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Election represents a crossroads for suburban Kansas City Senate district

District 10’s representation in the Kansas Senate could look very different in 2021 depending on who voters to choose to represent them in the Nov. 3 general election. The incumbent, State Sen. Mike Thompson, and the challenger, Shawnee City Councilmember Lindsey Constance, diverge on issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to the state’s COVID-19 response to this past summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention the topic of climate change.

Represented by state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook for more than a decade, the district includes parts of Bonner Springs, Merriam, Overland Park, Shawnee, as well as Lake Quivira. The district is shaping up to be a bellwether for the political tilt of the Kansas City suburbs. Pilcher-Cook won re-election narrowly in 2016. Although the district backed President Donald Trump that year, it went for Democrat Laura Kelly in the 2018 Kansas governor’s race.

When Pilcher-Cook resigned in January, Thompson was appointed to fill the vacancy, bringing a similar conservative political orientation as Pilcher-Cook’s to the post. In choosing between Thompson and Constance, voters will decide whether to stick with that direction or go a different route.

Here’s a look at how the candidates see key issues in this year’s elections based on answers they provided to questions from The Journal and publicly available information:

Kansas Senate District 10

Mike Thompson (Republican) and Lindsey Constance (Democrat)

Mike Thompson

What are your views on Medicaid expansion? And how would you like to see the Legislature resolve the debate over it?

I’m very, very worried. I think that if you look at what Medicaid should do, it was intended and currently serves the most vulnerable in our society – older folks, the disabled, pregnant women. And we still have a waitlist in Kansas that we’re not fulfilling. There are about 5,000 Kansans who we’re not being able to take care of. And some of those are the most vulnerable, the intellectually and developmentally disabled, who will never be able to take care of themselves. And if we expand Medicaid, it’s going to make it impossible to fulfill our promises to those people. I think, in my view, we need to shorten or look at shortening the waitlist for those people who need the help because that’s their critical safety net. The problem with expanding Medicaid is that it includes able bodied adults. And there’s a lot of them that would be kicked off their private plans. There’s a pretty good cohort of folks who already have private plans through their employers and they would be kicked off those plans in favor of a Medicaid plan that actually in most cases is more expensive, has higher deductibles, higher out of pocket maximum, plus a lot of doctors don’t take Medicaid. It would actually probably reduce their access to medical care. The bottom line is, it would harm the folks who are truly needy and who already need our help. The state spending would just go out the door. And you’ve seen this and other states that have expanded Medicaid. It would make it even harder for us to take care of those cohorts that absolutely need Medicaid.

There’s a lot of waste, fraud and abuse in the current system, unfortunately. It just creates a lot of problems so I’m not in favor of expanding Medicaid. I understand that people see it as a way to help folks. But if you really examine all the issues surrounding Medicaid, my concern is that it actually hurts who we are trying to help.

What should the government’s role be in facilitating economic recovery from the covid 19 pandemic? And are there specific things that you would like to see done or not done?

Obviously, we’ve got a lot of people who have lost their jobs. A lot of businesses who are really, really struggling and I think some of the things that we’ve already done to try to help them are good. You want to try to get them back on their feet as fast as possible. And, in my opinion, some of the things we could do is to try to reduce the number of regulations and some of the hoops they have to jump through to get some of these loans.

I had problems with the whole way that we did this by shutting down, framing some businesses as essential and non-essential. I’m on the Special Committee on the Emergency Management Act to look at that Act that gives the governor the powers, any governor not just this governor, the powers to act in an emergency and particularly for this kind of situation. I think the biggest frustration for me in this is that I had a lot of constituents who had a lot of confusion over what the government was going to do.

I think we need to make it so that the act is very explicit about what they can expect if another situation like this comes down the pike. In other words, give the governor a specific amount of time to react. But then start getting the Legislature involved because my hands were tied to do anything. Or suggest anything. It went from the Governor to the state finance council through this entire process. The whole legislature was cut out. So my idea would be to open it up so that the Governor had a very short period of time to react. And again, this is not just the current governor, it’s any future governor. Then expand the state finance council so you get more voices in there to look at the problems that are happening. Then after a short period of time with them, force the legislature to come back. Because then I think you get everybody’s voices involved. I’m still dealing with people in my area whose business is down 70 to 80 percent. I talked to some folks who are probably going to shut their doors, even though they got the loans and grants.

