Americans tend to think that each election is a littler dirtier than the last. Certainly that is the feeling among many candidates running for the Kansas Legislature as attack postcards fill mailboxes as the Aug. 2 primary quickly approaches.
This year the postcards often focus on education. Who is for kids and who is against them? Let's use the Republican primary for House District 21, which includes Prairie Village, Mission Hills plus chunks of Overland Park and Leawood, as an example.
The two candidates are Neil Melton and Dorothy Hughes. (They appeared together a couple of weeks ago on KCUR's Up To Date.) Melton ran two years ago in the GOP primary against incumbent Rep. Barbara Bollier and lost. Bollier is running for the state Senate this year, leaving her House seat open. This is the first run for Hughes.
A recent postcard sent by the Melton campaign that has a picture of a very sad girl and the headline "Dorothy Hughes' Plan will rob Johnson County Kids." It goes on to claim that a plan by "liberal groups" (which aren't listed) "would divert money from Johnson County schools to western Kansas."
The fact is that under the old school finance formula, replaced by the current block grant scheme two years ago, Johnson County tax money went to districts all over the state. That was at the center of the state Supreme Court fight over school funding equalization. Some money flows from wealthier districts to poorer districts. But some of that money never gets any farther west than the Kansas Speedway because it goes to the Kansas City, Kansas district.
Melton says he knows not all money goes to western Kansas. But when he goes door-to-door and talks to voters "that's what they feel like is happening."
Hughes says she's "not sure where he got the idea that I want to send all of this money away." But she also says "districts outside Johnson County exist" and since the state Constitution demands all students have essentially the same educational chances we "have to keep equity in mind" in any school funding formula.
Melton also says he's for allowing school districts to raise however much they want to locally (currently the state caps how much local tax money school districts can spend) and for consolidating some of the 286 districts in Kansas (something Gov. Sam Brownback campaigned against two years ago.)
Melton also says in one of his mailers that he want to expand the Innovative School District program because "it allows students and parents to set a curriculum that is best for the student." The Innovative School District law in Kansas allows the six districts with that status (KCK and Blue Valley are among them) to bypass many rules and regulations but it does not allow them to set their own curriculum. In an interview, Melton said he knows curriculum in Kansas is "set by the state School Board."
SEE MORE POSTCARDS OR ADD TO THE COLLECTION AT KSPOSTCARDING.TUMBLR.COM
Of course, somewhat dubious claims run both ways.
In a postcard sent in support of the Hughes campaign there's a picture of three middle aged men brawling with, for some reason, an American flag in the tussle. "The Lobbyists Have Too Much Power" the headline blares and goes on to say "now they want more."
The mailer goes on to charge that "Neil Melton is bought and paid for by the lobbyists" who have pushed a very conservative agenda. It doesn't cite who is doing the buying and paying but the postcard suggests Melton is being back by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
Melton says he's not "financially backed by the Chamber." His most recent campaign finance report confirms that however, the Chamber has endorsed him in this race.
While Melton mostly backs the Chamber agenda he is for closing the LLC loophole that allows 334,000 small businesses to pay no income tax in the state. He does not want to raise the income tax rate, however.
This particular postcard was sent by a third party, the Kansas Republican Values Fund. "I had no clue that mailer was going to land," Hughes insists.
But in a mailer paid for by her campaign, Hughes suggests the same thing; that Melton is "Funded and endorsed by the Topeka lobbyists who helped drive the state budget into debt in order to hold onto their corporate tax breaks." Again, while Melton has been endorsed he has received no money from the Chamber in the last reporting period, according to his campaign finance report.
Sam Zeff is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend and covers education for KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamZeff.