When moderator Sam Zeff asked whether Kansas school teachers deserved more money, all 12 candidates at the Johnson County Educators/Stand Up Blue Valley forum raised their hands. When Zeff followed up by asking which candidates would be willing to raise taxes to pay for teacher raises, all but two of the legislative candidates kept their hands up.
District 8 Sen. Jim Denning and District 29 Rep. James Todd – the only two Republican incumbents on the panel — said that while each had been an active proponent of efforts to close the LLC loophole that allows some 300,000 business owners in Kansas to avoid state income tax, neither would be willing to roll back the 2012 tax cuts to pay for increased teacher pay.
The forum, held at Leawood Middle School, featured candidates from six statehouse races in the northern part of the Blue Valley School District area as well as the candidates for District 2 of the State Board of Education.
Denning and Todd spent much of the evening defending their actions before an audience made up mostly of the pro-public education advocates who have been largely credited with organizing primary voting efforts that ousted a number of conservative Republican incumbents in August.
Denning, who was unopposed in the primary but faces a challenge from Democrat Don McGuire in the general, stressed that his support of the controversial tax cuts back in 2012 came as a way to spur growth in Kansas, which has seen population loss over the past several decades. He also reiterated his claim that the LLC loophole — which he estimates costs Kansas around $300 million per year in lost revenue — was not part of the legislature’s intent when it passed the tax cut bill.
McGuire shot back that regardless of intent, Denning’s vote in favor of the LLC exemption was part of his record.
Denning also told the audience that his main focus for getting into politics — he served a term in the House before moving on to the Senate — was to rewrite the school finance formula, which he noted had been roundly opposed by Johnson County area legislators when it was passed in 1992 because it sent Johnson County tax dollars to rural school districts.
“Only one Johnson County legislator voted for it — everybody else voted against it — because it’s terrible for Johnson County,” Denning said. “Now everything is coming home to roost. The funding formula has never been sustainable, even from the get go.”
For his part, Todd noted that he had not been in the House when the 2012 tax cuts were passed, and had been among the most active members of the House in working to repeal the LLC loophole. He said that with both of his parents working as teachers, he considered himself a pro-education candidate. But, he said, the state needs to stay competitive so it can attract people to work in rural parts of the state.
His challenger, Brett Parker, a teacher in the Olathe School District, said the block grant funding bill Todd supported has had a noticeable negative impact on public school classrooms.
“On the ground,” Parker said, “we are trying to meet more needs with fewer resources.”
Denning and Todd also stood out from the crowd of candidates in acknowledging that they had at points participated in activities organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative think tank that has produced a number of wedge-issue state-level bills in recent years. Denning said he had attended a single ALEC meeting some four years ago to learn about a model for funding public employee retirement programs, which Kansas has since enacted. Todd said he viewed ALEC as one of many resources at legislators’ disposal for coming up with new ideas.
Other candidates, however, said the group has had a sharply negative effect on political discourse. Skip Fannen, the Democrat running against Republican John Skubal in the District 8 Senate race, said ALEC was “sinister.” Christopher McQueeny, the Democrat running against Republican Jan Kessinger in the District 20 House race, said ALEC was a “cancer on the body politic.” Aside from Todd and Denning, every legislative candidate on the panel said they would not be involved with ALEC if elected.
The event also featured the candidates running for State Board of Education District 2, which makes up nearly all of northeastern Kansas. Incumbent Republican Steve Roberts cast himself as a “change agent” who wasn’t interested in following the status quo. He said he was more interested in providing educational opportunities to people in low-income communities than in ensuring that Blue Valley was the best school district in the state. His challenger, Chris Cindric, said her focus was to restore respect to the profession of education in Kansas, which has been denigrated by the legislature in recent years.
All but two of the candidates invited to participate in the forum showed up. District 16 incumbent Rep. Amanda Grosserode, a conservative Republican, did not respond to organizers’ invitation. Her opponent, Democrat Cindy Holscher noted that Grosserode had been an active proponent of a number of education bills, including school vouchers, that many educators oppose. Democratic District 8 House candidate Ben Chociej did not respond to organizers’ invitation, either. His opponent, Republican Patty Markley, stressed the need to return to a sensible budgeting and revenue formula in her remarks.
Stand Up Blue Valley and Johnson County Educators will host a forum for candidates in the southern part of the Blue Valley School District area on Tuesday, Sept. 27.