We’ve got to get people engaged in this economy. And that means giving them clear information about a pandemic. You’ve seen WHO and the CDC flip flop on their views. And when you’ve got agencies like that informing the government and then the government is putting out information that may or may not be factual. It’s kind of a moving target.

I think we’ve got to examine how we approach getting information out. I don’t think there are any businesses that should be deemed unessential. There are a lot of small businesses that should have been open because they could have complied just the way the Home Depots and the Price Choppers did. Those are important things.

Then going forward with the economy, we’ve got to find a way to get people engaged in this economy. Take the fear factor out of it. You look at the situation now, yes there are a lot of deaths. But a lot of them are because people die with comorbidities. Two and three comorbidities. The flu is worse for the kids than this stuff. This is a tough nut to crack. It really is. I think we have to look at a lot of different things. And I think we can learn from this situation and make some changes to legislation that will help add clarity for future emergencies.

It’s not a simple soundbite kind of answer. There’s a lot of things going on. You know, financially how do we help them? Well, we can’t raise taxes on them. We’ve got to do things that we would normally do to encourage economic activity. I think we got to look at sales tax issues, property tax issues and utility bills, for example. We’re running some of our biggest employers in the state out. They’re considering leaving because our electric bills are so high. We’ve got to address those sorts of things too.

The pandemic further exposed Lack of broadband access in parts of the state and other divides in access to internet service. What do you think should be done?

That’s a really good question. And a tough one because you know how fast technology expands and advances these days. Anytime you devote X amount of dollars towards a technology these days it becomes obsolete in a couple of years. I know that there was a rural broadband component to the KDOT Forward Bill this year. That was one of the concerns. It was a 10-year plan. But how do we know what that technology is going to look like in 10 years? Are we going to devote millions of dollars toward expanding that and then all of a sudden it’s obsolete? And then we have to rethink the whole process again and three four or five years? I have concerns about devoting too much effort from a governmental standpoint or spending too much money in that regard. Maybe we can include and encourage the private sector to look at how that can be accomplished in a more efficient manner. Private enterprise is much more nimble than government as you know.

 I agree that obviously we need to have everybody have the access because of telemedicine and there’s a lot more Internet business activity. That is a tough one. That’s a real tough one. But I would be very cautious. I think going forward about trying to devote too much energy to a long-term plan because we got this 5G coming up. Who knows? It may all end up being satellite delivery in five years and that improves dramatically? Like I said, I would approach with great caution but try to look at all solutions and include the private sector as much as humanly possible.

What key lessons would you like to see Kansans take away from the pandemic and the response to it? Do you see the need for changes as a result of what’s happened?

There were parts of the state that were unaffected for a long, long time and yet we had a statewide order emergency order. I think going forward getting more voices involved quicker and being very, very clear on the messaging so people can make their own decisions. I think that’s the important thing. I think you can’t necessarily rely on a government to make all the decisions because all individuals know their risk levels. They know their risk tolerances. They know their individual health issues. So to the extent that we can be more of an advisory role than mandating things, I think it would be a lot better. In other words, you get information about a pandemic. You say hey we, here’s what we know about it. It’s extremely virulent. We know that it affects certain people this way. Here are our suggestions of things you can do to protect yourself and protect your business. Then let those individuals make those adjustments as best they can. I think to the extent we can, we’ve got to trust people and their knowledge and ability to distill information. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I would think is that we jumped too quickly to shut down this economy when I think it should be a lot, much more measured. Western Kansas, as it spread that way then they can adapt as necessary but they were shut down for a long time and it was unnecessary. I think that one-size fits all solutions are usually extremely cumbersome. That’s what I had a problem with in this situation. And I think we’re going to address that in the Emergency Management Act by trying to get more voices involved in the process quicker. By trying to call the legislature back. The way it is now, you have to come back with a two-thirds vote or the governor could call you back. Well, neither of those things are going to happen in this situation. I see the need to get the Legislature back if it’s a true big statewide emergency. After a certain period call us all back because I think then you hear from all parts of the state and all people. And we can get a much more nimble response.

