Education funding, climate change, legalizing marijuana: District 19 and 25 candidates talk big issues at Shawnee Mission Post forum

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, the Republican incumbent in District 19.

Candidates for Kansas House Districts 19 and 25 came out for the Shawnee Mission Post’s second night of forums heading up the November general elections last Thursday.

Each area candidate shared their thoughts on the biggest issues facing Johnson County, giving voters the chance to make informed decisions at the polls Nov. 6. Candidates answered questions about climate change effects on agriculture, the school funding formula, legalization of marijuana and consideration of local authority over selection of Johnson County’s election commissioner.

Participants were:

  • Stephanie Clayton, the Republican incumbent for District 19
  • Stephen Wyatt, the Democratic challenger for District 19
  • Melissa Rooker, the Republican incumbent for District 25
  • Rui Xu, the Democratic challenger for District 25

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

Gov. Colyer this month issued a statement declaring Kansas 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?

Stephen Wyatt, the Democratic challenger for District 19.

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: He agrees that Kansas is in a better fiscal state, rolling back the Brownback tax cut era, but he thinks there are still many areas that need funding restored, such as transportation, infrastructure and child services. “Just because we have enough money to pay for those schools doesn’t mean everything is well. We still have a long way to go.”

Rui Xu, District 25: He thinks yes and no, the fiscal state of Kansas is better than it was in the Brownback years, but while he agrees Kansas may have enough money to fund public schools, Kansas may not have a governor who will sign the bill. He thinks it would be good to cut the food sales tax, but he doesn’t agree with cutting income tax right now. “We are just now getting to a stable place; we need to keep that going and put money back into the agencies that have seen their budgets cut — DCF, KDOT, KPERS.”

Melissa Rooker, District 25: She agrees that Kansas is in a better fiscal state, but she cautions against using the word “surplus” when talking about additional revenues. She recognizes the obligation to restore funding for many agencies whose budgets have been cut. She also wants to resolve funding issues for higher education, early childhood services, mental health services and other state programs. She said she also thinks legislators should look at the food sales tax. “We need to be measured with our approach and really evaluate where our priorities are in terms of how we use the funds that are coming in.”

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: She said the better fiscal state of Kansas is more “restorative” than surplus revenues. She said she has supported tax relief packages, especially on prescription drugs, homesteads and childcare. “It makes the most sense when we provide this type of tax relief,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want to have “regressive” sales tax on food and personal hygiene. “We are taxing these individuals who use our state services the most, and this is a sort of counterintuitive way to look at taxation. We don’t want to go that way.” She said Kansas needs more stabilization in funding its agencies, such as transportation.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen Johnson County cities object to state laws curtailing cities’ rights to regulate things like the carrying of weapons or setting their own property tax rates. What are your views on the concept of home rule authority and cities’ relationship to state government?

Rui Xu, the Democratic challenger for District 25.

Rui Xu, District 25: He thinks Johnson County should have “robust local control” on its laws, although he said some issues such as due process and LGBTQ rights should be handled at the state level. He thinks some issues such as selecting the county’s election commissioner should be handled locally.

Melissa Rooker, District 25: She thinks local leaders are closest to their residents’ perspectives on issues like gun control. She believes local control is “a much better place to be,” and that local control allows cities in the various parts of Kansas to tailor their decision-making directly toward the residents they affect. “There are a variety of different ways that the state has restricted the decision-making power of our municipalities, and I think it’s wrong.”

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: She favors reviewing issues on a case-by-case whether a problem should be handled locally or at the state level. She said she signals her values to her constituents by consulting with local mayors, councilmembers and school board members. “That said, if my value set supersedes that rule of local control, then I will tend to vote that way.” For example, she may be in favor of setting a state minimum age for tobacco use because it’s harmful to public health.

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: He thinks local control has been taken away. Each community may have different views on issues like gun control, he said. “Taking things away from the local municipalities…that know what that community may need, is something that we need to address.” He said there are some exceptions, such as LGBTQ rights, which should be handled at the state level.

