was turned off by Brownback’s frequent mentions of Obama and other federal officials.

Brownback called his opponent the “Nancy Pelosi of Kansas.” He accused Davis of wanting to implement Obamacare because he supports Medicaid expansion.

Davis said that expanding Medicaid would put $3 billion new dollars into the state and would help keep rural hospitals open. He called Brownback’s KanCare program, which privatized Medicaid, a disaster.

Energy policy, water resources

Davis said Brownback had shifted positions on wind energy.

Brownback said this week that he would be open to supporting phasing out the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which Davis said could hurt the growing wind energy industry.

Brownback pointed out that Davis voted against the renewable portfolio standard in 2009 because it was paired with a new coal fire plant in Holcomb.

Davis also attacked Brownback on water policy, accusing him of cutting funding for the state’s water plan.

“This is the most critical long-term issue our state has … it is going to take some resources to address this issue,” Davis said.

Brownback said that “without water we have no future” and promised that water policy would remain a priority.

The state is ranked fourth among states most likely to run out of water, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Brownback defended his recent appointment of former aide Caleb Stegall to the Supreme Court after nine months on the Court of Appeals over two other nominees with more than 20 years of judicial experience.

Davis accused Brownback of rewarding a political ally, but Brownback pointed to Stegall’s qualifications and said that as a former prosecutor he would bring a needed perspective to the court on death penalty cases.

Libertarian candidate Keen Umbehr attended the debate, but was not allowed to participate because his campaign has not met WIBW’s fundraising requirement of $50,000.

Umbehr said he was disappointed that Libertarian candidates were excluded from sharing the stage with the major party candidates in both the gubernatorial and senatorial debates.

“You’re denying the Libertarian party the opportunity to express their view to Kansans and you’re also denying Kansans their opportunity to hear it,” Umbehr said.

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

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