District 17 and 23 candidates delve into K-12 constitutional amendment, proof-of-citizenship, Medicaid expansion

Tom Cox and Jim Eschrich District 17 Kansas candidates
District 17 incumbent Tom Cox (right) is facing a primary challenge from Republican Jim Eschrich (left).

Candidates running for the District 17 and 23 seats in the Kansas House of Representatives shared their views on the Kansas Supreme Court’s school funding ruling, Medicaid expansion and other topics Monday at a candidate forum hosted by the Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA.

Incumbent District 23 Rep. Linda Gallagher (right) and Democratic challenger Susan Ruiz (left).

District 17 incumbent Tom Cox, who is seeking a second term, is facing a primary challenge from Republican Jim Eschrich. Democrat Laura Smith-Everett is running for the seat and does not face a primary challenge. All three candidates participated in Monday’s forum.

In District 23, incumbent Republican Linda Gallagher and Democratic challenger Susan Ruiz participated. Neither face a primary.

Here’s where the candidates came in on some of the biggest topics of the night:

Constitutional Amendment on School Funding

Democrat Laura Smith-Everett is running for the District 17 seat.

Moderator Kyle Palmer of KCUR asked candidates whether they supported the idea of amending the Kansas Constitution to address uncertainty around the “suitable” K-12 funding provision.

District 17 candidates

  • Tom Cox: Cox noted that he voted against the constitutional amendment idea when it came up in committee. He said that the Supreme Court would retain jurisdiction over the case even if the legislature amended the constitution, so an amendment would not bring the legal issues to an end. Moreover, he said that he worried that some members of the legislature would seek to rapidly cut funding if the suitable funding provision were removed or altered.”The people of Kansas put that protection in there for a reason,” he said.
  • Jim Eschrich: Eschrich said he supported looking at a constitutional amendment, noting that the term “suitable” is “abstract,” and that it should be up to the legislature, not the court to provide a definition for it. He also said the court’s recent rulings were out of line with the desires of many Kansans. “I think we’re a center-right state, and I don’t think it’s outlandish to expect we would have a judiciary that is more center. I would be happy with center. But I think they are left of center and I don’t think it’s representative of the state politically.”
  • Laura Smith-Everett: Smith-Everett said she opposed the idea of amending the suitability provision, and that the court had properly acted as a check on the legislature in the cases.

District 23 candidates

  • Linda Gallagher: Gallagher said she opposes the idea of amending the constitution. She disagreed that it would be a good approach to stoping the legal issues surrounding K-12 funding. “The way to stop this endless cycle of litigation is to adequately fund schools now,” she said. “We need the court to serve as a backstop to potentially bad legislation.”
  • Susan Ruiz: Ruiz said she had heard from many people in the district who were worried that amending the constitution would not be in the best interests of Kansas school children. She opposes an amendment.

Medicaid expansion

Palmer asked the candidates where they stood on Medicaid expansion, a move that made it out of the House and Senate in 2017 before being vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback.

District 23 candidates

  • Linda Gallagher: Gallagher said she was a strong supporter of Medicaid expansion, noting that she had voted for it twice. She said expanding Medicaid would provide access to healthcare coverage for around 150,000 Kansans who don’t have it at present. “Many of these people are the working poor,” Gallagher said. “They’re working two or three jobs that don’t have benefits. So it’s not a welfare thing.”
  • Susan Ruiz: Ruiz, a social worker who works with people with mental illness, said Medicaid expansion would provide critical access to care for people who would slip through the cracks otherwise. “Without Medicaid, people will not be able to get the kind of care they need,” she said. She believes expansion would be a cost saver to Kansas in the long run.

District 17 candidates:

  • Tom Cox: Cox said he was a strong supporter of Medicaid expansion, and that District 17 would be among the biggest beneficiaries of the move in Kansas. He also noted that draft legislation in Kansas had provisions that required the legislature to reauthorize the program if federal funding dried up. “The cost can’t skyrocket at that level,” Cox said.
  • Jim Eschrich: Eschrich said he could not support Medicaid expansion until legislators had a better sense of the total cost. He noted that the federal government has committed to pay for the vast majority of the costs of Medicaid expansion — but that those reimbursements weren’t guaranteed. “I don’t think at this point we know the true cost of Medicaid expansion,” he said. “What I want to see from the politicians is what is the true cost of Medicaid expansion.”
  • Laura Smith-Everett: Smith-Everett said she was a “strong yes” on Medicaid expansion, noting that her own family had been a Medicaid recipient to assist with the costs of care for her child with special needs. “It made the difference between personal bankruptcy, medical bankruptcy and being able to provide the services that he needs to be able to grow and be ready for school,” she said. “We send our money every month to Washington. We should recoup that cost [through Medicaid expansion].”

Kansas voter proof-of-citizenship requirement

Noting that the law had been overturned by a recent court decision, Palmer asked the candidates for their views on Kansas’s voter registration law that required proof-of-citizenship.

District 17 candiates

  • Linda Gallagher: Gallagher said the proof-of-citizenship law effectively disenfranchised many Kansans who wanted to vote. She said Kansas did not have a problem with non-citizens trying to vote or people trying to vote more than once.
  • Susan Ruiz: Ruiz recalled growing up in Texas, and seeing her father have to  prove that he had paid a poll tax in order to cast a vote. She said the proof-of-citizenship legislation felt like a move back to that era. “It disenfranchises so many populations in the state and in the country. We need to make it easier to be able to vote,” she said.

District 17 candidates

  • Tom Cox: Cox said he was against the proof-of-citizenship requirement, though he did agree with the idea that people at the polls should have to produce ID before casting a vote. He said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud here, and the proof-of-citizenship requirement hurt young voters. “If you could go in state and prove to me that many non-citizens – or even a few non-citizens – are voting in our elections, then let’s have the conversation about it,” he said. “But no one’s been able to do that.”
  • Jim Eschrich: Eschrich said he supported some sort of “threshold” for proving you are a citizen to be able to vote. He rejected claims that it disenfranchised voters. “It’s not to meant to disenfranchise,” he said. “It may inconvenience some people. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that people have some ID to prove who they are.” He said that while many people claim Kansas doesn’t have a problem with voter fraud, there was no way to prove the problem didn’t exist. “How do we know we don’t have a problem?” he said.
  • Laura Smith-Everett: Smith-Everett said she was not in support of requiring proof-of-citizenship for people to register to vote.

Full video of the SMAC-PTA’s candidate forum for Districts 17 and 23 is here.

The group hosts a forum for the candidates running for District 18, currently represented by Cindy Neighbor, tonight starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Center for Academic Achievement.