K-12 school funding, legalizing marijuana, eliminating income tax: Candidates for districts 16, 23 and 30 get into the issues

Candidate forum
Candidates for districts 16, 23 and 30 gave their thoughts on the big issues facing Kansas as they prepare for the Nov. 6 general election.

Our candidate forum recaps wrap with last week’s forum for the district 16, 23 and 30 candidates.

Candidates who spoke at the Oct. 24 forum include: Democratic incumbent Cindy Holscher for District 16 and Republican challenger Susan “Sue” Huff; Republican incumbent Linda Gallagher for District 23 and Democratic challenger Susan Ruiz; and Democratic candidate Brandon Woodard and Republican candidate Wendy Bingesser for District 30.

Here’s a list of questions and each candidate’s response.

Would you support a constitutional amendment that would clearly define what level of K-12 school funding is needed to provide a “suitable” education for Kansas kids?

Cindy Holscher, District 16: Her short answer is no because Kansas “already knows that figure.” In 2008, when schools were fully funded and adjusted for inflation, the figure was already in place, she said, adding that some have claimed that the courts still need to define that figure. “When we look at the whole framework of who wants this constitutional amendment, these are the same people who brought us the failed Brownback experiment,” Holscher said. “They are the ones pushing for it, and I have no doubt that when this next session starts, when we are getting closer to fully funding our schools but we still have a little ways to go, that will be the talk: ‘We need to change the constitution.’” She said the current framework was put in place so legislators would fully fund schools.

Sue Huff, District 16: She said she would support a constitutional amendment. Courts for the past two decades were actually legislating, not litigating, she said, by telling legislators how much they needed to spend. A constitutional amendment would ensure courts do their job and legislators do their job.

Linda Gallagher, District 23: She said she would not support a constitutional amendment, adding that the constitution already requires Kansas to provide a suitable education for students: Meaning “equitable” and “adequate, according to the Kansas Supreme Court’s interpretation. Gallagher said the courts have been wrestling for more than 20 years on what qualifies as “equitable” and “adequate.” The school funding formula passed this year has reached equity, she said, and it addresses the “many variables between districts.” “Regarding adequacy, we are almost there but not quite,” she said, adding that the Supreme Court ruled in June that Kansas legislators need to put more funding in schools to cover inflation. “I believe we can do that through existing revenues without raising taxes.” She said she opposes a plan for a different constitutional amendment to remove the Supreme Court’s authority that defines what is adequate in school funding. She said the three governmental branches need checks and balance.

Susan Ruiz, District 23: She said she would not support a constitutional amendment, adding that she believes every child needs equal access to education, and the courts have been battling too long with this issue. “It’s time to just end it; we need to move on,” she said, adding that the next legislature will be able to fully fund Kansas schools.

Wendy Bingesser, District 30: She said she would not support a constitutional amendment “that would make us determine what is ‘suitable.’” She said the issue is about funding in general, and “it’s really up to our school boards” to determine what is suitable for its schools.

Brandon Woodard, District 30: His short answer: No. He said he thinks Kansas has “failed an entire generation of Kansas public school students,” and legislators need to make sure they fully fund schools. “Every Republican-led study that the legislature has commissioned has said we need to add more funding to our public schools, so we need to make sure to do that,” he said, adding that he believes schools are the foundation in giving Kansas children a meaningful education. He said he’s proud to be the only candidate for District 30 that is supported by pro-education groups such as Game On for Kansas Schools, Education First Shawnee Mission and the MainStream Coalition.

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

Sue Huff, District 16: She said she would not support legalization of marijuana. “The statistics show that marijuana, whether you believe it or not, is a gateway drug,” she said. “It’s just that simple. One thing leads to another.” She said her cousin lost her son to a heroin overdose because he started with marijuana.