Under current state law, the Kansas Secretary of State has the power to appoint the Election Commissioner in the state’s most populous counties, including Johnson County. Are you comfortable with that arrangement? Would you support returning power of selecting all Election Commissioners to the counties? Why or why not?

Rep. Melissa Rooker, the Republican incumbent for District 25.

Melissa Rooker, District 25: Rooker said she thinks the Kansas Secretary of State has power over too many areas, and appointing an election commissioner for Johnson County is one of them. She thinks there should be more oversight on the secretary of state. “There needs to be a wealth of reform with regard to the role of the secretary of state.” She said Kansas needs to fight for control to be given back to Johnson County on selecting its election commissioner, and budget authority should be restored to county commissioners.

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: She said would support numerous reforms to the secretary of state’s office, adding that she thinks it has become “much too powerful.” She said she would support any number of reforms as far as how Johnson County’s election commissioners are selected, such as having the Johnson County commissioners make the decision.

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: Wyatt thinks the presidents of counties should be able to vote for their county commissioners. He said that because the Johnson County commission seats run on a nonpartisan race, then Johnson County voters should be able to vote for the leader. He saw issues in the primary election as well as lawsuits come from this dilemma, so he believes selection of officers should be in control of the people.

Rui Xu, District 25: He agrees with all of his colleagues, adding that the secretary of state has gained too much power, especially prosecutorial power, over the past several years. “We need to have way more say in what goes on with the election commissioner. He failed in many ways in the primary. We need the ability to say, ‘Hey, you are not doing your job. Our tax money is paying for that.” He supports solutions where it is an elected position or a selection by county commissioners.

Would you support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal (and/or recreational) uses in Kansas?

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: Yes, she supports legalization of medicinal marijuana. She also supports recreational legalization. “Full disclosure, I would tax the ever-loving you-know-what of it, though, because that is a good revenue opportunity.” She would like revenues from marijuana tax to fund social services, education and mental health. She doesn’t feel optimistic that the votes will come in for legalization of marijuana, considering how legislators in other parts of the state view the matter.

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: Yes, he would approve legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana. He agrees with taxing marijuana to pay for public services. He sees the criminalization of marijuana, especially for nonviolent offenses, as a problem.

Rui Xu, District 25: Yes, he supports legalizing marijuana, medicinal or recreational. He sees the health benefits of it and is concerned about Kansas residents moving to Colorado to gain legal access for medicinal marijuana treatment. He sees economic benefits of legalizing and taxing marijuana, especially tourism, if Kansas becomes an early adopter of legalization. He also sees the benefit of relieving the criminal justice system concerning marijuana, and reducing prison populations so nonviolent offenders can become productive members of society.

Melissa Rooker, District 25: She supports legalizing medicinal uses of marijuana. She is also concerned with Kansas residents leaving for Colorado to gain access to marijuana treatment. She said it took years to legalize industrial hemp and cannabinoid oil. “It is a long journey to bring our colleagues along on the topic of something as controversial in a lot of minds as marijuana.” She thinks Kansas needs to continue educating to get voters and legislators comfortable with marijuana and modernize Kansas law. She said her mind is open on legalizing recreational marijuana.

Agriculture remains central to the Kansas economy – and it’s an industry greatly affected by the weather and climate. Do you believe climate change poses a threat to Kansas farmers? If so, what could the state be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change?

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: He said climate change is a fact and, going forward, everyone should figure out a way to combat it. As a top producer in wind energy, Kansas could continue developing renewable energy and also focus on more recycling. But he thinks the burden also falls on the federal government to put a plan in place.

Rui Xu, District 25: Xu said climate change is “obviously real” and the state could come up with many ways to combat it, such as developing more renewable energy production and taxing or incentivizing farmers to use greener agricultural methods. He also wants to incentivize reducing urban sprawl and planting rain gardens or barrels. “There’s a lot of ways that we can encourage normal consumers and business leaders to implement policies in a greener and more sustainable way.” He said the effects of climate change may be too close to fully turn them back.

