Rating her performance Tuesday evening after the public forum for the 111th District race, Republican candidate Barb Wasinger acknowledged that her Democrat opponent, Eber Phelps, had a leg up.
Phelps has held the 111th seat in the Kansas House of Representatives for many years.
“I think I did as well as could be expected,” said Wasinger, whose answers were brief and easily fell well within her allotted time. “But I’m not an incumbent. I don’t have 18 years experience.”
The forum was a joint program of the Fort Hays State University Student Government Association, Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, American Democracy Project, Department of Political Science, Docking Institute of Public Affairs, Tiger Media Network and Midwest Energy.
At least five of the questions were no surprise. The forum sponsors emailed them to the candidates a couple weeks in advance. Phelps at the time said the issues are so familiar he didn’t need the sneak peek.
Interest in the free forum turned out to be strong. A packed house of more than 180 people showed up to watch in the Memorial Union’s Black and Gold Room at FHSU. That influenced Wasinger reading from her notes to answer, she said.
“I wrote things down, and when you look out and see all these people it’s easier to remember what you want to touch on,” she said.
For his part, Phelps’ detailed answers reflected his 18 years of experience in the Legislature. Because his remarks consistently edged the allotted limit, the moderator often gave Phelps the 20-second warning that his time was almost up. Phelps’ evaluation of each of their performances echoed Wasinger’s.
“The questions in advance were pretty much frontline issues that I’ve been talking about for four years,” he said. The same for the questions from the audience, he added, noting “none of them took me by surprise.”
“I have better than average knowledge of the issues and I was able to convey that to the audience,” said Phelps, whose committee work has included the Appropriations and the Education committees, among others. “I think that some of the answers she gave were relevant and parallel to mine. But some of the questions caught her off guard and she didn’t have the in-depth knowledge.”
In his answers, Phelps repeatedly referenced former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s widely acknowledged failed tax experiment. His plan cut both services and revenues, and ultimately resulted in efforts by legislators from both parties in the last two sessions to fix the damage and find solutions.
“This has been a very rewarding two years in the Legislature,” Phelps said, saying he characterizes it with three ‘C’s. “We had a lot of communication, we had a lot of cooperation, and we had a lot of collaboration … I’m glad to be part of the solution.”
Phelps remarked particularly on Brownback’s transportation cuts and school finance policies that resulted in a Kansas Supreme Court decision declaring Kansas school funding unconstitutional and inadequate.
The job now is to return to Topeka to continue fixing the problems, said Phelps, a lifelong Ellis County resident.
“I want to continue that work, because it’s not done yet,” he said. “We’ve got our state back on sound financial footing. We are moving forward.”
Wasinger, a 34-year resident of the county, currently an Ellis County Commissioner, and previously a member of the Hays City Commission, said she also wants to continue in public office.
“My goal has always been to make Kansas a place for my children and future generations to live, work, thrive and be proud of,” Wasinger said. “I’ve always sought to repay my community for all it has given to me and my family.”
The moderators for the evening allowed two-minute answers per question. They also read questions submitted anonymously on paper by people in the audience.
Asked about the pressing issue of expanding Medicaid, which Brownback previously vetoed, Wasinger expressed doubt. She said instead that KanCare, Brownback’s widely criticized privatized version of the federal insurance program, must be addressed.
“We should repair KanCare as it is now,” she said, “because that’s a broken system that needs to be fixed before we expand Medicaid.”
Drawing upon her notes, Wasinger said “work requirements are essential to any expansion. That would also ease the unemployment issues with the sate. Currently the cost to expand Medicaid, with a small estimate of adding 150,000 people, is 56 to 60 million dollars, and that’s assuming that the federal government continues to reimburse at 90 percent. I highly doubt they’ll continue that high rate of reimbursement.”
Phelps said “absolutely” Medicaid should be expanded, noting that 34 other states have done so, proving that state’s can manage their 10 percent contribution. Kansas, by not expanding Medicaid, has forfeited $2.9 billion in federal funds that would have flowed to patients and health care providers.
“I have actually voted on that a number of times in the Legislature,” Phelps said, noting Kansas wouldn’t have a lot of its budget problems if it had expanded Medicaid.
Rural hospital administrators favor it, he said, noting there are 26 critical care hospitals struggling financially, with a lot of them hanging on to see if Medicaid expansion will pass this coming session.
“I don’t buy-in to the fact we can’t sustain it, or it’s too expensive,” he said. “I also look at it as economic development, just as I do education. When you look at $2.9 billion that we forfeited, just look at what that would do for our budget.”
As to how the candidates would fund schools, Phelps said that by the Legislature repealing Brownback’s plan, school funding is now back on track, with a proposed five-year funding package of $525 million presented to the Kansas Supreme Court.
“I feel that there’s funding now for the next couple years,” he said, “and obviously as we see our increased revenues we’re able to add those additional dollars down the road.”
Saying it’s vital to make sure the money goes to classrooms and teacher salaries, Wasinger said, “not to mention where money has gone in the past, in this past year, like Shawnee raised their administrator salaries by 13 percent. Russell built a $1.5 million sports complex. I would like to see more accountability for additional funding. If adequate means raising reading comprehension, test scores and teacher salaries, then I’m in.”
