This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.
Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin and former Republican House Speaker Mike O’Neal have starkly different views on the condition of Kansas government. That divergence was plain as the two met Thursday in Topeka for a discussion about the size of government recorded for KCUR’s Statehouse Blend podcast.
O’Neal and Carlin agree on one thing — that they don’t know exactly what the “right size” of state government is.
“It’s not about high or low,” said Carlin, but about finding the right tax level to get return on investment.
O’Neal said the goal of the 2012 tax cuts, passed while he was Kansas House speaker, wasn’t shrinking state government, it was boosting the economy. He said government will shrink, at least temporarily, while waiting for the economic growth that tax cuts are aimed at boosting.
“It’s not a shot of adrenaline, as I think we’ve found out,” said O’Neal. “In fact, it’s very hard for anyone to have predicted the stagnation nationally, because everybody thought they’d pull out of the recession quicker than they did.”
Carlin said the results of the August primaries, where multiple incumbent conservatives lost to more moderate challengers, were a referendum on the state’s tax policy and direction.
“I think it’s an understanding of the people of Kansas that what we tried did not work,” Carlin said.
O’Neal now heads the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed all the incumbent Republican legislators defeated in the primaries. He said this is just another swing in Kansas politics like others in the past.
“People want something different,” said O’Neal, suggesting there’s an anti-incumbency movement and distrust of government at all levels in 2016. “Lower taxes tend to stimulate our economy, that’s still our philosophy.”
O’Neal said for years Kansas had a very high number of state employees based on its population and advocates for a focus on growing the private sector.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean firing everybody in state government and outsourcing everything, but there are certainly some efficiencies,” O’Neal said.
Carlin argued a loss of state workers in the wake of the tax cuts has had a negative impact on state services like mental health care.
“There’s pain. Citizens know that,” Carlin said. It’s not just about increasing services, he said, “it’s about getting back to quality.”
Without a change in course on tax policy, Carlin said the state won’t be able to invest in infrastructure and education, and he says that means Kansas won’t be competitive in attracting people and business.
“If we don’t invest at a level that gives people confidence that we’re funding a quality public education system, then people look at leaving, not coming,” Carlin said.
O’Neal said Kansas isn’t in the tough spot Carlin thinks it is.
O’Neal blame the media for not telling positive stories about the state and attacking the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.
“It pains us to hear all the people who hear things are going down the toilet. If you talk about that enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” O’Neal said.
He said Kansas still does well in many state comparisons and has a low unemployment rate.
“The good news is we’ve got low unemployment. The bad news is we’ve got low unemployment,” said O’Neal, adding that unemployment is so low businesses actually are having difficulty finding qualified workers for some jobs.
Carlin said that trend will continue unless Kansas changes course and invests in education. O’Neal said Kansas has been generous in its funding of public education.
— Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio.