This was supposed to be the race for taking down state Sen. John Vratil, the tough-minded moderate Republican conservatives loved to hate.
But Vratil decided not to run again, leaving the Republican primary in the 11th District as a race between four-term state Rep. Pat Colloton and businessman Jeff Melcher, both from Leawood. The winner faces Democrat Michael Delaney in the fall.
Melcher, chief executive of NetStandard, is running to push the Legislature to be more closely in league with Brownback, especially since the Senate had a reputation of bucking the governor’s conservative agenda.
“I felt like I could have impact there,” he said. “We were very close to being able to get a Legislature that was aligned with the governor trying to create a pro-growth state.”
Colloton said her Senate bid is a natural progression in leadership after representing parts of Leawood and Overland Park in the House for eight years.
During her tenure, she has worked on giving more local control to schools, passing laws to get tough on drunk driving and bringing Kansas into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, which sets national standards for registering sex offenders.
Colloton said she has years of community involvement that she can bring to her work as a state senator.
One of her top priorities is school funding and reworking the school finance formula, which has been criticized for not adequately funding Johnson County schools.
“I look forward to helping craft a new finance formula,” said Colloton, who has served on the House Education Committee and school boards in Illinois and Massachusetts.
“I think I am very well positioned to continue working toward a formula that serves Johnson County and the whole state in the adequate funding of kids,” Colloton said.
Early on, Melcher picked up the backing of the political arm of the conservative-leaning Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which had targeted Vratil for defeat along with seven other moderate senators. Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill at Melcher’s business last year, but hadn’t endorsed him.
Melcher was supportive of the massive tax-cut plan that Brownback signed into law and was backed by the Kansas Chamber and Americans for Prosperity.
Melcher criticized the Senate for loading up a tax-cutting bill to make it more costly, thinking it wouldn’t pass, only see to the governor sign it into law.
“If I had been in the Senate, the bill would have been different,” Melcher said.
Melcher said the tax cuts ultimately would be good for promoting economic growth, especially for small businesses. And if the cuts mean limits on state spending, so be it.
“I am happy with it the way that it passed. I think it’s going to accomplish things,” he said. “It’s going to force the state to do a lot of things the state needs to do. I would like to see cost pressure on the state just like the private sector has had that forces us to become more efficient and more effective.”
Melcher thinks revenues are coming in higher than expected and he doesn’t think the tax cuts will leave the state budget in dire shape in several years.
Colloton said she hasn’t been pleased with the Senate’s reluctance to more forward with some bills. She cited the Senate’s apparent inability to negotiate a deal for a less costly tax plan as well as moving ahead with the governor’s education plan.
Colloton agrees with some aspects of Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to overhaul the financing formula for elementary and secondary education.
She agrees with the governor that school districts should have the unlimited ability to raise property taxes, but she thinks more money needs to be added to the state base aid per student.
But to get that money for education, Colloton thinks the Legislature needs to rework the massive tax plan enacted this year that is projected to leave the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the red in the future. She said a more gradual approach to tax cuts was needed, similar to a compromise (and less costly) plan that could not pass muster in the Senate. Any surplus money the state could have used to add more money to education to offset cuts in base aid was eaten up by the tax cuts, she said.
She said the state needs a balanced approach to cutting taxes that includes income, property and sales taxes.
Melcher sidestepped a question about whether he would support the governor’s education finance reform package, talking instead in general terms about innovation in education.
“I don’t know enough about the details of it to say whether I would or wouldn’t,” Melcher said. “Obviously there are going to be components of any bill that are good and other components that aren’t good.”
Melcher generally agreed that local taxpayers should be allowed to spend more money on schools if they choose.
Melcher generally discussed the need to do more to “incent exceptional behavior” if Kansas wants to be more competitive in education. As an example, he said, the state needs to “redesign” the way teachers are compensated.
“For those educators that have the ability to have greater impact on their students, we need to reward those teachers differently,” he said.
Melcher said the public has been misled to believe that the state is funding schools only at $3,838 per student when total expenses are running about $12,000 a student.
However, Colloton said that $12,000 is a number used by conservative think tanks to deliberately mislead people to believe that schools can still be cut. She said that money includes a number of fixed costs outside the classroom such as pensions and bond and interest payments that cannot be cut. She said the base aid is a better gauge of how much money is actually going to the classroom.
She said Melcher is “parroting” a number touted by conservative groups that wants to cut schools.
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