The prospect of getting chewed up by a political buzzsaw doesn't scare Jim Barnett.
In 2006, he emerged from a crowded GOP primary field only to face a popular Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, in the November election. The buzzsaw won.
Fast forward to 2018, and Barnett has put himself back together again. Only this time he's facing the sitting Republican governor of the state, Jeff Colyer, and the headline-hogging secretary of state, Kris Kobach, in the August GOP primary. Kobach's and Colyer's mano-a-mano matchup has left Barnett very much in the background.
That means the saw is whirling again — just inches from Barnett's toes. He's seen as a long shot at best.
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It's maybe because of that dynamic that the former state senator and school board president from Emporia can offer Kansans the sort of straight talk that made John McCain a party darling and its 2008 presidential nominee.
Kansas, Barnett said, "is in a mess. It's going to take a decade to get out of the mess, if not a generation."
He's spot on. Barnett says what Colyer and Kobach cannot because they're so closely tied to the GOP establishment. Former Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cuts were too much, too fast, and they simply swamped the state. Left behind is an underfunded public school system, a highway program in shambles, a Medicaid program that's been roundly criticized, a prison system steeped in unrest and a social services network that's vastly underfunded.
The Brownback administration, Barnett says, specialized in "reckless governing" that became way too focused on a single metric, which was cutting taxes.
Barnett understands the challenge facing the state and is spreading that gospel all over Kansas. He's doing it in a red truck that even with 75,000 miles on the odometer, still has its original tires.
In an interview on my KCUR radio program last week, Barnett correctly predicted that the state Supreme Court would reject the Legislature's school funding package this year as too meager. He pointed to one western Kansas district that operates only four days a week due to inadequate funding. Another district offers foreign language instruction only on the internet while wealthy districts in the Johnson County area can offer Chinese immersion.
Such dramatic inequities cannot continue, he said.
Kansas now sends the message that it no longer values teachers, Barnett said. This is happening in a state that once was known for its quality public schools.
He rightly opposes a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove judicial oversight from school funding. Under the plan, now gaining momentum, the state Supreme Court could no longer order lawmakers to spend more on schools.
Of state highways, Barnett points out the state is now forced to borrow money to maintain its roads to that point that it will be making interest-only payments for years, if not decades. Roads upgraded today will need to be worked on again before the state has even finished paying interest on the loans.
Barnett doesn't just single out problems. He also offers sound solutions. One is to expand Medicaid for both humanitarian and financial reasons. Another isn't likely to win ringing applause — and that's higher taxes.
"We're going to have to invest in the state and create a functional state government," he says.
It's not sexy stuff. But it's honest and real and clear-eyed. He ought to be rewarded with votes in the GOP primary.