It was supposed to be a debate about leading Kansas.
It sounded like a debate about leading Johnson County.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, Democratic state Rep. Paul Davis and Libertarian Keen Umbehr traded turns Friday arguing who could best help the state’s largest county.
They argued about taxes, schools, economic development and other policy issues before a largely white-collar audience of about 250 at an Overland Park debate sponsored by the Johnson County Public Policy Council.
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Brownback argued his tax cuts are spurring development in Johnson County.
Davis contended those tax cuts will ultimately drain money from services likes schools and roads that make Johnson County attractive.
And Umbehr promised to put more money into Johnson Countians’ wallets by replacing the income tax with a consumption tax.
The governor came out of the box quickly, immediately pounding Davis for opposing a bill that gave Johnson County school districts some added authority to raise more property taxes.
“When it comes to talking about Johnson County and schools, Rep. Davis talks a lot about more money for schools,” Brownback said, “but he’s not talking about your schools.”
Davis parried that he supported a variation of a bill that would have done that, but conservative lawmakers added an amendment stripping teachers of some job protections — a provision he said “had no place being in that bill.”
“I have consistently supported more local (taxing) authority for Johnson County schools, and I will continue to do that as governor,” Davis said.
The two leading candidates both tried to tap into topics that might appeal to a Johnson County audience.
Twice, Davis pointed to the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce’s legislative agenda emphasizing the importance of good schools as critical to the county’s ability to attract more people and businesses.
Early in the debate, the governor raised one of the most loathsome taxes to Johnson County businesses — a sales tax on professional services.
Brownback accused Davis of wanting to impose a sales tax on services. He claimed the chair of the state Democratic Party — and former revenue secretary — has already proposed and drafted the tax legislation.
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“While I am governor, we will never impose a sales tax on services,” Brownback said to applause. “With Paul Davis, you’ll get a sales tax on services. He’s never seen a tax increase he didn’t like.”
Davis flatly said he would oppose a sales tax on services, something strongly resisted in Johnson County because of the abundance of engineering, law and accounting firms.
“It will be detrimental to Johnson County,” he said.
The Lawrence legislator said he has voted more than 150 times to cut taxes in his 12 years in the Kansas House, although he has supported tax increases for transportation and schools.
The Democratic challenger, meanwhile, tried to couch Brownback’s policies as damaging to Johnson County.
The governor’s tax cuts, Davis said, will leave the state with ballooning deficits and without sufficient funds for schools and roads.
“This is your model that you built,” Davis told the audience. “It is a successful model. What we need to do is help you grow that model, and that means funding our public schools and funding our infrastructure program.”