In 2006, two-term state Sen. Jim Barnett emerged from a crowded primary field to become the Republican party’s nominee for Kansas governor. He and running mate Susan Wagle fell to incumbent Democrat Kathleen Sebelius in the general 58-40.
For the better part of the next decade, Barnett mostly stepped back from public life, focusing instead on his internal medicine practice in Emporia and Topeka.
But as he watched a wave of moderates elected into the statehouse last fall, Barnett felt a renewed calling. Candidates who campaigned to end the “march to zero” income taxes and invest money in education defeated incumbents who supported policies that had shrunk the state’s revenues.
“Oh, my gosh,” Barnett recalls thinking. “Maybe the state of Kansas now is ready to elect a problem-solving governor.”
He and his then-fiancée Rosie Hansen loaded up in a car, and began driving the entire state, talking to local officials, businesspeople and residents about the challenges facing their regions. In June, more than a decade after he’d been the Republican party’s standard-bearer, he announced a second bid for the governor’s office.
Barnett makes clear that he has little affinity for the governing philosophy that marked the Brownback administration, particularly in its early year. In his view, Brownback’s ideological fervor for cutting taxes meant missed opportunities to prepare Kansas for a needed shift toward an economy built on more than the traditional foundations of agriculture, oil and aviation.
“We put all of our eggs in one basket in zeroing out taxes with the Brownback tax experiment. It didn’t work. Failed miserably from a budget standpoint,” he said. “And we let all the rest go to the wayside. So we’re now in a big big hole.”
Barnett, who started his career in public service as a member of the Emporia school board in the early 1990s, said he’s convinced investment and reforms in eduction will be key to the state’s future success. And he makes no secret of his belief that the state Supreme Court’s decisions in the Gannon school finance case have been well founded. With some rural school districts having to cut classes back to four days a week while richer suburban district’s like Blue Valley have unique foreign language programs offered to second graders, there’s no doubt the state’s current system is both inadequate and inequitable, Barnett said. He believes the state would be much better served looking at how to effectively inject money into the K-12 system than to waste more time and resources on continued litigation.
“The court did their job. They looked at the law and they interpreted the law that the legislature passed,” he said. “We need to get out of court, pay up, and stay out of court, because it’s a terrible way to spend taxpayer’s money wisely.”
He also thinks that Kansas’s K-12 system needs to be much-better attuned to the needs of industries with high employment growth potential in the state, like computer programming and information technology. A concept he calls “enterprising academics” would forge close bonds between Kansas industry and its schools.
“[What we] need to do is develop a new relationship between business and education,” he said. “They have to be at the table together, not fighting in court.”
As for the mechanics of emerging once-again from a crowded primary field, Barnett said he believes the more candidates — particularly candidates that appeal to the most conservative voters — in the race, the better. With conservatives like Kris Kobach, Jeff Colyer and Ken Selzer all vying for support from the same base, there’s an opportunity for a candidates like him to cobble together the 25 to 35 percent of the total vote that might be enough to win.
“From my standpoint, the more candidates in this race the better, because it dilutes out the conservative votes,” he said.
Audio of our interview with Barnett in Westwood Dec. 5 can be heard below: