Faith-based adoption agencies, school district consolidation and Medicaid expansion: District 14, 17 and 18 candidates dig into the issues at Shawnee Mission Post forum

Angela Schweller, the Democratic candidate for District 14, was one of six candidates who spoke on top issues at the first of the Shawnee Mission Post’s candidate forums leading up to the November election.

Candidates for the Kansas House seats in Districts 14, 17 and 18 came together Wednesday evening for the first of five Shawnee Mission Post’s October forums. The forums, ahead of the Nov. 6 election, are designed to give voters the chance to hear area candidates’ views on the biggest issues facing the community.

Candidates answered questions about expanding Medicaid, the Adoption Protection Act, where they would allocate excess state funding if it every became available, and the state’s K-12 funding formula.

Participants were:

  • Angela Schweller, the Democratic candidate for District 14.
  • Tom Cox, the Republican incumbent for District 17
  • Laura Smith-Everett, the Democratic challenger for District 17
  • Michael Kerner, the Libertarian challenger for District 17, is focusing on legalizing marijuana.
  • Cindy Neighbor, the Democratic incumbent for District 18.
  • Eric Jenkins, the Republican challenger for District 18

(Charlotte Esau, the Republican candidate for the District 14 seat, was invited but did not respond).

Summaries of the candidates’ responses to each of the questions posed at the forum follow:

Gov. Colyer this month issued a statement declaring Kansas is in a better fiscal state, and noting that “our total revenue numbers give us plenty of room to both adequately fund schools and cut taxes.” Do you agree with his assessment? Why or why not?

District 17 Rep. Tom Cox.

Tom Cox, District 17: He agrees and disagrees. He said state legislators made a hard decision to raise taxes because of the amount of state debt and funding that had been cut, especially in education. Revenue has increased in Kansas, but funding for many public services has not been restored, again, especially in education. Cox is a proponent of cutting the food sales tax, the second-highest in the nation. He also supports decoupling at the federal level; without decoupling, lower-income residents “will not be able to itemize these expenses…and increase their tax burden.”

Laura Smith-Everett, District 17: She said Kansas is in a better fiscal state, “so that’s an improvement, but we still have work to do.” She doesn’t want to consider tax cuts while many departments such as transportation are still under-funded. She’d also like to restore funding to public education, since funding for schools is “being eaten up by inflation.”

Michael Kerner, District 17: He agrees, but he wants to “get the courts out” of making decisions about how much should be spent on public education in Kansas.

Cindy Neighbor, District 18: She agrees, but Kansas has only reinstated taxes to near the levels they were in 2012. She said several agencies such as the state transportation department are still “horribly under-funded.” “The budget has to be sustainable. While we had a good year last year, we still have to look at all the agencies that are under-funded.” She’s also concerned for the mental health and well-being of Kansas residents, especially the state’s aging population.

Eric Jenkins, District 18: He agrees with Gov. Colyer, and he thinks there are opportunities to return money “back to the people who earned it in the first place.” Jenkins also agrees with Cox on the idea that he’d like to see regressive taxes, such as the sales tax on food, reduced. He also likes how Missouri has a “back to school” tax abatement. He doesn’t want the government taking excessive amounts of money from Kansas residents on programs unless it is spending wisely.

Angela Schweller, District 14: She agreed that when “the Brownback tax plan” was repealed, it helped the state economy get back on track. She’s seen job growth and wages increase, but she thinks the issue of cutting taxes is still up for debate. “We don’t want to fall right back into our budgeting problems of an unbalanced budget where we’re scraping funds from other places.” If there’s room for taxes to maneuver, she agrees sales tax is high. She agrees that decoupling should be considered at the federal level.

Let’s say that in March 2019 the state finds itself with $250 million more in funds to budget than it had expected. Where would you direct that money and why?

District 17 candidate Laura Smith-Everett.

Laura Smith-Everett, District 17: She’d like to reinvest in the state and restore state funding to where it was so all departments are adequately funded. This includes the state department of transportation, so Kansas can rebuild roads and bridges. As a fiscally-conservative Democrat, she advocates lowering personal taxes of Kansas residents. She said she’d be happy to return the money to residents after restoring funding to the departments.

Michael Kerner, District 17: If the surprise funding is a continuing surplus, he’d like to cut taxes. But if the funding return will only occur once, he thinks the state has to fill in the deficit for programs such as public employe pensions. He doesn’t want to discourage investment within Kansas businesses, which is why he wants to consider cutting taxes.

Cindy Neighbor, District 18: She would like to reinvest in the state’s roads and bridges because of the lack of funding in the transportation department. She is also concerned with the lack of funding in Kansas’ district courts. Neighbor said she wants to get more Kansas residents off waivers, so that elderly people can stay at home longer and the state can save funds.

Eric Jenkins, District 18: He would like to focus on a positive economy that helps fund state programs. He would like to find ways to fix problems in state departments that cost Kansas residents money, such as the state jails that are “like a revolving door.”

Angela Schweller, District 14: She would like to “get out of the litigation cycle” on education funding so that schools are funded appropriately. She wants more funding dedicated to education, mental health such as social workers, counseling and resources that “keep people out of the court system.”

Tom Cox, District 17: He wants the state to allocate funds to special education programs. Cox noted that bills are complex and often require compromise; it’s not just a simple yes or no, because each bill has pros and cons. He agreed with Schweller, saying “we’ve got to account for inflation, and we’ve got to get courts to sign on. That’s the only way you’re going to do it.” He also wants to fund the Department of Children and Families, which is “in desperate need of funds.” He also wants to look into expanding Medicaid which will bring $700 million from federal government into the state.

Over the past several decades, Johnson County and its sizable tax base have been sending K-12 tax dollars to rural areas with much smaller property tax revenues. Are you comfortable with a school funding formula that sends Johnson County tax dollars to other parts of the state?

District 17 candidate Michael Kerner.

Michael Kerner, District 17: He is not comfortable with Johnson County tax dollars going to other parts of the state. He said he would like to decentralize public education so that each school district is responsible for raising its own funding. “I’m very upset with money being forcibly transferred from one district to another.”

Cindy Neighbor, District 18: Neighbor said this issue is about equalization, which is a concern for Kansas courts. She wants to be able to provide a quality education for all students. She disagrees with making each school district raise its own funding. She sees how the aging community in Johnson County is willing to support raising taxes, at their own expense, to provide a better future for children. “We have to realize that we’re all in this together.”

Eric Jenkins, District 18: He said he wants all Kansas children to have a quality education, but he thinks school districts in rural Kansas with smaller student populations cost too much in overhead. He thinks these smaller, rural school districts should consolidate to have a minimum number of students. “We’re spending millions of dollars on these extra administrators to take care of a hundred kids. And we’ve got how many kids in our school district? Big difference.”

Angela Schweller, District 14: She thinks all Kansas children deserve a great education, no matter where they live. “We as a state need to provide equal opportunity,” she said. She disagrees with consolidating school districts. She doesn’t think that would save costs, saying “it would just be a bigger strain on the communities.” Ultimately, she wants to help rural communities thrive with quality health and education.

Tom Cox, District 17: He thinks it’s reasonable for Johnson County, as the wealthiest in the state, to redistribute tax dollars to rural school districts that cannot raise the funds for themselves. “A lot of these schools cannot afford to operate their schools based on property value taxes and what they generate locally. That is a reality.” But he said Kansas needs these rural communities for their contributions, such as agriculture and energy. “These districts are dying,” he added. “We are one state and we have to look out for the common good of all of us.”

Laura Smith-Everett, District 17: She supports redistributing Johnson County tax dollars to rural school districts that need the funding. She said that if Johnson County residents decide not to redistribute tax dollars, then the state should consider a statewide plan to improve economies across the state, which will improve property values. “I think we need to take a really close look at what incentives we have done as a state to ensure that the counties all across Kansas are growing, not just Johnson County.”

The announced closure of Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott has renewed debate about Medicaid expansion in Kansas. Should Kansas expand Medicaid? Why or why not?

District 18 incumbent Cindy Neighbor.

Cindy Neighbor, District 18: She said she will continue to vote to expand Medicaid, citing the “21 total hospitals” that have recently closed across Kansas. Medicaid expansion would allow hospitals to reimburse medical staff at a better rate, she said, adding that the state is “giving $2.4 billion away to other states because we don’t have Medicaid expansion. We are taxed on that; those are our tax dollars, but they’re going to those states that have Medicaid expansion. We need to be a part of that.”

Eric Jenkins, District 18: He does not support expanding Medicaid, indicating that he thinks expanding Medicaid will “dilute” the quality of healthcare for recipients. “There’s always significant strings attached, and with all the information I’ve been able to receive on this subject, this Medicaid expansion is costing the states up to three times as much as what these projections are.”

Angela Schweller, District 14: She supports expanding Medicaid, especially for the opportunity of investing Kansas tax dollars back into our state programs. She said considers Medicaid expansion a “pro-life” position, because expanding Medicaid will save lives by reducing infant mortality rates and also providing quality healthcare for those who cannot afford it.

Tom Cox, District 17: He supports expanding Medicaid, because Kansas is losing out on opportunities to invest those state tax dollars back into Kansas’ Medicaid program. “The law we passed but got vetoed included a provision that if federal reimbursement dropped below 90 percent, we would have to pass a new law to authorize it. Our goal was to provide protection in the bill to prevent the fears of run away costs.”

Laura Smith-Everett, District 17: Smith-Everett said she was a proponent of expanding Medicaid and that doing so would expand access to healthcare for more people in Kansas who couldn’t get it otherwise. She said some people have forced to quit their jobs because they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid when they were working, but they weren’t making enough to pay for other healthcare options.

Michael Kerner, District 17: Kerner has concerns with the Medicaid system. He said Obamacare messed up the Medicaid system, and he thinks legislators are making it worse.

The legislature last session approved a bill that allows faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with gay and lesbian couples. Do you support that bill? Why or why not?

District 18 challenger Eric Jenkins.

Eric Jenkins, District 18: He supports the bill because he thinks same-sex couples have other options by adopting through non-faith-based agencies. “I don’t see why the government feels that they should be imposing this upon faith-based organizations.” Jenkins said faith-based organizations have a constitutional right to follow their beliefs.

Angela Schweller, District 14: Schweller is against the bill, calling it “state-funded discrimination.” She said she can’t tell faith-based organizations not to be discriminatory, but she thinks it can’t be state-funded. “We have way too many kids in our foster program that are spending the night in offices,” Schweller said, citing an assault that occurred a few weeks ago in the Kansas child welfare system. “We do not want to decrease the amount of people that can adopt…We should be increasing it.”

Tom Cox, District 17: Cox said he voted in favor of the Adoption Protection Act, but he said he doesn’t support it. He doesn’t think it’s right to discriminate against LGBT couples. But said he and other legislators had tried to work toward a compromise with Equality Kansas, the ACLU and faith-based agencies. “I think the solution to this is that we make the LGBTQ-plus community a protected class like it should be,” Cox said.

Laura Smith-Everett, District 17: She said she’s heard stories after knocking doors of people who are tired of “stories that justify discrimination or bigotry of any kind.” “The biggest thing that has concerned people is we have grandstanding and excuses for bad legislation and stories that were told on why the legislator was a hero or was trying to save something.” She said she would never support legislation that supports bigotry. She wants to take a stand against policies that pit groups against each other. “My freedom is not dependent on me squelching yours. It should never be part of our policy to use discrimination or freedoms as excuse for bigotry.”

Michael Kerner, District 17: Kerner didn’t speak against the bill. He said faith-based adoption agencies are still doing a service and aren’t profiting from state funding; they’re only being reimbursed by the state. “I would not interfere with them doing the service and not say, ‘No I’m not going to take this gift of service from you because I don’t agree with you on something.’ I’d let that go, so long as they didn’t make money off it.”

Cindy Neighbor, District 18: Neighbor also called the bill “state-funded discrimination,” adding that the bill was unnecessary because religious adoption agencies could already make faith-based decisions to select families. She was mainly concerned that the bill, which included a non-severability clause, was attached to a telemedicine bill to help rural districts, “which means if any of this bill is found to be unconstitutional, the whole bill goes away. Putting threats in bills is wrong.”