Author Archives: Brent Wistrom

Brent Wistrom has spent more than four years covering Wichita City Hall and Kansas politics for The Eagle.

Chamber, Democratic Party fuel final campaign pushes

Big checks from a few well-known Kansans enriched the Kansas Chamber of Commerce PAC, which attacked Democrats and bolstered conservative Republican candidates across the state, according to reports filed late Monday.

The money is playing big roles in the Wichita area and across the state as the chamber tries to brand Democrats as supporters of Obamacare because of their opposition to a mostly symbolic vote on an amendment to the state constitution opposing a piece of the Affordable Care Act requiring people to have health insurance.

Some legal experts say such a vote wouldn’t allow the state to opt out of the federal health care law, as conservatives suggest and as the chamber contends in its attack ads. But conservatives say it could have sent the federal government a signal and potentially help the state’s legal position if a new challenge arises, although the U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled most of the law constitutional.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Democratic Party drew big money from its candidates’ campaigns and then redirected that money to blast Republicans and back its own candidates in key races. It spent $680,000 to fuel candidates’ campaigns and pay for attack ads, such as those that label conservative Republicans as bad for education.

Republicans have pushed back, saying Democrats’ claim that Gov. Sam Brownback made the single largest cut to education in the state’s history is bogus.

A series of cuts under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson amounted to more, they say. And they noted that overall education spending is up, including a $40 million increase in the most recent budget. But Democrats say that reductions in per-pupil base state aid in the 2011 budget total the largest single cut, and they contend that, even though Brownback’s most recent budget signature gave more in per pupil aid, more should have been provided to restore cuts made in the wake of the recession.

Democrats recently apologized for attacking Wichita Republican Rep. Joseph Scapa in a mail ad. Their postcard said he voted for the 2011 budget that included education funding cuts. He voted against that budget.

The Democratic Party’s $680,000 in spending out-weighs the Kansas Republican Party’s $302,000 of spending, and many of its candidates are also getting help from the Kansas National Education Association, which added $68,000 to the $630,000 it had on hand in late July.

Its recent money came from relatively small donations, as compared to the state chamber. It spent about $280,000, mostly supporting Democrats, and has $418,000 headed into the last week of the election season.

Meanwhile, Republicans got a lot of help from the state chamber.

The chamber spent $543,000 during the most recent campaign finance reporting that covers July 27 to Oct. 25.

Crossland Construction Co., headed by Chamber Vice Chairman Ivan Crossland Jr., and its affiliates gave more than $200,000 to the chamber’s political action committee, about $122,000 of which came as a loan. The chamber loaned its PAC $170,00. And Wichita oilman and Chamber Chairman David Murfin gave the chamber $80,000. Outgoing House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, is the chamber’s new president.

Koch Industries gave $50,000 to the state chamber. The Wichita-based company and the political operations it supports have been in the national spotlight because of David and Charles Koch’s impact bolstering conservatives and attacking moderates and liberals from local issues in Wichita to the presidential campaign.

Koch infused the Wichita Area Chamber PAC with $25,000, making up most of the $35,670 that PAC raised since about a week before the Aug. 7 primary. The PAC spent nearly all of that on conservative Republicans.

The visible PAC money makes up only part of the campaign finance picture. Candidates also raise a lot of their own money and make loans to themselves to pay for ads and operations.

Meanwhile, third party groups, including think tanks and nonprofits, can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing where they got it and can spend unlimited amounts as long as it’s not in direct support of a candidate. That’s often avoided by urging a voter to be aware of someone’s record and to tell the candidate what you think instead of direct advocacy, such as telling people to “vote for” or “vote against” a specific candidate.

The undisclosed money played a big role in the primary as local and national groups attacked candidates, helping defeat incumbent Republican Sens. Dick Kelsey and Jean Schodorf. Meanwhile, Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell, a conservative Republican, withstood a series of blistering ads from a third party to become the Republican candidate in District 25 against Democrat Tim Snow.


