HUTCHINSON – The race is for Kansas governor, but it was Washington on trial at Saturday’s State Fair debate between gubernatorial hopefuls Sam Brownback and Tom Holland.
Holland, a Democratic state senator from Baldwin City, hailed his credentials as a small-business owner and pounded at his better-known rival, a Republican US senator, for his 16-year career in Washington.
“Who do you want balancing the budget in Kansas, a Kansas businessman or a career Washington politician?” Holland asked the crowd. Later, directly to Brownback, he said, “Sam, you’ve been in Congress for 16 years, you’re part of the problem.”
For his part, Brownback sought to link Holland to a different part of Washington — the White House. He alternated frequently between the terms “Holland-Obama” and “Obama-Holland” when describing his opponent’s proposals.
“Probably the best thing that could happen for growth in American is repealing Obamacare,” Brownback said.
As always with the State Fair debate, the 400 or so attendees were encouraged to cheer, boo and shout.
Republicans, dressed in yellow Brownback T-shirts, were more numerous.
The blue-clad Democrats countered with superior lung power.
Democrats conceded that the relatively unknown Holland would need a strong performance at the State Fair to gain any ground.
Brownback has won several statewide elections and polls show him a heavy favorite to recover the governor’s office for the GOP after eight years of Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson administrations.
The sharpest contrast emerging at the debate was over the ever-contentious issue of education finance.
Brownback decried the fact that school districts have repeatedly sued for more money, an issue he said should be decided by the Legislature and governor, not the courts.
He called for an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula, which he said is at the heart of the litigation.
“The formula itself is our problem,” he said. He added that schools receive about 52 percent of the state general fund, “but only deliver a little more than half of that to the classroom.
He said the state is full of school districts that have “nice school buildings but can’t afford the teachers in the classroom.”
Holland said he was proud of his role in the bipartisan effort that revised the school funding formula in 2006 and said he ran for state Senate to protect education and accused Brownback of wanting to return to the days when local property taxes were the primary funding source, with large discrepancies between rich and poor areas.
“Year after year my wife Barbara and I saw our children’s classroom sizes grow larger while important programs were being cut,” he said. “I was proud to vote for that 2006 formula. That formula passed constitutional muster … Sen. Brownback, you have said time and time again that you will change the formula, but you have never said how you would change it.”
Brownback countered that he hasn’t been specific because “the governor leads, the governor doesn’t dictate,” and he’s pleased that the Kansas Association of School Boards has agreed to participate in talks on changing the formula.
“It is what we need to do and we need to do it as a Kansas family, everybody pulling together to resolve it,” he said.
The two also clashed over the economy, especially job creation.
Brownback called for an overhaul of state government to make it easier to create jobs in the state.
“We’ve got to get the atmosphere right and targeted on key areas where we are globally competitive,” Brownback said. “Atmosphere right is getting taxes down, holding taxes down and holding regulations down.”
A centerpiece of Brownback’s plan for cutting regulation is to establish an “office of the repealer” to identify and advocate for taking laws off the books.
“Regulation is the bane of small business and small business is the one that creates jobs,” Brownback said.
Holland mocked Brownback’s “Road Map for Kansas,” a statement of governing principles that Brownback has been rolling out over the course of the campaign.
“It’s full of objectives but not one specific idea or recommendation for how to move this state forward,” Holland said. “We need jobs, not committees.”
The candidates largely agreed on the need to expand on Kansas economic strengths such as animal agriculture and wind power. But Holland blasted Brownback for not doing enough.
For the past 15 years, where’s he been on wind? He’s been nowhere,” Holland said. That prompted one of the few interruptions between the speakers with Brownback leaning up to his microphone and saying “I was supporting it.”
But Holland went on, “He’s been on the floor of the Senate talking about mer-people and snowflakes when instead, we could have been changing, with opportunities across this state.”
He also scoffed at Brownback’s proposed repealer.
“What does that mean?” he said. “The people of Kansas have a Legislature. They tell us what to repeal.”