Cindy Holscher, District 16: She said studies are conclusive that medicinal marijuana is a “viable medicine” with less side effects that many FDA-approved drugs. “And guess what? It’s less addictive than caffeine,” she said, adding that some cancer patients and veterans are addicted to opioids and would have less side effects if they had medicinal marijuana as an alternative. “Once again, this is an issue where the people are ahead of the politics,” she said, adding that nearly 75 percent of Kansans are in favor of legalization. “But, our legislature has been hindered by far-right leadership and 60 years of propaganda.” She said Kansas legislators needs to educate their peers “so they understand what we’re talking about here.”

Linda Gallagher, District 23: She said she would “absolutely” support legalizing medicinal cannabis. She had a constituent whose daughter is “severely” epileptic, and “they live in constant fear of her having a potential fatal seizure.” Her doctor recommended medicinal cannabis, so they moved to Colorado. “They are now medical refugees and can never return to Kansas to visit their relatives unless Kansas passes medical cannabis law,” she said. She has been asked to reintroduce a medicinal marijuana bill, so after the election, she will “take a hard look at that.” “I definitely support medical cannabis, and I want to make sure we do it right and cover all the bases so that only the people who need it for medical purposes get it,” she said, adding that she would be open to considering legalization of recreational marijuana, but “I’d have to be convinced first.” She worries about people driving while impaired by marijuana.

Susan Ruiz, District 23: She said she also supports legalizing medical marijuana. Studies have shown that medicinal marijuana can decrease pain, she said, adding that medicinal marijuana could decrease the use of opiates, which have “lots of side effects.” “To know that families have to move to another state in order to get marijuana for their children and never come back to their home state, it’s just very sad to me,” she said, adding that she’s open to considering legalization of recreational marijuana, but it requires regulation. She’d like to look at sentencing laws as well.

Wendy Bingesser, District 30: She said Kansas legislators first need to look at the legalization of industrial hemp. She’s also an advocate of cancer research and would want to consider legalization of pharmaceutical-grade of medicinal marijuana. “You don’t realize how many people are touched by cancer, and how much the fight is just unbearable for some of them,” she said. “So yes, when it comes to pharmaceutical use of marijuana, as long as it is regulated in that way by the FDA or we can regulate it for patients, I have no problem with that.”

Brandon Woodard, District 30: He said he would “absolutely support” legalizing medicinal marijuana. His district’s current representative, Randy Powell, said last year that he believed marijuana use was leading to deaths in Colorado, he added. “If you Google it, that’s not the case, so I think that we need to make sure that we have people in Topeka that are going to listen to facts and listen to research and use that to inform their decisions on issues,” he said. Senior residents in a retirement community had recently pressed their support for recreational marijuana, he said, adding that if Kansas is going to be innovative in its agricultural future, “we have to make sure that that’s the next cash crop.” As long as Kansas is regulating and taxing marijuana, he would support legalization of recreational marijuana.

What area of state government needs the most improvement — and how can it be fixed?

Linda Gallagher, District 23: She said she’s “partial” to the issue of reforming the state’s child welfare system, adding that she helped write and pass legislation to authorize a task force to fix the system. They tackle issues such as reintegration and permanency placement. “We all know, we’ve read headlines about the problems in the child welfare system; it is expensive,” she said, adding that Kansas has record numbers of children entering the system, and they are not leaving as fast as they are entering. “So that is putting tremendous pressure at every point along the system,” she said, adding that Kansas has about 7,500 children in foster care today, compared with about 6,000 two years ago. “We’ve just got to solve this problem,” she said. “We’ve had child deaths, we’ve had increasing numbers of children being removed from home just because of substance abuse by their parents. If we can get the substance abuse help to the parents that they need, maybe we can keep those families together.” She said the state doesn’t have enough foster homes either.

Susan Ruiz, District 23: She said would want to focus on expanding Medicaid. Rural Kansans have to drive for miles to get urgent or primary care because rural hospitals are closing, she said, adding that practitioners can’t afford to stay and provide services. “We really need to look at that and how it impacts the rest of the state,” she said, adding that Kansas has increased costs in other parts of the state while trying to help rural areas with this issue.