Democratic Party apologizes for errors in ads attacking Reps. Scapa and Goodman

Rep. Joseph Scapa, R-Wichita

TOPEKA – The state Democratic Party is apologizing for an inaccurate attack ad against Rep. Joseph Scapa, R-Wichita, and Rep. Jana Goodman, R-Leavenworth, that says they “voted for the largest cut to education in Kansas history.”

The education cut was included in the 2011 state budget, and Scapa and Goodman voted against it.

Republicans immediately accused Democrats of lying about their votes. Democratic Party Chair Joan Wagnon said she called Scapa and Goodman once she realized the error.

Education funding has been one of the most contentious issues in campaigns across the state.

Democrats have accused Gov. Sam Brownback and his supporters of the “largest” cut to education in state history. Meanwhile, Brownback has noted that overall education funding increased by $40 million under the state’s most recent approved budget.

While overall education funding increased, Democrats hone in on per pupil base state aid. During Brownback’s time in office, that per pupil aid was cut by $232. But Republicans have noted that Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson approved a series of cuts that resulted in larger reduction.

Democrats say that Parkinson’s cuts came amid a recession and big shortfalls, and they criticize Brownback for not increasing base aid more now that the economy has improved. This year, Brownback approved a $58 increase to base aid, but Democrats say it should have been more.

They also contend that Brownback’s effort to limit education spending is preparation for cuts to government services that may be forced by the massive income tax-cutting bill he signed into law this year.

Brownback has said he will protect education funding, and he has set up a task force that aims to make the state’s education system more efficient.

Brownback task force opens site for anonymous reports of school inefficiencies

Brownback discusses school spending during a news conference in the Statehouse last week

Gov. Sam Brownback announced Wednesday that his school efficiencies task force has set up a website for people to anonymously report examples of wasteful spending and inefficient practices in Kansas schools.

The website is the latest effort by the Republican Governor to root out inefficiencies in the school system that he recently stressed he has been putting more money into.

Brownback has said not enough money is being spent on classrooms, and he says he wants to improve 4th grade reading levels and the number of students who graduate high school career- or college-ready.

“We hope to hear from a lot of Kansans who take a few minutes to go online and share their thoughts with us,” Task Force Chairman Ken Willard said.

The 10-member task force includes six certified public accountants, including Steve Anderson, Brownback’s budget director. They met for the first time last week, hearing testimony from a limited government think tank and a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Brownback faced criticism from Democrats for not including people on his task force who work in schools. In response, the Kansas Association of School Boards set up its own task force.

Along with the anonymous inefficiency reporting portal, Brownback announced Wednesday that Iola (USD 257) Superintendent Brian Pekarek will join the task force.

Brownback last week stressed that the budget he approved increased school funding by about $40 million. That came as part of his administration’s reaction to a flurry of ads by Democrats that say Brownback has cut school funding more than any other governor.

Under Brownback, the amount of per pupil state aid, a common measurement for how much the state spends on educating each student, has fallen. But overall spending, which includes growing pensions and bond financing, has increased.

“The state has increased total spending on education by almost $1 billion since 2000,” Brownback said in a statement about the online inefficiency reporting. “Many school districts have raised taxes on local property owners during that same time period.  Moving forward, we owe it to Kansas taxpayers to ensure those resources are used as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Democrats have sharply criticized Brownback for the massive income tax cut that he signed into law earlier this year. It is projected to force the state to drastically cut services because it is projected to force more than $2.5 billion in spending reductions over six years.

Brownback has said he will protect education funding. But Democrats say it will be virtually impossible not to cut schools because they constitute the majority of state general fund spending. And they say Brownback is acknowledging the state’s future shortfalls by not ruling out the continuation a temporary sales tax hike approved in 2010 to protect the state from deeper cuts in the wake of the recession.

“Instead of hosting an online forum to complain about public schools, why not discuss all the innovative ways our teachers and administrators have done more with less since Gov. Brownback implemented the largest cut to education funding in Kansas history?” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. “We should celebrate our public schools and fully restore the funding cuts they’ve endured since the recession began. We should not be demonizing them and searching for excuses to cut their funding even more.”


