The Kansas candidates for governor tried to woo the state’s business community at a dinner hosted by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a major player in past elections.
All of them offered pro-business proposals, but each also differs from the chamber on some issues.
Republican Kris Kobach takes a hardline position on immigration opposed by the chamber and splits with it on changes to workers compensation law.
Neither Democrat Laura Kelly nor independent Greg Orman supports a constitutional amendment on school spending favored by the chamber.
The chamber’s political arm has the ability to pour significant resources into aiding candidates, from sending out mailers to purchasing TV time. In 2012, the chamber significantly aided then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s successful quest to sweep a number of moderate Republicans out of the Legislature.
It’s unclear if the organization will endorse a candidate for governor this fall. Chamber president and CEO Alan Cobb said an endorsement is possible, but that no decision has been made.
The chamber has advocated for immigration reform for years. Its 2018 legislative agenda encourages a “federal resolution on immigration reform” and opposes state legislation that would increase penalties for businesses who unintentionally hire undocumented workers. The chamber has also previously joined a coalition that supported allowing some undocumented workers to remain in Kansas.
But Congress has stalled on the issue amid President Donald Trump’s insistence on building a border wall with Mexico and aggressive enforcement of immigration law that for a time resulted in undocumented immigrants being separated from their children.
Kobach supports Trump’s effort to build a wall and agrees that Mexico can be forced to pay for its construction. He has expressed opposition in the past to guest worker programs, which the chamber supports.
Kobach was not asked about immigration at Tuesday’s dinner, but did speak about it at a similar event hosted by the chamber in June.
“A lot of Americans are competing directly with illegal labor and that is depressing wages and that in turn hurts tax revenues. We can’t -- we have to have a system that is fair,” Kobach said then.
All the major candidates have split with the chamber on workers compensation.
Kobach, Kelly and Orman have all signaled support for using a set of older guidelines for evaluating workplace injuries seen as more friendly to employees -- leading to bigger payouts to injured workers.
By contrast, the chamber supports guidelines currently in law that are seen by some as less friendly to workers. The chamber says the newer guidelines take into account advances in medicine.
The current guidelines have been struck down by an appeals court, but the Kansas Supreme Court may review the case.
Kelly called the older guidelines “more reasonable” and said they served both employees and employers well. She also said she would “welcome the opportunity to work with our business community to determine if there are ways we need to modify that law.”
Orman said the court ruling striking down the newer guidelines will ultimately be upheld. But he said there is “lots of data for how we can do a better job delivering work comp services in lower cost ways and I think we need to take advantage of that.”
In addition, Kelly and Orman both oppose a constitutional amendment that would restrict the ability of the Kansas Supreme Court to review the overall amount of funding going toward Kansas schools. The chamber is part of a coalition that pushed unsuccessfully for an amendment this spring.
To be clear, all three candidates on Tuesday night were quick to play up areas of agreement with the chamber and their pro-business proposals.
Kobach emphasized that he wants to cut tax rates and reduce spending by not filling positions as state employees retire.
“I think most people in this room would agree, if you’re going to stimulate growth you have to take the regulatory burden and tax burden and in Kansas’s case, especially the tax burden,” Kobach said.
Kelly spoke about her support for immigration reform. She said immigration policy needs to recognize the needs of employers but also ensures people are in the country legally.
She promised to pressure the state’s congressional delegation to develop a solution.
“We have a very broken immigration system. It does not work. It has not worked for decades,” Kelly said.
Orman said Kansas needs to develop its venture capital community and remove obstacles to economic development, such as a housing deficit in western Kansas.
“We saw this in the Kansas City area. Companies that were started there that looked for venture capital went to New York, Boston, or San Francisco and generally they came with strings attached: ‘We’ll give you the money but you have to move your business here,’” Orman said, adding that he wants to build a capital community throughout the state to invest in local businesses.
Across the country, political coalitions are undergoing an incredible period of change, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. The result is that previous divides between the parties on some issues are being blurred.
“I think the business community, which we very much think of as more Republican-oriented, does face some curious political choices as we go forward to adapting to the new reality of where the parties are going,” Miller said.
The Chamber dinner also included independent Rick Kloos and Libertarian Jeff Caldwell. Both candidates noted that they had been excluded from other events.
“We’ve got to have a governor, an individual, that when people on the outside or inside look at that person they say, ‘Boy, that’s someone who can really promote Kansas,’” Kloos said.
Caldwell, who has made the legalization of marijuana a central tenet of his candidacy, said Kansas needs to legalize hemp.
“That’s a huge boon to our economy,” Caldwell said.