Wendy Bingesser, District 30: She said she wants to focus on supporting the aging population. “We’re all going to get older,” she said. “If we don’t fix the system now, we’re all going to be messed up.” She said many grandparents are taking care of their children now, and they face financial and emotional responsibilities of parents, and “they’re stuck.” “We need to help them; that would get kids out of foster care,” she said, adding that she works with active agers every day, and “they don’t have a voice.”

Brandon Woodard, District 30: He said he would like to address public education funding, especially for higher education. The state is “getting closer to where we need to be” in funding K-12 schools. He is concerned with the state making “consecutive cuts over the last decade” to higher education institutions, including community colleges and vocational and technical schools. He said Kansas needs to make sure that every student who would like to continue their education after high school “has the opportunity to do so.” With the cuts, Kansas has seen a “drastic” increase in tuition because state funding now only makes up about 17 percent of the revenues of KU and K-State, he said, adding that those institutions are conducting research that is making the world better, such as studies on cancer and climate change. “We have to make sure that our students want to go to schools here in Kansas and can afford to do so, but also feel like we as a state are investing in them and their future,” he said. “So to build the next workforce of tomorrow, we have to make sure to restore the funding to our higher education institutions.”

Cindy Holscher, District 16: She said “so many important services” have undergone “severe cuts,” so it’s difficult to pick one area on which to focus. She said so much work needs to be done on the foster system and Medicaid expansion for the working poor. One area she said needs attention is the state’s “impending” water crisis, especially because Kansas is using water from the Ogallala Aquifer at a faster rate than it can be replenished. “I’ll give Gov. Brownback credit; he did do this big study on the water plant,” she said, adding that the state has a good 50-year water plan, but the state has “never been able to fund it.”

Sue Huff, District 16: She said she thinks the child welfare system is the most important on which to focus. She cited a lack of resources and foster homes for children in the system. “I would like to support more money going towards DCF, developing some foster families,” she said.

Several years ago, there was an attempt to gradually reduce the income tax in the state of Kansas down to zero, the idea being that reducing the income tax would spur economic growth and attract people to the state. Would you support any efforts to attempt to eliminate the income tax in the state of Kansas?

Susan Ruiz, District 23: She said she would like to be “at the table” when that discussion is revisited in legislature so she can have a more informed opinion about the issue. “I don’t want to say no or yes; I need to be more informed about that,” she said.

Linda Gallagher, District 23: She said Kansas has tried it already and “it was a dismal failure.” She voted in the 2017 tax reform bill to roll back the Brownback tax cuts of 2012, and she voted to override the governor’s veto. “Had we not done that, we would be in an even deeper budget hole now, and we would not have been able to put more than $800 million into schools over the next five years as we have,” she said. “We would not be able to put a lot more money into DCF, to address all of the major problems we’ve talked about. We would not have the money to do any of those things, had we not ended the Brownback tax experiment.” She said the state should not let any taxes get disproportionately high “because it disadvantages some class of taxpayer,” such as the food sales tax, which she thinks is too high. She said passing the current tax bill put businesses back on the tax rolls.

Wendy Bingesser, District 30: She said she would support eliminating state income tax, adding that the government does “need taxes to pay for some things.” “We do need taxes, so I don’t know how we would eliminate that, but I would like to not pay taxes,” she said. “I guess the rest of us probably wouldn’t either. I don’t see how it’s feasible for us to do that, but it’s a great thing to think about, not paying income tax.” She said she’d love to be able to support it.

Brandon Woodard, District 30: He said he would not support eliminating state income tax, citing the “Brownback experiment” which “failed miserably.” Looking at the tax policy in Kansas, he said he doesn’t support increasing taxes on the working class, saying he thinks it’s unfair that higher-income residents pay the same percentage of income taxes. “I think Kansas used to have one of the most progressive tax structures in the country, now we have one of the most regressive,” he said, adding that the lowest-income residents are hit the hardest. He would support lowering the food sales tax.

