Local candidates for Kansas House share views at Lawrence forums

Democratic candidates running in primaries in Douglas County-area Kansas House seats take part in a forum Saturday, July 14, 2018. They include, from left: 46th District Rep. Boog Highberger; and 45th District candidates Mike Amyx, Steven Davis and Aidan Koster. Highbereger's challenger, Benjamin Ferlo, did not attend. Republican candidates in the 45th and 42nd Districts took part in a separate forum.

Local candidates who are involved in contested primaries for seats in the Kansas House shared their views on issues ranging from school finance and taxes to guns and abortion during a pair of forums Saturday at Lawrence City Hall.

The two Republican primaries that will take place Aug. 7 will showcase clear contrasts between moderate and conservative candidates; the two Democratic primaries feature candidates who generally agree on most issues.

On the Republican side, first-term incumbent Rep. Jim Karleskint, 70, of Tonganoxie, faces a challenge in the 42nd District, which includes eastern Douglas County, from Lance Neelly, 51, also of Tonganoxie, who said he has worked in the corrections and security industry for 25 years.

And in the 45th District GOP primary in western Douglas County, where 12-term incumbent Rep. Tom Sloan, a moderate Republican, is retiring, moderate Cynthia Smith, 59, faces the more conservative Ronald Thacker, 50, a retired Navy officer. Both are from Lawrence.

Karleskint has been a social conservative on some issues, including support for abortion restrictions, gun rights — although he does not favor allowing concealed guns on college campuses — and the recently-passed Adoption Protection Act, which critics say allows the state to contract with faith-based child welfare agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples or people from other faiths.

But on issues of taxes and school finance, he voted with moderate Republicans and Democrats in favor of bills phasing in a $500 million increase in annual school funding over five years, reversing former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax policies and expanding Medicaid.

“I ran two years ago because I felt like the state of Kansas was going in the wrong direction,” he said during the forum. “I’m very pleased that I feel like the last two years we have turned a corner and we’re going in the right direction for the state of Kansas.”

Neelly, however, said that’s what inspired him to challenge Karleskint.

“We have a serious money management problem and continue to throw money at issues without fixing the problems,” Neelly said. “I’m undeniably pro-life and I promise to uphold and defend our constitutional rights like the Second Amendment.”

Smith, an attorney who has worked for Kansas City Power & Light as well as a number of nonprofit child welfare agencies, said she hopes to follow in the footsteps of retiring Rep. Tom Sloan by keeping the 45th District in the hands of moderate Republicans.

“If we are to have any say in what happens, we need to send a Republican to the Statehouse,” she said. “The fact is, Republicans are the majority party in Kansas, so we’re in charge of the agenda, we’re in charge of what the Legislature chooses to work on.”

Smith said she favors expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and although she said she supports the Second Amendment, she added: “I’m eager to do what we can to make our schools safe.”

Thacker, on the other hand, said he opposes expanding Medicaid. He also said he thinks the Kansas Supreme Court overstepped its authority when it ordered the Legislature to increase funding for public schools.

“The Supreme Court are not educators. They are not budget specialists. They are not legislators,” he said. “They should not be determining the adequacy or the funding of our schools.”

All of the Republicans except Karleskint said they would support putting a constitutional amendment before voters limiting the authority of the Supreme Court in school finance cases. Karleskint said he would only do so if urged to by his constituents, which he said hasn’t happened yet.

Most of the Democratic forum focused on the 45th District, a seat Democrats believe they stand to pick up this year. There, former Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx, 65, Lawrence resident Steven Davis, 29, and attorney Aidan Koster, 38, are vying to do just that.

All three of those candidates generally agreed on major issues raised at the forum. They support abortion rights, expanding Medicaid, lowering the state sales tax on food and legalizing marijuana, at least for medical purposes. They also said they opposed the Adoption Protection Act and would oppose any constitutional amendment limiting the Supreme Court’s authority in school finance cases.

Meanwhile, 46th District Rep. Boog Highberger, whose primary challenger, University of Kansas student Benjamin Ferlo, did not attend the forum, said he agreed with those positions as well, especially in opposing a constitutional amendment on school finance.

“Can you imagine what state our schools would be in today if there was not judicial oversight of public school funding for the last 25 years?” he said. “Without judicial oversight, there would be no requirement at all on public schools. We could have a privatized education system.”

The forum was sponsored by the Voter Education Coalition.

The deadline to register to vote in time for the Aug. 7 primary is this coming Tuesday, July 17. Advance voting begins Wednesday, July 18.

VEC State House Candidate Forums 7/14/18

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