The race for Kansas Senate District 8 didn’t really turn out like it was planned.
Conservative state Rep. Greg Smith last year filed to run in the Aug. 7 primary against moderate incumbent Republican Tim Owens, but a court-drawn redistricting plan moved him to another district.
Now, conservative state Rep. Jim Denning has stepped in to challenge Owens in a Republican primary that serves as one of a series of battles across Kansas that will decide whether moderate or conservative Republicans will control the state Senate. The winner will face Democrat Lisa Johnston in November.
The Senate has been seen as a stumbling block to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda, and conservative groups have been targeting moderate senators like Owens, who have opposed the governor’s measures.
The Owens-Denning race pits two candidates that differ on many issues from taxes to picking judges to allowing concealed weapons in public buildings to rules governing abortion clinics. They differ over the governor’s education finance reforms.
“I do not want to see this state completely taken over by the ultra-conservative, right-wing movement that the governor has promoted,” said Owens, a senator since 2009.
“I am very concerned that if people with my background and my ideas don’t step forward and do what we need to do to maintain a moderate perspective then this state’s in a lot of trouble,” Owens said.
Denning, elected to the state House in 2010 and backed by the political arm of the conservative-leaning Kansas Chamber of Commerce, sees it differently.
Denning said he’s hardly a radical. He says he’s just a fiscal conservative who generally supports less government.
“There’s nothing more to me than that. It’s really basic, simple principles,” he said.
Denning said he’s tired of the Senate killing good bills passed by the more conservative House.
In the last two years, the Senate rejected bills that would let the governor select appeals court judges and allow people with concealed-weapon permits to carry firearms into public buildings. Owens has voted against those bills while Denning has supported them.
On abortion, Denning supported a set of new rules for abortion clinics that are now being challenged in court and came close to shutting down the state’s abortion clinics. Owens voted against the rules.
One of the major differences between Owens and Denning is their votes on taxes this year.
Denning blames the Senate for balking at moderate tax cuts last year, leading the House to sign off on a much more expensive tax cut that senators approved, thinking it would never be signed into law.
Denning also criticizes the Senate for refusing to move ahead with the governor’s plan for reforming school finance, which would have given school districts the unlimited ability to raise property taxes.
Denning supported a couple variations of tax cuts this year, including a $3.7 billion plan that became law and is projected to leave the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the red. Owens voted against the plan.
Denning said he voted for those tax cuts because it became apparent that the Senate wasn’t interested in tax reform. He noted that the Senate wouldn’t even consider a compromise plan that didn’t lower taxes as aggressively.
“I knew if we didn’t pass that tax bill, we would have no tax policy for Kansas,” he said. “It was a fairly easy, straightforward decision for me.”
Denning said it’s hard to predict now whether the new tax plan will lead to the type of steep budget deficits that have been forecast for the tax plan. He said the tax cuts would limit the growth of government, but he didn’t think they would affect basic services.
Owens said the Senate should never have approved such a big tax cut, with projections showing it could lead to a $2.5 billion deficit in five years, if the state didn’t make any budget adjustments.
“That was as disingenuous as a tax approach I’ve ever seen in the 11 years I’ve been in the Legislature,” Owens said of the enacted tax cuts. “That was an affront to the people of Kansas. I am disgusted that the governor would sign that bill. I think that is a terrible tax plan.”
Owens said his Senate colleagues intentionally made the bill so expensive with the intention that it wouldn’t pass. But the House, at Brownback’s prodding, passed the bill in attempt to gain leverage in the debate over tax cuts, he said.
“I am not happy that we in the Senate sent that over expecting they would do something different,” he said.
Owens voted against considering another plan that would have lowered taxes much more gradually than the plan that became law. Owens and other senators were skeptical of projections showing that plan would mostly leave the state mostly in the black. Senators questioned those projections because they assumed savings from the governor’s proposed overhaul of Medicaid, which still needs federal approval.
The two also differ to an extent on Brownback’s plan to overhaul school finance, which would give local school districts the unlimited ability to raise local property taxes.
The plan never got much traction during this year’s legislative session and died in a Senate committee.
Owens agrees that districts should have the ability to raise local property taxes but says that it should be subject to a public referendum. Owens said he didn’t think the governor’s plan went far enough to help schools. He thought it should have provided more money for education. “There are better things that can be done and the people here know that,” Owens said.
Denning supports the governor’s plan for overhauling school finance, plus he backed a House-approved bill that would have let Johnson County school districts raise local property taxes to fund extracurricular activities with a public vote.
Owens has the backing of the Kansas National Education Association. But Denning said conservatives shouldn’t be ripped for not wanting to fund schools.
“If you look at our voting record, it’s a 100 percent for schools,” said Denning, criticizing the Senate for casting aside the extracurricular activities bill because it didn’t provide compensation to property-poor school districts.
“We did something that was never been accomplished by the moderate sector of my party…and Senate leadership takes it like it’s radioactive,” said Denning, who also supported a plan in the House to put $50 million into schools.
Owens claims the support of the education community, pointing out that he supported a couple of plans to put more money into schools, including one that would have put $100 million into education over two years. He and Denning supported the final plan that put $40 million more into schools, raising state base aid per pupil by about $60.
“I voted for everything that came past us on education that was an improvement,” Owens said.
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