STORY BY AARON STRAIN
Incumbent Democrat Eber Phelps and his Republican challenger Barbara Wasinger discussed a wide swath of issues facing residents of the 111th Kansas House District in a candidate forum Tuesday evening, including the state budget, healthcare, and education. Fort Hays State University’s Black and Gold Room was packed with residents eager to hear more about the candidates they will vote for this November and students who wanted to learn more about the functions of their state government.
The event was sponsored by the University’s Student Government Association, Department of Political Science, American Democracy Project, Docking Institute of Public Affairs, and by Tiger Media Network, Midwest Energy, and the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce. Two professors of Political Science at FHSU, Jay Steinmetz and Wendy Rohleder-Sook, moderated the exchange.
Phelps, who has served a collective 18 years in the Kansas House and is a lifelong resident of Ellis County, summarized his past “rewarding two years in the legislature” with three C’s: communication, cooperation, and collaboration. He denounced the Brownback administration’s cuts to education that resulted in a Supreme Court decision finding the cuts unconstitutional and said that during the past two years he was “glad to be part of the solution” and that he wants to return to Topeka to continue fixing problems facing the state.
Wasinger, who was previously a member of the Hays City Commission and is currently an Ellis County Commissioner, said that in her 35 years living in Hays, her goal is to make Hays a great place.
“[My goal] has always been to make Kansas a place for my children and future generations to live, work, thrive, and be proud of,” said Wasinger. “I’ve always sought to repay my community for all it has given to me and my family.”
When asked, both candidates suggested the biggest issue facing the 111th District and the state was the budget.
“We need to stop taking money from KDOT [Kansas Department of Transportation] and KPERS [Kansas Public Employees Retirement System],” said Wasinger. “We need to stop speculative spending and start living within the actual revenue figures the state has. A common-sense approach to spending taxpayers dollars is always important, and more government isn’t always the answer.”
“Everything revolves around the budget,” Phelps said, “We need to again practice the fiscal responsibility that we did in the last two years and also keep up with our funding of schools.”
Phelps said Governor Brownback attempted to promote economic development through his tax plan, but that plan ultimately backfired. He viewed continued funding of education as a positive development, adding that the 2,500 people in Ellis County who work in education from K-12 to the University level “are being paid wages, they are paying taxes, they are buying homes, they are buying cars and so forth. That really adds to our economic development in the community.”
He added that further investment in agriculture and agricultural research was helpful for development, mentioning the Kansas State Agricultural Research Center in Hays as a positive example.
Wasinger also spoke on the issues surrounding the budget.
“We need to think outside of the box to solve these problems,” she said. “We need to keep from putting on any new taxes on individuals and remove some burdensome regulations from small businesses to make it easier for them to get into the marketplace.”
The candidates were split on the issue of Medicaid expansion.
Wasinger argued that KanCare should be fixed and that expanding Medicaid would be costly. She said, assuming the federal government continues to reimburse 90 percent of the expansion, the cost to the state to add an estimated 150,000 people to Medicaid would be $56 million. She also supports work requirements for Medicaid benefits, stating that they are “essential to any expansion and would ease the unemployment issues in the state.”
Phelps cited that he voted for the Medicaid expansion which was vetoed by Governor Brownback, and that 34 other states who have passed the expansion were able to pay for their 10 percent. By not expanding Medicaid, Kansas forfeited $2.9 billion, which Phelps argued could have been used to avoid the education suit and budgetary crisis. He noted that 26 rural critical care hospitals are experiencing financial struggles, and that hospital administrators are awaiting and are supportive of the expansion.
The next important topic of discussion was public funding for education.
Phelps said that through repealing Brownback’s tax plan, the legislature was able to allocate an additional $525 million towards education for the next five years, and that more is expected to come from increased revenue in the state. However, he said funding in and of itself was not enough, noting that teachers in Kansas rank 40th out of 50 states in pay. He said he wants to improve the pay ranking and “start attracting those young people to stay here and teach.”
“I would like to see more accountability for additional funding,” Wasinger said in support of making sure additional funding went to the teachers and classrooms, not administrators.
The candidates were then asked about Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach’s plan to lower taxes if he is elected governor.
“The Secretary of State, if elected, wants to go back and do an identical plan that Brownback had,” Phelps said. “We have all seen how disastrous that was. You have no idea how close the state was to bankruptcy. We saw two or three bond downgrades. The debt was doubled… Fortunately, we were able to restore some of that.”
Instead, Phelps expressed his support for the repeal of Brownback’s policies and argued for a cut to food sales tax, which is one of the highest in the country.
“That is a tax cut that I believe would affect everyone in this room and everyone in this district and everyone in this state as opposed to doing a similar thing that Brownback did, which benefited a few and harmed many,” Phelps said.
Wasinger did not support any motion on taxes, and instead said, “I think the biggest thing we need to concentrate on is the regulations we impose on businesses that make it less attractive to locate in Kansas.”
Both candidates gave their positions on guns in schools and on college campuses.
Phelps said that in all his time spent talking with educators, he has not seen support for arming teachers. He also does not support concealed carry on campus, citing a discussion he had with the President of Kansas State University, who is a retired Air Force General.
Wasinger said that while she supports gun rights and the 2nd Amendment, she is not in favor of arming teachers.
The candidates held similar views on several issues; including, expanding mental health services in schools, making it easier for qualified immigrants to become citizens, and adding a sales tax to online transactions.
The Kansas general election will be held on November 6 and advanced voting/mail-in ballot deadlines vary by county.
To find your state representative, go to https://openstates.org/
To find your polling location and to check your voter registration, go to https://myvoteinfo.voteks.org/