How AP's Statehouse coverage held Kansas elected officials accountable

Jan. 26, 2012
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(In this Jan. 24 memo below to The Associated Press staff, Managing Editor for State News, Financial News and Global Training Kristin Gazlay explains how sourcing smarts and savvy by the AP Kansas Statehouse held elected officials accountable.


IMany governors' State of the State addresses are a laundry list of rewarmed campaign promises and general initiatives they want the Legislature to pursue. Rarely do they put forward any big surprises. But, sometimes, surprises can hide in what appears to be a straightforward announcement.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback used his State of the State to release his “revenue-neutral” budget, which he said would cut the income tax rate for married couples making more than $60,000 a year. He said it also would cut a lot of other taxes, keep the sales tax in place and eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit, a device that reduces or eliminates taxes for poor people. And that got John Hanna’s attention.

From his years at the Kansas Statehouse, Hanna knew that legislative research staff could group taxpayers by income and run an analysis on how much their taxes would go up or down under any plan. He also knew that the research staff was unlikely to hand such an analysis to a reporter without going through legislative staffers.

So Hanna tracked down a legislative source he thought would be helpful – and he found him in a men’s room at the Capitol. He asked for the data and the source replied, “If you’d just let me finish my business here, we can go to my office.” Back in the office, the source showed Hanna what the research staff had given his boss and provided to a special study group – the first time any reporter had seen it.

What it showed was shocking: Individual taxpayers who make $25,000 or less -- a whopping 41 percent of Kansans -- would see their taxes go up an average of $156, while those individuals and some small businesses with incomes of $250,000 or more would see their taxes drop 18 percent:

The story, Hanna said, “hit the Capitol with the force of a ton o’ bricks.” The governor’s chief of staff tracked Hanna down in the hallway, wagging his finger and shouting that the story was “complete bull----,” but couldn’t come up with any substantive reasons why. Lawmakers since have confided to Hanna that his story effectively doomed the tax plan as politically toxic.

For his sourcing smarts and savvy that held the state’s top elected official accountable, Hanna wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Kristin Gazlay

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