Education and taxes.
Those are the two major issues being litigated in statehouse races across Johnson County as the Republican Party looks to maintain its dominance here and throughout Kansas.
Two years ago, a national Republican tidal wave knocked out five Johnson County Democratic House members, leaving state Rep. Mike Slattery of Mission as the lone survivor. But he’s off to grad school, putting his Democratic-leaning district in play.
Now, Democrats are battling back, not only trying to hold onto what they had, but to make some inroads against Republicans who are coming off a bruising primary in which there are still some raw feelings.
Overall, Johnson County voters will get to elect a new slate of legislators because of retirements, redistricting and because several House incumbents chose to run for the Senate.
Ten of the county’s 22 House members will not return to the chamber in 2013 either because they left office, lost their primary or ran for the Senate. Four of the county’s six incumbent Senators either lost a primary or decided not to run for re-election.
And redistricting this year gave Johnson County three new House districts and two new Senate districts. But more notably, the new maps created seven House districts and one Senate district with no incumbents, opening the field to a new class of candidates seeking to go to Topeka.
Many of the Democratic candidates are emphasizing how schools could be hurt by deep income tax cuts passed by the Legislature this year. Democrats have charged Republican legislative candidates with supporting the “largest cut to public education in Kansas history.”
They are pointing to a 2011 vote on the state budget that reduce state base aid per pupil by $232 to $3,780. The budget was backed by a number of Republican lawmakers, including more than a half dozen from Johnson County.
“The education issue, particularly in Johnson County, is the most potent issue that’s out there,” said Joan Wagnon, state Democratic Party chairwoman. “People don’t like the cuts that have been made. They think that they need to be restored. They’re concerned that this governor is going to rob education to pay for his tax-cut plan.”
Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said there have been a lot of “misstatements” and “accusations” during this campaign season. “A lot of people are using a lot of scare tactics now,” he said, referring to Democrats’ ads attacking education cuts.
“My administration has prioritized state funding for education,” Brownback said. “State funding for education has increased since I took office.”
While the state cut base aid per pupil in Brownback’s first year as governor — partly because of a loss of federal stimulus dollars — total spending increased because more money was put into pensions and construction projects, among other things.
Brownback uses state numbers showing overall state school spending has increased to $3.2 billion this school year from $2.2 billion in 2003-2004.
Those numbers include money that’s designated only for at-risk learners, vocational education, special education, English-language learners, teacher pensions and subsidies for property-poor school districts.
Democrats, meanwhile, said taxpayers need to pay closer attention to the base aid per pupil, which is a better indication of what goes into the classroom.
Legislative research shows state base aid per pupil has dropped from $4,257 in 2005-06 to $3,780 in 2011-12 before increasing this year to $3,383 when the Legislature agreed to add another $40 million for schools.
“The equation Gov. Brownback is using stems from increased contributions to the state employee retirement system. I think we could all agree that those are dollars that are definitely not going to the classroom,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
The Wichita Eagle’s Brett Wistrom contributed to this story
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