Cindy Holscher, District 16: She said she would “never go back” to the state’s plans of eliminating income tax. The state “barely survived” from the “shot of adrenaline, the Brownback experiment,” when Kansas tried to eliminate income tax, she added. Prior to 2016, Kansas had the eighth most unfair tax system in the nation, she said, adding that people who make the most money seem to get the most exemptions, and people with lower and fixed incomes “get hit the hardest.” “It’s disproportionate, and it’s very unfair,” she said, adding that she would support eliminating or lowering sales tax on food. She said Kansas doesn’t have a large tourism or oil industry, but the state does have great schools and should focus on that. “The whole plan of, ‘We’ll be the state of no income tax:’ It didn’t bring people. It didn’t bring businesses,” she said.

Sue Huff, District 16: She said she would like to look at the option of eliminating income tax, adding that it will depend on a lot of things and there are many moving parts to it. Kansas now has the eighth-highest tax in the United States, “so we’ve gone from one end of the spectrum back to the other,” she said. She would like to look at the option of eliminating some income tax because all of the constituents she’s talked with in her neighborhood are on fixed incomes and are hurting “because we’ve taxed them to death at this point.”

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?

Wendy Bingesser, District 30: She said she would have to look closely at that bill to see if she would support it because the bill had many attachments. “That’s the problem, when bills have things hidden inside of them,” she said. “I think that’s the reason why it was passed by so many people right away. The greatest thing about that is I wish it was more about the kids and not about the adoption.” She said so children need loving homes. “I wasn’t there, so I didn’t read the entire bill, but I’ve been informed there were things attached to it that are non-severed, that if you try to go back on it, that they would be severed out of the adoption act,” she said.

Brandon Woodard, District 30: He said he would not support the bill, calling it the “adoption discrimination bill.” He “firmly” believes that LGBT people deserve representation in Topeka, saying that legislators should not use taxpayer dollars to fund discrimination, “which is what this bill does.” He said the bill allows state agencies to contract with “different adoption placement agencies” that are getting reimbursed with tax dollars but are discriminating against LGBT couples, single people and people with different faith backgrounds, and “I think it’s wrong.”

Cindy Holscher, District 16: She said she is “never” in favor of taking away people’s rights or legislating discrimination, adding that this “particular” statute violates the constitution. “We are not to use taxpayer funds for discrimination; it’s that simple,” she said. “I’m supposed to uphold it (the Constitution) every day, not just when it’s convenient, but every single day, and not just when it fits my own view.”

Sue Huff, District 16: She said she agrees with the bill, adding that she doesn’t see it disqualifying anyone from adopting children. “The matter of the fact was that the agencies that this would have affected were faith-based agencies, and they were not going to be allowed to remain open so they could provide services to these kids,” Huff said. “I don’t care what agency adopts them, but I think that we need all the adoption agencies that we can get to help these kids out, to give them a life where they can be great members of our society.”

Linda Gallagher, District 23: She said she voted against the adoption bill because “voting against it was just the right thing to do.” She called it “legislating discrimination,” saying it would have allowed faith-based agencies to enter into contracts with the Department of Children and Families to handle adoptions. “I could not stand for any use of public funds for any type of discrimination, in this case against LGBT people, who by the way, make very good, loving, adoptive parents,” she said, adding that allowing it is a slippery slope to discriminating other groups of people, such as parents of different faiths. “There’s nothing that says these faith-based agencies can’t continue to operate in Kansas, but they should not be able to use public funds for discriminating against any class of people,” she added.

Susan Ruiz, District 23: She said she is not in favor of the bill “at all” and would want to see it repealed. “Using tax dollars to discriminate against a specific population is wrong, it’s immoral really,” she said, adding that she doesn’t understand why the LGBTQ population was “very specific” to this bill and singled out. “I wonder where it’s going to end; is it going to lead to other types of discrimination?” she asked.