Kansas treasurer nominees not eager to add audit duty, split on college saving plan

Libertarian fixates on education reform — not part of job description

By: - October 27, 2022 9:45 am
State Treasurer Lynn Rogers, a Democrat, said Wednesday in a candidate debate that he deserved election to a four-year term after improving operation in the office since appointed two years ago. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

State Treasurer Lynn Rogers, a Democrat, said Wednesday in a candidate debate that he deserved election to a four-year term after improving operation in the office since appointed two years ago. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Three candidates for Kansas state treasurer expressed little interest in expanding the scope of the office by investing millions of tax dollars in comprehensive audits of state government spending.

The nominees for treasurer, Republican Steven Johnson, Democrat Lynn Rogers and Libertarian Steve Roberts, came together Wednesday night for a debate sponsored by KTWU and Washburn University. They explored their public service background, political aspirations and areas in which their priorities for the treasurer’s office converged and diverged.

Johnson, a Kansas House member from Assaria who worked about 25 years as a financial analyst, said the treasurer could serve a broader watchdog role — but that function shouldn’t conflict with activities of the Legislature’s auditing division. His GOP opponent in the primary, Sen. Caryn Tyson, had pledged to audit every state agency if elected treasurer. She lost the August race to Johnson by 474 votes.

“While we could do a lot of audits, in the end the Legislature does pass the budget, decides what cuts to make, what things to fund,” Johnson said. “If we created audits that remained on a shelf, rather than actually being used by the legislative team, then I don’t think we’ve added value.”

Rogers, a former agriculture banker and the Democratic incumbent appointed to the job by Gov. Laura Kelly, said creation of an auditing division in the treasurer’s office could cost the state $3 million to $4 million annually. He was skeptical the Legislature would be willing to idle its own auditing apparatus to stand up an alternative.

“I’m not sure they would want to give that up,” said Rogers, a Wichita resident who previously served as lieutenant governor, a state senator and on the Wichita school board.

Roberts, an Overland Park driver for Lyft and a former state Board of Education member, said he wouldn’t be performing audits and indicated it would be imprudent for the treasurer’s office to plunge into an expansion of government.

Republican Steven Johnson, the Republican nominee for state treasurer, said he was uniquely qualified to be elected Nov. 8 due to his education, work experience and service in the Kansas House. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Republican Steven Johnson, on the right in this file photo, said Wednesday during a candidate debate that he was uniquely qualified to be elected Nov. 8 as state treasurer due to his education, work experience and service in the Kansas House. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

College savings

Rogers and Johnson said they were excited about prospects of raising the profile and improving participation among Kansans in Learning Quest 529 education savings program coordinated by the treasurer’s office. Roberts said he didn’t believe government ought to be involved in operating such as program.

“I don’t think that’s a function of government,” said Roberts, who said saving for higher education was a reasonable goal that was the responsibility of individuals.

Johnson and Rogers said they were committed to using social media to generate enthusiasm for Learning Quest and striving to hold down fees assessed to people holding accounts. Rogers said he’d sought to better inform parents and grandparents of opportunities for donating to these funds, while Johnson said he was interested in modeling an initiative in Arkansas that matched contributions.

In response to questions from viewers, all three said they would endorse enactment of a law legalizing medical use of marijuana.

Johnson and Rogers said they were supportive of expanding Medicaid to more than 100,000 lower-income people who couldn’t afford health insurance. Roberts, however, said Republicans and Democrats ought to quit fighting over health care and come up with an “American solution.”

Former Kansas Board of Education member Steve Roberts, who is the Libertarian Party's nominee for state treasurer, devoted much of his time during a Wednesday candidate debate to articulating how he would reform K-12 public education. That isn't among job responsibilities of state treasurer in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Former Kansas Board of Education member Steve Roberts, on the right in this file photo, is the Libertarian Party nominee for state treasurer. He devoted time in Wednesday debate on how to reform education. That isn’t a duty of treasurer in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

A bully pulpit

Roberts, who was on the state Board of Education from 2013 until January and lost the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2020, said he would take the bully pulpit if elected treasurer to inform Kansans how he would overhaul K-12 public education.

“I’m running for state treasurer to simply turn schools around for Kansas families,” he said. “While we’ve had some fun in this campaign saying, ‘Swive the two major parties, vote liberty, life is good,’ we’re dedicated to making our schools live up to the vision that I helped form on the state board.”

“Swive” is an archaic word for intercourse.

Roberts said during the one-hour debate that students suffered because politicians “play political games.” He said it was time to shrink K-3 class sizes and raise salaries of teachers. He also complained some news outlets were dismissive of his candidacy for treasurer.

Johnson, the Republican, said he would work beyond the primary scope of the treasurer’s job to improve financial literacy among Kansans. Rogers, the Democrat, said he would continue to be a strong advocate of the state’s public education system.

Climbing a ladder

Every state treasurer in Kansas going back 50 years used the office to seek election to another political job, including former treasurers Lynn Jenkins, Ron Estes and Jake LaTurner. All three of those Republicans were elected to the U.S. House with the treasurer’s post as launch pad. Estes represents a district that includes Wichita, while LaTurner holds an eastern Kansas district that includes Topeka.

Rogers and Johnson said they intended to run for reelection as treasurer in four years if they won the Nov. 8 campaign. Roberts said he had no plan to run for another public office.

“My opponent speaks of returning this office to Republican leadership,” Rogers said. “I would say it’s more important that we return this office to competent banking and public service.”

Johnson said the decision about the person to lead the office of state treasurer came down to “who do you trust with your checkbook.”

“I’ve gained the trust of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.