Candidates criticized each others’ funding plans and debated statewide and local issues at the Southwest Kansas Gubernatorial Debate in Garden City Thursday night, covering education, economic growth, immigration and the state’s infrastructure, among other issues.

The free, public debate organized by the Southwest Kansas Chamber of Commerce, packed the seats at Clifford Hope Auditorium at Horace Good Middle School. The candidates, Democrat Sen. Laura Kelly, Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, independent Greg Orman, Libertarian Jeff Caldwell and independent Rick Kloos took the stage.

According to an Oct. 17-21 survey by the Public Policy Polling firm, Kelly and Kobach are tied at 41 percent; with Orman, whose running mate, Kansas Sen. John Doll, hails from Garden City, following at 10 percent; Caldwell at 2 percent and Kloos at zero percent. The two leading candidates have been neck and neck, often within a point of each other, since both received their respective party nominations in August.

The debate covered statewide issues, such as the legalization of marijuana, restoring funds to the Department of Education, Medicaid expansion and adequately funding K-12 education, but also geared directly toward the region in which the candidates stood, such as immigration, which fuels western Kansas’ economy, and the lack of a four-year university in the southwest Kansas quadrant.

Kobach said he supported legal, not illegal, immigration. He said the state should not grant welfare to those that came to the country illegally or allow sanctuary counties, which he promised to dismantle. Kelly’s plan was one of discussion and deliberation, saying she’d work with and push the congressional delegation to find a solution that would meet the needs of the economy, including those dependent on immigration labor, and “let people live in peace.”

Orman criticized Kelly for “punt(ing)” the issue, saying the state, and the nation, instead needed to take action by securing federal borders and creating a path to amnesty for illegal immigrants that would allow them to continue working in the state. Kobach’s immigration policies, he said, would drive undocumented immigrants out of the state in droves, a loss he said the state could not afford.

When it came to higher education in southwest Kansas, all candidates but Kelly pointed to technical education and community colleges as beneficial programs that not only quickly connected young people with jobs, but also often anchored students to jobs in Kansas. Kelly pointed to alternatives to a traditional university, such as offering classes from Fort Hays State University in the region, or offering degree opportunities through remote tele-education classes.

Orman, Kobach and Kelly often took jabs at each others’ policy plans, particularly regarding funding. Kobach claimed Kelly, who supports expanding Medicaid, would devote the state’s money to potentially extensive expenses, and ultimately not have enough funds to support state infrastructure improvements.

Kelly asked how Kobach would fund schools and highways while cutting taxes.

Orman asked for the “math” behind both candidates’ funding plans, to which Kobach said he would shrink state departments, and by extension their spending, naturally as employees retired.

Orman’s answer for multiple questions fell back to economic development in the state. An improved economy would allow the state to invest in priorities without raising taxes, he said. It would externally affect school funding.

In his closing statement, Orman, as he has in the past, urged voters to allow themselves to break out of party molds and choose the candidate they believe would best serve the state. Kobach and Kelly turned to each other, as they had in the past, claiming the other was the true successor to the former governor Sam Brownback.

Amidst yells and boos, Kobach said Kelly’s hopes to increase government spending without raising taxes would once again hurt the state’s ability to fund necessary programs. Kelly said Kobach would bring cuts to schools, roads and healthcare, the damage of which she said “could not be overstated." Experienced lawmakers reversed Brownback’s experiment, she said, and that’s who the state needed.

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