Primary race pits former HCC president against majority leader of Kansas Senate

Ed Berger
Ed Berger

A former community college president will try to knock out one of the top Republicans in the Kansas Senate in a primary race in Reno and Kingman counties.

Ed Berger, president of Hutchinson Community College for 23 years before retiring in 2014, is running against Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, in Senate District 34. The primary election will be Aug. 2.

“I’ve got significant concerns about the economic well-being of the state and how that is really cascading through all the institutions of the state as well,” Berger said about his decision to run for office.

Berger called income tax cuts, ushered into law by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012, a starting point for what he sees as the state’s fiscal mismanagement.

Bruce, an attorney, is one of the staunchest defenders of the tax cuts.

“It forced us to cut government,” Bruce said. “And that’s always a good thing.”

Brownback had pitched the tax cuts to the public primarily as a way to grow jobs. The state has lost jobs in the last year, experiencing a .1 percent decline in total nonfarm jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Pressed on this point, Bruce replied, “There’s two goals. I do believe that it has and it will spur economic growth in the long run. That’s going to take time.” He blamed the slow job growth — at the moment — on global factors, such as dropping agriculture and oil prices.

In the short term, he said, the tax cuts forced lawmakers to focus on spending.

“And it resulted in us having to make some difficult decisions and get rid of some government pork,” he said.

Berger’s background

Berger doesn’t see it that way. He lamented the state’s recent decision to delay a nearly $100 million payment to the state’s pension fund and said “highway funds (are) being drained and highway projects being put on hold.”

Problems with the state’s budget “didn’t happen overnight and I think the fix is probably going to be longer term,” Berger said. He added that he is open to both probing the budget for cost savings and making changes to the tax code to increase revenue.

During Berger’s tenure as president, Hutchinson Community College doubled its enrollment. The college’s current president, Carter File, who worked under Berger, called him a driving force behind the expansion of the college’s facilities and curriculum.

Berger would often testify at the Legislature on higher education issues while he was at the college. He criticized cuts to higher education in recent years, which he said caused tuition to increase.

He now chairs the board of the Hutchinson Regional Medical Center. He said the hospital will lose about $700,000 from a recent cut to Medicaid provider rates, enacted by the governor to help fill a budget hole. He supports expanding KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to provide medical coverage to 150,000 uninsured Kansans.

Bruce has been an outspoken opponent of Medicaid expansion and advised other Republican incumbents against supporting it this year in an internal memo that was leaked to the media. In it, he wrote that supporting expansion through the Affordable Care Act “would likely doom a Republican Senate candidate.”

Different, yet aligned

Bruce said that when he walks door to door this election, he sees “a lot of anger and frustration with our federal government.”

“And that’s just permeating, it’s spilling over into other down ballot races,” he said. “…There’s something just a little more emotional about it. A lot of people, common people, really have disappointment. It’s about Washington. It’s about the system in general.”

Bruce disputed the notion that voters were angry at Brownback or state policymakers, saying that Democrats and moderates were trying to replay the 2014 election.

While the two candidates differ greatly on fiscal issues, they’re more closely aligned social issues. Both oppose abortion, for example.

Bruce was one of the main proponents last year for making Kansas a “constitutional carry” state, eliminating the training and background check requirements for carrying a concealed firearm.

Berger said he supports the right to conceal and carry, but that his preference would be to keep the training requirement for people who bring guns onto college campuses. The state’s universities are required by law to open their campuses to firearms next year.

Finances differ

Bruce is one of the most powerful members of the Legislature — as majority leader, he sets the Senate debate calendar.

If re-elected, he’ll likely challenge Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, for the presidency of the Senate. The president controls who sits on what committee and what bills get assigned to those committees.

He said his focus right now is on his primary race against Berger.

Berger thinks he can win the race, but doesn’t expect it to be easy. He does not think that he will be able to keep up with Bruce in fundraising.

“We’re not certainly flush with money, so if we are successful in this race it’s going to be because of a huge amount of community support and work,” Berger said.

Bruce’s campaign had nearly $75,000 on hand at the end of 2015. Berger’s campaign had just under $34,000. Updated campaign finance reports covering January through most of this month are due July 25.

A spokeswoman for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, one of the major spenders in Republican primary races, said that group was actively supporting Bruce’s candidacy, calling him “a great free market champion” who “has established himself as a real leader with regard to taxpayer rights.”

Berger has the backing of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and another major spender, which named him to a list of candidates that “show the greatest support for Kansas public schools.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3