Spirited might be too mild a word to describe the first debate of the 2014 general election, held Saturday at the Kansas State Fair.
Incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback squared off against Democratic challenger Paul Davis in front of a packed arena of supporters on both sides.
From opening statement to closing, Davis made the state of the Kansas economy and support for public education his mainstay while Brownback countered by repeating familiar talking points that the economy is doing great and he is spending unprecedented amounts of money on education.
The Governor drew cheers by claiming support for rural schools and vowing "no forced consolidation" of rural schools on his watch, a mantra that Davis took up toward the end of the debate with his own vow of "no forced consolidation."
Pressed with a question of school finance, Brownback said "we should forget the number and concentrate on the people" in education, pointing out that his daughter is a fifth grade teacher and his son is considering a career as a professor.
"We are putting record amounts of money in education; we value the system," he said.
Davis, meanwhile, pointed to Brownback's record as a Senator, which included votes against Head Start and education funds while as Governor, he has cut funds for education in all directions, from preschool and K-12 to secondary institutions.
On the question of expanding Medicaid to provide insurance to 383,000 Kansans who have no medical insurance, Davis said he has spent a lot of time listening to administrators and providers at rural hospitals and their clear message is that they need Medicaid expansion to stay afloat.
"Medicaid expansion would inject $3 billion into the economy, create jobs and help people who need health care," he said. "We should expand it," he said to raucous cheering and sign waving.
Brownback countered hotly. "This man wants to implement Obamacare," he said. "It will cost $1 billion to implement it," referring apparently to only the Medicaid portion, not the many other provisions of the Affordable Care Act that have been implemented and have been in force for more than year.
The governor said the state has expanded the number of people on Medicaid and have taken people off waiting lists with KanCare, his privatized version of Medicaid in Kansas.
Davis countered that Brownback is not listening to Kansas hospital administrators when he insists KanCare is working.
"Claims are being denied, hospitals are not being paid, providers are not being paid and patients are being denied care," he said.
Questions of money
Brownback repeated his claim that he took office with only $846.07 in the bank only to have Davis pounce, noting that his assertion of that has been debunked numerous times and that the balance when Brownback took office was actually $236 million, according to the Kansas Legislative Research Department.
Brownback said what Davis called "cuts" to education was actually "President Obama pulling out the federal money the state had been getting and chastised Davis for "problems with math" for insisting that he has not funded public education. He blamed Davis, who was the leader of the Kansas House when money woes hit Kansas as they did every other state following the 2007 recession and subsequent crash of the financial system in 2008, calling him the "Nancy Pelosi of Kansas."
Davis responded with "Math problems, governor? I haven't made any billion-dollar mistakes," referring to reports that surfaced last February that the governor had been using spending figures that were almost $2 billion off. He went on say he would freeze tax rates where they are rather than allowing them to fall further and would make schools and funding public education the state's top priority.
Brownback took credit for "fixing" the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, saying it was in "bankruptcy territory" and that he had taken bold action to bring solvency back to the system, saying he has protected retirement for thousands of public employees.
In reality, while Brownback did inject several million dollars into KPERS to shore up the system, it has been the recovery and boom in the stock market that has done the most to help KPERS. And, while technically the money to support KPERS goes to "education" in that it is teachers' retirement plan, he has frequently included that money as part of his "unprecedented" funding for education.
On Sunflower Electric's proposal to build a new coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, Brownback said he absolutely supports the plant and he supported the Renewable Fuel Standard at the federal leel.
Davis, who was a Kansas legislator at the time that Gov. Mark Parkinson brokered a deal to let the plant move forward and was one of the legislators who voted to overturn that deal. He stopped just short of saying he had changed his mind about it and turned instead to a resounding stance favoring more wind energy and the state's 20-20 renewable fuel standard, challenging Brownback to say whether or not he would veto legislation to overturn the standard.
Brownback reacted hotly to a question of whether his appointment of his former general counsel, Caleb Stegal, to the Kansas Supreme Court. Stegal has less than a full year's experience on the bench while the other two contenders for the appointment had 23 and 24 years respectively.
The Governor said his choice is an "amazing, brilliant, qualified candidate; a totally brilliant man who will undoubtedly be a federal appeals court or even Supreme Court appointee. He painted Davis as "a liberal who would appoint a liberal to the Supreme Court."
Davis contended that Brownback simply is looking for more power for the governor's office and more control of the judiciary.
Both candidates agreed that the problems in the VA Hospital system are serious and that the country needs to do a better job of caring for veterans.
Davis said he would work to create a system whereby veterans who lives in areas where there is little or no access to a VA hospital to participate in a federal program that paid for them to receive care at their local hospitals, something he contended would boost both the health of rural hospitals and improve veterans care,
Brownback said it is clear more needs to be done for veterans and launched immediately into saying that the issues in the VA stem from a lack of resources, but are a "preview of what you will get if you implement Obamacare. You will get rationing in the form of waiting queues for health care."
Rural vs. Urban
On a question of whether the administration in Topeka cares about the concerns of western Kansas, Brownback said he has been in all 105 counties of Kansas "multiple times" and that he loves the rural parts of the state.
He contended that the staff of his administration proves he is concerned about the rural areas, mentioning that Secretary of Commerce Pat George comes from Dodge City and that Lt. Gov. Jim Colyer is from Hays.
Davis said Kansas is a rural state and that he feels good about rural Kansas, but thinks there is no issue for rural Kansas more important than public education and that Brownback's economic policies are on track to destroy rural schools.
In closing remarks, Brownback said his goal is to make Kansas the best place in the country at growing jobs and the best place for families to thrive and children to grow up.
"We are the right track," he insisted. "People are coming back and moving back. Kansas is a fabulous place to live and work and raise a family and we are on the right track to making it even better."
Davis insisted that the state is NOT heading in the right direction and that the governor's economic experiment is an utter failure that has brought budget woes, three credit downgrades and a deficit that will take years to recover from.
"We can restore Kansas and get back on track," he said.