By Aaron Strain
Opinion Page Editor
A socially distanced and mask-wearing audience listened to political candidates, vying to represent Reno and Kingman counties, during debates Tuesday evening at Stringer Fine Arts Center.
The event, hosted by the Hutch Chamber, discussed a variety of issues facing Kansans, including the response to COVID-19, tax cuts, education funding, and the Kansas State Fair.
Candidates for Kansas Senate District 34, Shanna Henry and Mark Steffen; House Dist. 102, Rep. Jason Probst and John Whitesel; and House Dist. 104, Garth Strand and Rep. Paul Waggoner attended the event. Full coverage of the debate can be found on The Collegian website, and video of the evening on Hutch Chamber’s Facebook page.
An Affordable Care Act provision that provides federal dollars to state Medicaid programs, to increase public healthcare eligibility for more low-income citizens. Expansion has to be passed by state legislatures to receive the funds, and Kansas has not thus far; though, according to available polls, it is generally supported by Kansans.
Steffen, a Republican, doctor and previous private hospital owner, brought up his counter-arguments to Democratic Party claims.
Expansion is “an Obamacare leftover … it has nothing to do with rural healthcare,” he said. “It creates a pathway for taxpayer money to be spent on abortions.”
In states that have expanded Medicaid, it “has been a fundamental government mistake,” Rep. Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, said.
Expansion “shifts the burden of healthcare onto the Kansas taxpayer,” Whitesel, a Republican said. “It’s targeting the people that can work but don’t work.”
“There are no state monies going to finance abortions, no federal dollars,” Henry, a Democrat, said “That is a fact. The Hyde Amendment takes care of that at the federal level.”
She said that Kansans have been paying taxes into a program they haven’t seen the benefits of. “Our $4.2 billion has gone to all the other states that have expanded,” Henry said. “(Tax money has) not come back to our state to take care of our people.”
Strand, a Democrat, mentioned expansion’s popular support and said “we’re getting stonewalled by the ‘true conservative’ leadership.”
“My definition of ‘Christian values’ prioritizes the poor and the sick,” he said. “Withholding Medicaid is wrong.”
“Medicaid expansion makes it infinitely worse by expanding the number of Kansans on the public medical dole,” Waggoner wrote in a Hutchinson News op-ed.
“I have to wonder if those who object to Medicaid expansion cashed stimulus checks,” Strand said. “How many of that same group received thousands of dollars, maybe millions, from the payroll protection program, are they on the dole? I’m not sure what the definition of dole is but it depends on who gets the money, I guess.”
In 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state unconstitutionally underfunded public schools. Since then, efforts have been made to restore funding to levels in compliance with the state constitution, including the reversal of the Brownback tax experiment in 2017. School funding and related policies are still part of the top debates in the legislature.
“We’ve got way too much money and we’re looking for ways to spend it,” said Whitesel, a Haven School District board member. “We need to make schools compete against each other for those tax dollars.”
Waggoner supports school choice policies, including giving students in low-performing districts to transfer with a scholarship to a different district.
“Our funding is adequate, it provides opportunity for everyone,” Steffen said. State law says that school districts have to spend 60% percent of their budget in the classroom, but almost none of them are, he argued.
“I will put punitive damages on that model,” he said. “if they don’t spend that money on in-class teaching they’ll have to give money back.”
Henry said that education funding should be full, not just adequate, and took issue with his proposal.
“So now we want to have punitive damages towards our schools,” she said. “Who’s going to pay for that? Teachers.”
Probst said educational investment is important because not doing so at the present hurts the future.
“A kid that’s 3-years old today who’s struggling,” Probst said, “is a 23-year-old who’s in the workforce and ill-equipped to navigate life.”
“If you’re thinking about moving to Kansas … and schools are having to sue the state to get funded,” Strand said, “I don’t think I’d want to move there.”
Kansas State Fair
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, all candidates expressed their personal love for the Fair and wished to see it safely open next year, which may include federal monetary support.
“It’s an institution we cannot afford to lose,” Henry said.
Probst said that during his time in the legislature, he pressured the body to keep the Fair and its revenue in Hutchinson.
“The Fair is possibly the only government agency that makes money and is completely voluntary,” Whitesel said.
If the federal government does not provide support, “I think we should ask Koch Industries to step up and help us,” Strand said. “I understand they didn’t pay any state income tax for five years (under Brownback).”
Taxes and fiscal challenges
“Our biggest problem with COVID was our biggest problem before COVID: we spend too much money,” Whitesel said. “We need to cut our budget so that way we can reduce our tax burden so that way we can lower taxes and bring businesses back to Kansas.”
“Companies move their corporations to places people want to live,” Probst said. “The simple concept that tax burden is the only driver of economic activity is a falsehood,” he said.
“(Kelly is) getting out in front of her headlights,” Steffen said, “and working for other Democrat governors who try and get money from the federal government to solve the problems. (We will be) able to handle this pretty well.”
Kansas is one of 14 states to charge sales tax on groceries. All candidates supported lowering the tax.
Henry called the tax regressive. “Sales taxes hit hardest the already hardest hit among us,” she said.
“I am very pleased to find a democrat willing to cut taxes,” Steffen said.
Sales tax is high “because it was twice raised by people who now tell you they love lower taxes,” Probst said. “It was raised to pay for the income tax cuts. The question you need to ask when you hear ‘we want lower taxes’ is: who gets lower taxes? Because 9 times out of 10 it’s not you.”
“Our biggest fiscal challenge is partisan politics,” Strand said. Successful businesses, and therein governments “do not save their way to prosperity, they invest to it.”