Competence in the Capitol

By and large, scholars, politicians and pundits pay attention to left-right ideologies when they think about politics, and there's good evidence much of American politics is organized along a broad liberal-conservative spectrum.

The commonplace story of Kansas politics is this left-right dimension explains most everything. Republicans historically have dominated the state Legislature, but not in any extreme way. When Democrats won the governorship, they too were moderates, and scarcely antagonistic to business. Abortion and gun politics have represented somewhat different dimensions, but overall the left-right emphasis has held up.

Another dimension can shape electoral politics, lurking behind the conventional liberal-conservative framework: the basic idea of competence. Almost 40 years ago, the great congressional scholar Richard Fenno concluded above all candidates had to demonstrate basic competence. Without that, they had no chance of winning. Think Milton Wolf in contemporary Kansas politics, who simply failed to pass the competence threshold in challenging Pat Roberts.

But what if the question of competence was not addressed to an outsider challenger, such as Wolf, but to an elected official? Say, a governor? Say, our current governor?

With many Kansans, not only is Gov. Sam Brownback's ideology a problem, but increasingly his competency is open to question. Although there have been a host of such issues, two recent episodes highlight this "second dimension" of evaluation.

First, and most important, is the immense shortfall in state revenues. This can be measured in two ways. One is the year-over-year decline, with the understanding 2014 revenues were destined to fall given the dramatic decrease in, or outright elimination of, income taxes. The reduction to date is 12 percent from last year -- $1 of every eight.

This drop is sobering but pales in comparison to the $310 shortfall from the expected revenues projected two months ago in April. The Brownback administration first blamed the decline on Obama and then, with May's $217 million plunge, on federal policies generally. While there is a whiff of truth in the latter excuse, no state in the country has fallen so far short of its estimates; both the governor and Secretary of Revenue Nick Jordan have some explaining to do.

Estimating revenue can be tricky, of course, but the big takeaways here are (a) the Brownback administration was caught flat-footed, and (b) the supposed economic renaissance to be derived from tax cuts is nowhere in sight.

A second element of gubernatorial competence comes in appointing well-qualified people for demanding jobs. Monitoring the $3 billion KanCare program for Medicaid implementation -- recently privatized and under great scrutiny, including an FBI investigation -- certainly requires a highly qualified individual.

So who did the governor choose for KanCare's inspector general? Former Rep. Phil Hermanson, who has no college degree, a record of run-ins with government agencies, and whose appointment went unannounced by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment when it was made in late April. Why not?

Well, perhaps because he has declared bankruptcy, received a fine for campaign finance violations, and pled no contest to driving while under the influence of prescription drugs. And to reiterate, he absolutely has no training or experience in assessing the tens of thousands of complex transactions that come before the inspector general for KanCare.

But Hermanson ranked as the single most loyal Republican in the 2012 House before resigning. In short, Brownback's appointee was selected both because of his loyalty and in spite of his lack of qualifications for the crucial job.

In the last two months, the governor and his administration have demonstrated a lack of competence on significant fiscal issues and a crucial personnel appointment. Who knows? When voters head to the polls in November, competence -- which most Kansans have taken for granted for decades -- well might rival ideology as a measuring stick for the Brownback administration.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.