Brownback attorney and 5 from Wichita area among appeals court judge candidates

TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback’s top staff lawyer, Caleb Stegall, and five people from the Wichita area are among 21 candidates vying to fill a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals.

A nominating commission will begin conducting interviews with the applicants Nov. 13 in Topeka. The interviews will be open to the public.

Among the candidates are former Republican House member Sedgwick County District Court Judge Anthony J. Powell, who is a former Republican House Representative, Wichita Municipal Court Judge Bryce A. Abbott, Eastborough lawyer Stephen M. Kerwick, Wichita lawyer David P. Eron, and Wichita lawyer Steven P. Smith.

The Court of Appeals vacancy will be created Jan. 2 when Judge Christel E. Marquardt retires. Another vacancy will also be filled following the death of Judge Richard Greene earlier this week.

Appeals court judges are selected by the governor from a list submitted by the nominating commission. They serve four-year terms.

Here’s a list of all the candidates.

Bryce A. Abbott Judge Wichita Terri L. Bezek Lawyer Topeka Henry R. Cox Lawyer Shawnee David P. Eron Lawyer Wichita Kathryn A. Gardner Lawyer Topeka Patrick B. Hughes Lawyer Leon Keyta D. Kelly Lawyer Leavenworth Stephen M. Kerwick Lawyer Eastborough Kip A. Kubin Lawyer Leawood Christine M.T. Ladner Lawyer Lawrence Matthew C. Miller Lawyer Leawood Clayton T. Norkey Lawyer Overland Park Steven J. Obermeier Lawyer Olathe Anthony J. Powell Judge Wichita Robert W. Ramsdell Lawyer Lawrence Steven M. Roth Judge St. Marys Kim R. Schroeder Judge Hugoton Steven P. Smith Lawyer Wichita Caleb Stegall Lawyer Lawrence Guy R. Steier Judge Clyde Teresa L. Watson Lawyer Topeka

Was Kobach flying solo with skepticism about Obama birth records?

Kobach talks to reporters Monday

At Monday’s hearing where the State Objections Board laid to rest any question about whether President Barack Obama’s name will be on the ballot in Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach was the only member of the board to show up.

Its other members — Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer — sent top aides to the meeting as surrogates. Schmidt, whose office said he was out sick, and Colyer, said to be with patients at his plastic surgery practice, voted along with Kobach in favor of delaying a decision last week to seek Obama’s certified birth documents and other records.

But they seemed to somewhat distance themselves from Kobach’s skepticism — physically and philosophically.

Schmidt made it pretty clear last week that he didn’t buy the argument of Joe Montgomery, the Manhattan resident and Kansas State University employee who initially challenged Obama’s qualifications to be on Kansas ballots. But he echoed Kobach in saying he was disappointed the Obama campaign sent only a page and a half letter that brushed the claim aside.

Montgomery withdrew his claim after a flurry of negative reaction.

In an e-mail to The Eagle, Schmidt’s chief of staff, Jeff Wagaman, said Schmidt had not reviewed the certified documents the panel sought last week and that he was ready to deny the objection last week.

Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Gov. Sam Brownback’s spokeswoman, said Colyer hadn’t reviewed those documents either. “Colyer never doubted President Obama’s qualifications to be on the ballot in Kansas,” she wrote.

The Eagle received no response to a question last week about how Brownback felt about the board seeking certified documents.

Last week, Kobach said he didn’t agree with Montgomery’s reading of case law. And he was careful not to say explicitly that he doubts Obama qualifies. But in seeking certified documents and other records from three states, many people, particularly on Obama’s side, said Kansas was giving credence to an argument largely discredited years ago.

Monday, Kobach said he has seen the documents and he noted their “raised seal” as proof of authenticity. He said he has no doubt that Obama’s birth certificate in the Hawaii Department of Health is the same one posted on the White House’s website.

Kobach said that puts it to rest. “I have no doubts now,” he said.

