Competence is essential, too

By A Contributor

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

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

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

But what if the question of competence was not addressed to an outsider challenger, like 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.

Most important is the immense shortfall in state revenues. This can be measured in two ways. One is the year-over-year de-cline, with the understanding that 2014 revenues were des-tined to fall, given the dramatic decrease in, or outright elimin-ation of, income taxes. The reduction to date is 12 percent from last year — one dollar of every eight.

This drop is sobering, but pales in comparison to the $310 million shortfall from the ex-pected revenues projected two months ago in April. The Brown-back administration first blamed the decline on President Barack 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 guberna-torial competence comes in appointing well-qualified peo-ple for demanding jobs. Moni-toring the $3 billion KanCare program for Medicaid imple-mentation, recently privatized and under great scrutiny — including an FBI investigation — certainly requires a highly qualified individual.

So who did the governor choose as 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?

Well, perhaps because he has declared bankruptcy, was fined for campaign finance violations and pleaded no contest to driving while under the influence of prescription drugs. And to reiterate, he has absolutely 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 House of Representatives in 2012 before he resigned. In short, Brownback’s appointee was selected both because of his loyalty and in spite of his lack of qualifications for this crucial job.

In the last two months, the governor and his administration have demonstrated a lack of competence on major 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 — may well rival ideology as a measuring stick for the Brownback admin-istration.

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

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