OVERLAND PARK — Leading candidates for governor jostled on stage together for the first time Wednesday as they staked out policy ground on taxes, immigration and what they can appreciate about president Donald Trump.
In a rapid-fire session, Republican Kris Kobach, Democrat Laura Kelly and independent Greg Orman traded modest taunts in a forum sponsored by the Johnson County Bar Association in Overland Park.
Orman described himself as the alternative to the status quo, Kobach described his opponents as tax-and-spend liberals, and Kelly said it was time to slam the door on problems Kansas has endured for the past eight years. Two additional candidates who will appear on the November ballot weren't invited — Libertarian Jeff Caldwell and independent Rick Kloos.
Kobach made his pitch for supply-side tax cuts favored by former Gov. Sam Brownback, repeating his position from the primary election that the real problem was the failure to reduce spending to make them work. He also supports a lid on rising property valuations at the local level.
Kelly attacked Kobach for his failure to say what he plans to cut to offset tax breaks. She blamed the Brownback tax policy for funding problems with transportation and public schools, as well as standing in the way of Medicaid expansion.
"Those are the things we've got to do if we're ever going to grow this economy," Kelly said, and sales tax in Kansas "is so high it's immoral."
Kobach countered that taxes are too high because she voted to raise them.
If you want the government to "spend, spend, spend," Kobach said, "and hope that creates a secondary effect in the private sector, then I'm not your man."
Orman's strategy was to promote his business prowess. The state's revenue problems can be solved, he said, by growing the state's economy. As it is, young people are leaving the state, and families have gone nearly two decades without seeing much of a pay increase.
"For the average Kansan," Orman said, "it doesn't feel like you're treading water. It feels like you're drowning."
He took a more pointed approach on immigration, telling Kobach his interest in removing all illegal immigrants from the state should disqualify him from serving as governor. In a common refrain, Orman blamed immigration problems on the failures of a two-party system.
The solution, he said, is in federal reform that is tough, practical and fair. We should secure the borders, Orman said, but you can't find and deport everyone who is here legally.
Kobach, who has built his career on hard-line policy that targets illegal immigration, jokingly asked if he could have 20 minutes, instead of 60 seconds, to talk about the issue.
From his point of view, he would be the first governor to do anything about immigration. He wants to require employers to use a verification system and stop non-citizens from paying tuition at the rate of state residents.
"If you think that disqualifies me, I think he's 180 degrees wrong," he said.
Kelly took issue with Kobach's claim that the state could save $3 million annually by charging non-citizens out-of-state tuition. She said they wouldn't be afford to attend college at higher rates, and their departure from campuses would cost the state $14 million they currently spend on tuition.
On other issues, Kelly advocated for medical marijuana and additional spending on early childhood education. Kobach supports making cannabinoid oil available in pill form and touted his efforts to combat voter fraud. Orman opposes arresting people who are caught with a "dime bag" of marijuana and sees a need for more social workers in the state's foster care system.
In a memorable exchange, moderator Nick Haines asked the three what they like and dislike most about President Donald Trump.
Orman appreciated the president's support for technical education but thinks the tariff war is risky.
Kobach, who struggled to find something he didn't like, said he would have more quickly reversed an amnesty policy for illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children. His favorite thing was the federal tax cut plan.
Kelly railed against Trump's divisiveness, then elicited laughter when she admitted she was struggling to find something she liked.
"I suppose maybe putting golf back up at the high level of giving it a lot of attention that the sport desperately needed," she answered.