Another presidential campaign twist emerged in a CNN blog post Monday evening that said Republican candidate Mitt Romney told a Univision America Radio host that he hasn’t met with Kobach at any official policy meetings. That seems to show that the Romney campaign wants to keep its distance when compared with their response to Kobach’s endorsement earlier this year, which says Kobach is “on the team.”





Lawmakers fume over state official’s refusal to answer questions about waiting lists

TOPEKA – State lawmakers Wednesday bristled over a top state official’s refusal to answer questions about the state’s growing list of people with disabilities waiting for services.

Gary Haulmark, commissioner of community services and programs in the state’s department for aging and disability services, said a state lawyer told him not to discuss the waiting lists because of “pending litigation.”

The waiting lists include people with physical and developmental disabilities, and the state’s growing waiting lists have been the subject of intense scrutiny for at least a year, including a federal investigation.

The list of people waiting for services has grown from 2,075 people in 2008 to 7,518  as of September, state figures show. That includes people who have no services and those who are underserved.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Haulmark’s refusal to answer questions was “unprecedented.”

“Never once has anyone been instructed not to answer questions that the legislature asks about the waivers, which we are in a position of needing to do,” she said. “What’s the secrecy about it?”

Haulmark said he couldn’t respond.

Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, pressed Haulmark to answer questions.

“I can understand not being willing to answer questions about pending litigation,” he said during a meeting of the Legislative Budget Committee in the Capitol. “But what makes you think we’re going to ask about litigation?”

Vratil said he understands not talking about pending litigation, but he said he was shocked that Haulmark couldn’t respond to the legislature at all. “That I find hard to believe,” he said.

Budget Committee Chairwoman Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, asked Haulmark to bring the state lawyer with him to a meeting Thursday to explain why lawmakers can’t get answers to basic questions.

Haulmark indicated he would bring the lawyer to the meeting.

Tom Laing, executive director of InterHab, a statewide association of developmental disability service providers, said the waiting lists represent unmet needs and the undiminished hopes of families who need help.

“The growth of the waiting lists represents the insufficient state response to those hopes and needs,” he said.

Learn more about the waiting lists in this Eagle story.

Flaharty likely to replace Frieden as Democratic candidate in District 93 House race

TOPEKA — Pamela Frieden, the Democratic nominee for southwest Sedgwick County’s District 93 House seat, has withdrawn from the race, the Secretary of State’s office announced Tuesday.

Democrats are poised to install Sammy Flaharty, of Garden Plain, as their new candidate in a meeting of three precinct committee members in Goddard Thursday.

Frieden announced she would not seek the seat before the August primary. But she won anyway with 262 votes to Flaharty’s 164. Frieden couldn’t immediately be reached Tuesday.

Flaharty, who is a substitute teacher after retiring from a job with the Kansas Corporation Commission and closing a hair-styling business,  said she, her husband and one other person are the only Democratic precinct committee people in the 93rd District.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be the candidate,” she joked.

Flaharty will face Dan Thimesch, a former Democratic House member who is running as an independent, and Republican George Edwards in the November election.

Gabel challenges Sawyer’s residency in 95th House District

TOPEKA – The State Objections Board on Thursday will consider a complaint filed by Kansas for Liberty that contends Tom Sawyer, a Democratic candidate for House District 95 in south Wichita, doesn’t live at the house he owns in the district.

Craig Gabel, president of Kansans for Liberty, filed a complaint that says their independent investigation has determined Sawyer “is not the true resident nor does he reside” at the home at 1041 S. Elizabeth. Gabel wants Sawyer’s name removed from the Nov. 6 ballot.

Gabel said that he expects people to submit written affidavits or to testify during at a hearing in Topeka on Thursday that Sawyer isn’t living at that address. Gabel declined to name any of those who may testify.

“From any normal person’s perspective, the man doesn’t live in this house,” Gabel said. “If he can prove that he does, more power to him.”

Sawyer is a former House member who ran for governor in 1998 and resigned from the House in 2009 to serve on the Kansas Parole Board. He couldn’t be immediately reached on Monday afternoon. Sedgwick County Appraiser records show Sawyer as the owner of the house, and state records show he is registered to vote at the address on South Elizabeth.

