Education, budget a priority in 115th race




Education funding and the state budget are the top priorities for both the incumbent and a political newcomer in Tuesday's Kansas House District 115 contest.

The 115th includes portions of Gray, Meade, Clark and Ford counties.

Meade Republican Ronald Ryckman, the incumbent, credits Gov. Sam Brownback's pro-business agenda with taking the state from a $500 million hole to $500 million in the black, while his challenger, Dodge City Democrat Marjorie "Mo" Gilbert, strongly believes budget cuts the past two years have hurt people of modest means.

Ryckman said budget cuts were necessary because state spending grew by almost $2 billion between 2003 and 2008, which was nearly a 50 percent increase over six years. In May, the Legislature passed the largest tax cut in state history, he said, created Rural Opportunity Zones to help counties with declining populations and took Kansas from one of the highest taxed states in the region to one of the lowest.

Ryckman said Department of Labor data indicate almost 21,000 jobs were created, almost 4,000 jobs retained and $2.8 billion in capital investment in the state since January 2011.

"We need to expand our economy," he said. "The elimination of taxes on non-wage income is going to really help the 191,000 small businesses in Kansas grow. That's what we need to get our economy growing."

Gilbert said she believes in finding solutions instead of complaining about problems, but she doesn't agree with the budget cuts due to analysts predictions of a $2.5 billion budget shortfall over the next six years.

"The numbers don't add up. It doesn't make any sense," she said. "I don't agree with cutting taxes on businesses the way he has. Everybody should pay their fair share."

Gilbert, 55, who attends Dodge City Community College to retrain into social work after 25 years in management, doesn't carry any illusions about what she could accomplish in a Republican dominated Legislature. "I believe in listening to the people. If you're a great moderator you can hear what everybody says and glean an idea from the discussion and then know how to proceed because that's what the people want. There's nothing I love more than having conversations with people. And if I don't know something I'll look it up and find out," she said.

As a full-time student, Gilbert has a strong interest in education. She fears tuition rates will rise even higher with the current budget cutting.

"I don't quite know how to address that but how we're taking care of it now isn't adequate and it's only going to get worse," she said.

Additionally, as a Democrat and a future social worker, Gilbert said social programs are important and she doesn't like the cuts that have been made to social services, schools or to the arts.

"They cut programs for those who need it the most," she said.

The only reason Gilbert decided to run for office is because an uncle asked her to.

"I'm just one of those people when asked to do something I step up and do it. I have never wanted to be political. A community advocate? Yes. I can organize some people and we can get some things done. But a politician? Never," she said.

In addition to education, Gilbert's priorities are infrastructure and the state's transportation system. Noting there are many north-south and east-west highways, Gilbert advocates creating diagonal highway corridors to connect southwest to northeast and northwest to southeast.

"Think about trying to get from Coffeyville to Colby. How hard is that? And even Dodge City to Topeka is not a fun drive," she said.

Ryckman said the state must have a balanced budget every year so fears of a $2.5 billion budget shortfall is unlikely. He said analysts used static information instead of dynamic scoring that would include additional economic impact of more jobs.

While Ryckman believes the economy is headed toward growth, if more revenue is necessary he could see adjustments being made to income tax rates or possibly raising the sales tax.

"I believe to increase funding we must help our economy in lowering taxes encouraging more businesses to come to Kansas," he said. "I do not favor eliminating the state income tax (completely). I like the three legs of taxes — sales, income and property."

State aid for education is at about the right level, Ryckman said, but he anticipates having a better idea after the governor's new task force on school finance efficiencies has an opportunity to prepare a study.

Ryckman doesn't believe there will be a large impact on education or social services passed down to the local level, and he doesn't believe in across the board cuts by a certain percentage.

"We are going to be selective about cuts, although many agencies will get them with some exclusions, such as K-12, and most of the public safety sector. So much excess has built up under past administrations that we believe a 'pruning' of some programs would have little or no impact on their operations," Ryckman said.

Overall, Ryckman believes the state's economy is heading in the right direction.

"Kansas now has falling unemployment and a nice spike in sales tax receipts which reflects that as a state we are doing much better than others," he said. "It is indicative that our pro-business policies are working."

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