Melissa Rooker, District 25: She said climate change is real and Kansas is making progress as the fifth-ranked state in renewable wind energy production. She also wants to continue focusing on better water quality in Kansas. “It’s time to put the resources into what is probably the single most critical facet of the environmental piece of things for the state and ag producers or individual consumers alike.”

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: She reflected on American history, noting that what would have been called “climate change scientists” at the time of the country’s westward expansion told legislators not to encourage farming and settling west of the 100th meridian, which receives significantly less rainfall. “We knew this was going to happen, and yet this was ignored with the flurry of railroads and the Homestead Act, and a lot of that encouraged expansion.” She said Kansas should encourage generational farming families with economic incentives to produce wind energy.

What needs to happen to solve the court fight over K-12 funding for the foreseeable future, and how would you help achieve that goal in the coming session if elected?

Rui Xu, District 25: Xu said the courts have outlined a path for the foreseeable future, but the state needs to add an adjustment for inflation to achieve adequate funding. He does have some concerns over terms such as “equitable under the present circumstances.” As things change, he has concerns the courts may change their minds. He would continue to look at the equity portion of the school funding formula. He thinks electing pro-public education officials is a good solution to keeping the school funding formula problem out of the courts.

Melissa Rooker, District 25: She thinks the path ahead is “very clear cut” although it’s not necessarily easier to get there. Adjusting the total dollars Kansas appropriated for inflation is “the specific direction we got.” She thinks there are still many choices on how funding can be “injected into the system,” such as increasing the base funding for people over the next four years of the plan. She said the formula in place will adjust for inflation “once this escalation of funding has been fully realized.” She said she will not support constitutional change.

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: She said Kansas courts laid out “a simple, cut-and-dry approach” to the school funding formula. She said that if nothing changed, the legislature has “more than enough” votes to stop a constitutional change from occurring. She is “strongly on the record” against pitting education against other state services, what she calls “a false drama” that backs legislators into corners on making hard decisions. She asks voters to choose stability, not a dramatic state legislature.

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: He said the courts made clear what needs to happen regarding inflation and the school funding formula. He said Kansas voters should elect pro-education officials. “Everyone up here wants to fund our schools to make sure that the mixed generation has all the advantages they need; it’s a matter of electing the people that will continue to do that.” He thinks that if issues with the budget come up, then education should be a top priority. He doesn’t support making a constitutional amendment.

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

Melissa Rooker, District 25: She said she would meet the state’s obligation to schools and approve funding for higher education and early childhood programming. She would also put funding in mental health services, transportation needs, broadband services and the 50-year water plan as well as services such as emergency services that have been “really drastically harmed” by budget cuts, such as the Kansas Forest Service agency. “With caution, with a measured approach, we’ve asked our K-12 schools to take a phased-in approach, so it’s fair to ask other agencies to understand that we are trying to balance the needs across an entire state budget.” She also recommends having a rainy day fund.

Stephanie Clayton, District 19: She agrees with Rooker’s comments, adding that not only should the state follow its constitutional obligation to fund schools, but she would also “kick in more money” to schools to give more than “good enough” education for students, not just good enough. She also wants to restore funding to higher education and the Department of Children and Families, although that department requires more transparency and oversight. She would also like to provide “an intelligent and measured tax relief.”

Stephen Wyatt, District 19: He agrees with Rooker and Clayton’s comments, adding that he thinks infrastructure and higher education should be funded. He is concerned with students graduating with “life-crushing debt,” so he wants to consider other states’ programs that fund two-year community college or vocational school for students, which has economic benefits and a more educated population.

Rui Xu, District 25: Xu said he would like to ensure funding of Kansas schools and restore funding for agencies whose budgets were slashed, such as the children and families, transportation and pension departments. He would also like to expand Medicaid. “We have to make sure that all Americans have access to affordable healthcare; it is immoral that the richest country in the world does not allow that to happen.” He would also like to invest in alternative energy sources, especially wind energy, and provide more tax incentives for green ideas.