Sawyer faces incumbent Republican Rep. Benny Boman in the Nov. 6 election.

Gabel’s challenge of Sawyer’s residency is one of many the State Objections Board has considered this year. The Board is comprised of Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer.

Stanley likely to replace Armstrong on ballot for Bel Aire’s 85th House District

TOPEKA — It’s official. Rebecca Armstrong, a Democratic candidate for Bel Aire’s 85th House District, has been removed from the November ballot, the Secretary of State’s office confirmed Monday.

That paves the way for  retired school administrator and psychologist Barry Stanley, who lost to Armstrong 189 votes to 214 in the August primary,  to take her place and run against incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Brunk. But it will be up to precinct committee leaders to decide on Wednesday whether to officially install Stanley in the race.

Stanley said he doesn’t know of anyone else seeking the Democratic nomination.

Although he has been campaigning and trying to raise money, Stanley said he may be at a disadvantage.

“I’ve lost some significant time here,” he said. “There’s no way I can match Mr. Brunk with money, but I can perhaps match him with the people I meet and spreading the message that I think Kansas faces a very critical time.”

Stanley had raised $1,605 in the lead up to the primary. Brunk, who was first elected to the House in 2003, had $36,462 left to spend in his latest campaign finance filing.

Armstrong said she filed as a “placeholder” and didn’t campaign or attempt to raise significant money during the primary. She said she learned shortly after filing that Stanley, who she supports, had also filed. Armstrong said she likely won the primary with votes from women who tend to support other women on the ballot.

“When I won in the primary, it just made it more complicated,” she said.

Armstrong said she hopes that Stanley can become well-known by voters before the election in November.



State taps KDOT funds to help complete Capitol renovations

A photo of the Kansas State Capitol taken about a week ago

TOPEKA — The State Finance Council Monday approved  a $17.4 million financing package, including state highway department money, to pay for a visitors center, driveways and landscaping at the Capitol, a move that should put an end to an extensive renovation project that has lasted more than a decade.

The plan takes $7 million from the Kansas Department of Transportation for grounds and roads work. Meanwhile, the state will issue $5.4 million in bonds for the visitors center. Another $5 million of money saved during the lengthy construction project would also be used.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, cast the lone dissenting vote, saying that she disagrees in principal with using KDOT funds on the project and that the full legislature should vote on a project intended to pay for a building that is for the people.

“It seems like we’re continuing to use this as a slush fund,” McGinn said.

The KDOT money comes from their operational fund, not construction funds.

McGinn said lawmakers rejected a similar bonding proposal two years ago. Monday’s vote came from the state finance council, which is comprised of eight top state lawmakers and is chaired by the Governor.

“I truly believe that this is the peoples’ building and I think the people that represent the people should be the ones that vote for that,” McGinn said.

The 7-1 vote capped off an hour-long discussion that exposed communication problems among law makers, the state architect and Gov. Sam Brownback.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he thought lawmakers had already approved money to create a visitors center “shell” that would provide a nice entrance on the Capitol’s north side.

“It was my understanding that we were done with the bonding that was necessary to get us access and functionality at the Capitol,” he said over speakerphone as Brownback and other listened from the Capitol. “This is a significant misunderstanding.”

Statehouse Architect Barry Greis said that the state never approved money to finish off the entry way, which is currently a hodgepodge of sheet-rock walls and temporary construction that leads visitors from an underground garage to the statehouse with a line of red tape.

The new funding will pay for a visitor’s center, including a lobby, elevators, security areas, audio and visual rooms and a dining area, Greis said.

The $332 million Capitol renovation project has run far beyond its original budget and has taken much longer than expected. It should be completed by the start of 2014.

Brownback said that he doesn’t like the costs associated with the project and has been disappointed with the growing expenses associated with replacing the Capitol’s copper dome.

“I haven’t been the biggest fan of this project,” he said. “But it’s just time to wrap it up.”

Gov. Sam Brownback talks with reporters Monday.