Asked if they support Republican governor candidate Kris Kobach’s plan to lower taxes if he’s elected, Phelps said the plan is identical to the failed Brownback plan that sharply cut state revenue.
“You have no idea how close the state was to bankruptcy,” he said. “We saw two or three bond downgradings, debt was doubled, we cut education, we cut higher education. Fortunately we were able to restore some of that.”
Instead, Phelps said a better cut would be the state’s existing sales tax on food.
“We’re one of the highest in the country,” he said, noting it’s a tax cut that would affect everyone, as opposed to Brownback’s tax cuts, “which benefited a few and harmed many.”
Among the most pressing issues, Wasinger and Phelps each tapped the state’s budget.
Wasinger, in particular, mentioned the money Brownback’s budgets siphoned from the Kansas Department of Transportation and from the state’s employee retirement system, KPERS.
“We need to start a repayment plan on that,” she said. “We need to stop speculative spending and start living within the actual revenue figures that the state has. A common sense approach to spending taxpayer dollars is always important. And more government isn’t always the answer.”
Phelps focused on the work both parties accomplished the last session to rebuild the state’s shaky financial situation.
“We got back on track and got some fiscal responsibility restored in Topeka and so as we enter this 2019 session, obviously the focus is on the budget,” he said. “We need to once again practice the fiscal responsibility that we did the last two years and also keep up with our funding of schools … and as we look at our budget we also have to deal with the terrible debt that the state has incurred. We started addressing alot of that last session.”
“I look at funding education as economic development,” Phelps said, citing 2,500 people employed in education in Ellis County from K-12 through post-secondary. Likewise, Medicaid expansion would send funds to Hays Medical Center, and agricultural research would fund the K-State Agricultural Research Center at Hays.
In her prepared remarks, Wasinger broadly referenced the labor shortage, housing, taxes and regulatory burdens.
“We have a low unemployment rate statewide of 3.4 percent and we need to deal with those workforce issues, promotion of quality of life issues and housing issues, or lack thereof. We need to think outside the box in order to solve these problems,” she said, adding, “We need to keep from putting any new taxes on individuals or businesses and we need to remove some burdensome regulations from small businesses to make it easier for them to get into the marketplace.”
Asked about term limits, Wasinger said they are absolutely necessary.
“I imposed them on myself for the city commission and I would not serve anymore than eight years as a county commissioner,” she said, adding that politicians are a little like leftovers; when they are around too long, they need to be cleaned out.
Phelps pointed out that in the last nine years, 359 different people have served in the Legislature.
“We have term limits, it’s called an election. I stand before the people in this community, in this district, every two years, and let them make the decision,” he said. “I’m very proud of my record, I have nothing to hide and I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’m in my 18th year in the Legislature.”
Looking at states that have had term limits, there’s a downside, he noted.
“Missouri, a few years back, did term limits, and it was an absolute disaster because they moved so many people out with institutional memory, historical memory, and the lobbyists had a feeding frenzy,” Phelps said. “They came in there and they pretty much ran the show.”
Asked which committee they’d most like to serve on, Phelps said currently he’s serving on the appropriations committee, which despite his years in the Legislature has afforded him an even deeper look into state government operations.
Wasinger also chose the Appropriations Committee.
“I’d like to be involved in the day-to-day and understand more,” she said, “and I think it would be a great place to be able to learn about the state government and relate it back to our local people.”
On other issues:
• Asked about collective bargaining and due process for teachers, Phelps said he supports both of those. Wasinger said it’s better for each individual district to make those decisions.
• Asked about guns in schools, Phelps said that in listening to educators, he hasn’t seen any support for arming teachers. He also doesn’t support concealed carry on campuses after hearing from campus administrators. Wasinger said that while gun rights are important she isn’t in favor of arming teachers.
• Both support making it easier for qualified immigrants to become citizens.
• Both support providing mental health services in schools.
• Both support sales taxes being paid on Internet transactions.
• Both support requiring licensing of home inspectors.
Probably the most unexpected question of the evening came from the audience, and indirectly referenced Ellis County Treasurer Lisa Schlegel’s recent allegations that the Ellis County Commissioners, the Ellis County Clerk and the Ellis County Administrator have conspired to bully her about the way she manages her office. She says their actions are retaliation for her insisting the county clerk meet a state-mandated Nov. 1 deadline to provide the treasurer with tax roll information.
The question read: “What, if any evidence, have you seen in support of this, and what role does a Legislator hold in addressing allegations from other elected officials?”
Phelps responded that he has no idea what’s going on with the county commission, and said it’s up to local government and local voters to handle local issues.
Wasinger said she doesn’t think there is a conspiracy.
“I think there are communication issues,” she said. “There are misunderstandings that we need to get cleared up and I think that will happen shortly and will come out into the public, so I don’t think the legislators should be stepping into local politics. I think they can take care of it themselves and if it needs to go any farther, the sheriff’s department will take care of it.”