Topeka physician and former state Sen. Jim Barnett plunged into the Kansas governor’s race Tuesday with a message designed to put distance between himself and a rival Republican candidacy of Secretary of State Kris Kobach and the tax policies of Gov. Sam Brownback.
Barnett, who earned the GOP nomination in 2006 and lost to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said he saw opportunity for coalition building in Topeka rather than Kobach’s vision of a political landscape driven by corruption. He praised the 2017 Legislature for repealing the supply-side economic program embraced the past five years by Brownback. Barnett also advocated expansion of Medicaid in Kansas, a perspective not shared by the governor.
“I am going to run as a candidate that represents the values of most Kansans,” Barnett said at a news conference in Topeka. “There definitely are some contrasts between Mr. Kobach and myself. Those contrasts are fairly sharp, because I support what the Legislature just did. I support Medicaid expansion as well.”
When Koback announced his candidacy in early June, the secretary of state said he was motivated by the plague of illegal immigration, the state’s $1.2 billion tax hike and a culture of corruption in Kansas politics. He called for term limits and used the “drain the swamp” mantra of President Donald Trump.
In terms of Brownback, he denounced the 2012 tax law serving as a cornerstone of Brownback’s economic agenda. It granted a state income tax exemption to owners of 330,000 businesses, eliminated the state’s upper income tax bracket and lowered other rates. Brownback twice vetoed bills this year reversing the law, and he was overridden the second time with a bill raising state taxes more than $1 billion to balance the budget.
“I would also put a sign up across I-70 that said, ‘The Kansas tax experiment has come to an end,’ ” Barnett said. “There were some tremendously courageous legislators who voted to bring that to an end. They deserve our applause. Now, what we need is a governor who will build on this new economic foundation.”
Barnett, 62, appeared eager to position himself as a moderate alternative to such conservatives as Kobach and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who could ascend to the office of governor upon resignation of Brownback. Former state Rep. Ed O’Malley and Wichita businessman Wink Hartman declared an intention to seek the GOP nomination for governor, but U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder and Senate President Susan Wagle remain part of the discussion.
Democrats Joshua Svaty, a former Kansas agriculture secretary and House member, and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer filed for the race. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, could be a candidate. There has been speculation about Greg Orman, who ran independently for U.S. Senate in 2014, could launch an independent campaign for governor. Libertarian Chris Rockhold has filed.
Barnett said Brownback’s devotion to lower income taxes created instability in the state government’s budget and undermined investment in workforce development, public education, infrastructure, health care and quality of life.
“We put all our eggs in another basket with an experiment, and we ignored the rest,” Barnett said. “As a result, we’re seeing economic growth in Kansas at 0.2 percent. We can’t continue that.”
He said the state must reduce the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax on grocery items because of the burden placed on lower-income Kansans.
Billions of dollars withdrawn from the state highway program by the Legislature and Brownback to cover revenue shortfalls stalled projects necessary to support economic expansion, Barnett said.
Barnett, a physician for 35 years who practiced at Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, said Kansas missed an opportunity to expand eligibility for Medicaid to about 150,000 people. The federal government is likely to begin sending Medicaid dollars to states in block grants and create opportunity to improve medical outcomes at less cost, he said.
“Health care costs have gone up and up in an uncontrolled fashion,” he said in an interview last week.
Barnett said he was eager for Kansas to adequately finance K-12 public schools and expand public-private partnerships to improve workforce training.
“We have failed as a state in providing high-skilled, high-tech jobs,” he said. “That’s why our young people are leaving or they’re not wanting to move here.”
He said Kansas government had to invest more in marketing to draw people to a state they often viewed as a “flyover state.”
Barnett represented Emporia in the Kansas Senate from 2001 to 2010, stepping down to concentrate on an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House. Before serving in the Senate, he was a member of the Emporia school board.
He was scheduled also to stop Tuesday in Manhattan, Junction City, Salina and Wichita. His tour would resume Wednesday in Liberal, Garden City, Dodge City and Hays.