Sunflower State Stare-Down: County Election Commissioners, Officials Differ on Kansas Budget Legislation

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New legislation in Kansas is pitting election commissioners in the state’s four largest counties against elected county officials in a fight over who has the power to set election budgets. CJonline has more:

Secretary of State Kris Kobach and election officials in the state’s four large counties Tuesday opposed a bill designed to shift budget authority for elections in the counties of Shawnee, Sedgwick, Johnson and Wyandotte in hands of county commissions.

Kobach argued Kansas law permitted election officers in each of these counties — all appointed by Kobach — to unilaterally certify an annual budget to their respective county commission, which must be financed regardless of amount. Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued a nonbinding opinion last August affirming Kobach’s interpretation of state law.

Under Senate Bill 299, county commissions in these four jurisdictions would be given authority for election budgets and decisions on personnel policy.

During a Senate hearing, the big-four county election commissioners endorsed the status quo. Representatives of the four county governments urged reform.

Bryan Caskey, election director in Kobach’s office, said elected county commissioners could force budget changes based on partisan sentiment.

“Election commissioners, although appointed by the secretary of state’s office, are not subject to the political winds that may blow through county courthouses,” Caskey said.

One complicating factor is that the larger counties have different arrangements than others in Kansas:

Political contests in the state’s 101 other counties are administered by elected county clerks. These clerks abide by county commission budgeting and human resource policies.

Jim Crowl, the Shawnee County counselor, said the Senate bill was needed to resolve a simmering dispute about who had final say on expenditures for elections in Shawnee County. The notion that Kobach’s four appointees have unchecked legal authority to spend tax dollars is unacceptable, he said.

“This interpretation is irresponsible and unprecedented in our system of government,” Crowl said.

He said that free-wheeling perspective led Shawnee County Elections Commissioner Andrew Howell to overspend the office’s budget allotment from the county by $85,000 in 2016 and $184,000 in 2017. He said growth in spending by the county’s election commissioner outpaced the consumer price index from 2008 to 2016.

In 2017, the Shawnee County Commission was so frustrated with Howell that they voted to slash his salary by 15 percent.

For their part, the election commissioners argue that subjecting their budgets to legislative control could compromise their independence and interfere with effective election administration:

Howell, appointed by Kobach in 2012 to run Shawnee County elections, told the Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Government Committee that he never overspent the budget amount certified by his office. On the other hand, he said, the county commission’s general fund had grown by 37 percent from 2008 to 2017.

The proposed bill should be defeated because it would “strip the election commissioners of the independent status as envisioned by the Legislature,” he said.

Howell said arbitrary reduction of election budgets by county commissions could result in long lines at the polls, induce poll worker mistakes and delay reporting of election results.

Tabitha Lehman, Sedgwick County elections commissioner, said the Sedgwick County Commission would likely constrain spending to an extent it prompted “disenfranchisement of registered Sedgwick County voters who are unable to wait in line to vote on Election Day.”

“It will certainly impact the willingness of poll workers to return and work again,” Lehman said.

Proponents of the change aren’t backing down, though, claiming that increased budget control is the only way to ensure that election offices don’t violate other county policies:

Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Commission, said time had come to mandate all 105 counties follow the same policies on budgeting, purchasing and personnel decisions.

“Without this change in the law,” he said, “counties find themselves assuming all the liability for personnel policy violations, with none of the authority to insure compliance with countywide policies.”

It’s an interesting debate – exacerbated by the state’s tough fiscal climate and a general trend toward lower government spending. I’m usually one to hope for a compromise but it appears both sides are digging in on the bill … stay tuned!

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