How should legislators respond to the events of this summer (such as the prison outbreaks of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and concerns about preserving law and order) in shaping the state’s criminal justice system for the future? 

I’ve talked to a lot of different police officers just out there on the campaign trail. I think a lot of them are concerned. Their recruiting is down. They see all these riots and all the violence in other parts of the country. I think first of all we need to support and let our law enforcement people know that they have our support. I think that’s very, very important. Without them we’ve got anarchy, quite honestly. The recruiting nationwide is down 60% so there’s not a lot of people looking at the situation, and with how vulnerable our police forces have been, that are willing to go into that profession these days. I think we’ve got to do what we can to encourage more people, top-quality people, to get involved in law enforcement. And we’ve got to show that we support them. I think that’s very, very important.

This goes back to the health component of this: The prison (covid-19 outbreaks) is kind of like nursing homes. It’s a tough nut to crack because they’re in close quarters. I know some prisoners who’ve been in lockdown for a long, long time in some of these prisons, because of the concern over the spread of the virus. That is a tough one. I would think that we ensure that we get the PPE to those locations as best we can. And work with the health department as best we can to get them the accurate information they need to deal with it.

You know, with regard to nursing homes, the thing that bothered me about the nursing home situation is that we were unable to get full liability for the nursing homes. And as a result, a lot of folks have older parents, even spouses, who have been without contact with their family for months. I talked to one lady who put her husband in a nursing home. He has Alzheimer’s. They put him in there on Valentine’s Day and has not seen him since, because she can’t get in to see him. It might have loosened up since I’ve talked to her but you know it’s kind of sad. We have to understand there’s a mental health component to this. Isolation is a problem for a lot of folks in those areas and in the prisons. You lock people up and you start getting issues beyond the Covid-19. I think we have to keep things as normal as humanly possible and still balance that we’re practicing good medicine. That’s a tough thing to do and that’s something we’re going have to look at going forward.

Lindsey Constance

Lindsey Constance Kansas Senate

Please briefly introduce yourself.

I’m a Shawnee City Councilmember, President of Climate Action KC, educator in the Shawnee Mission School District, wife, and mom of two.

If elected this fall, what would be your top priority while in office?

My students and children serve as my primary motivators in life, and my top priority is creating a brighter future for them and all Kansas children. As a mother, teacher, and local leader, I know that we need to come together in Topeka to fight for solutions for our families, including protecting funding for our excellent public schools; expanding access to affordable healthcare and protections for pre-existing conditions; and stabilizing the budget by making smart investments in our future.

These are tough times. Kansans will likely need elected officials willing to lead on a number of difficult challenges. As an office holder, how will you work in service of helping us navigate this period of distress and strengthen our communities, state and nation for the long term? Please share your thoughts in a few sentences.

As President and Co-Founder of Climate Action KC, I’m a proven leader in identifying ways to strengthen our communities long-term in response to a devastating crisis. I believe problems are best solved by bringing together all of the stakeholders and identifying commonsense, data-driven solutions that work for our communities, families, and businesses. I have worked with hundreds of local, state, and regional leaders to identify solutions and opportunities to make our metropolitan area more resilient; I will bring this same approach to the problems our state faces in the legislature.

What’s the biggest problem in health care right now?

The Community Health Needs Assessment for our areas showed the top 3 problems to be: 1) Lack of resources for mental health 2) Rising healthcare costs and lack of health coverage 3) chronic disease in communities of color

How do you feel about the current level of government involvement in health care?

It’s not involved enough

What should the future of health care be in your view? Would you prioritize making it more affordable, more accessible, or something else? To what extent should the government be involved, and should it be doing the same, less or more than it is now?Please explain your views in a few sentences.

Healthcare is not affordable nor accessible for many Kansans, and the legislature has failed to pass meaningful legislation to address either of these problems. The first step is expanding Medicaid to provide affordable and accessible healthcare to as many as 150,000 Kansans. This is the government’s responsibility, and it is incumbent on the legislature to do so as soon as possible, given our country’s current health and economic crises. There are many other opportunities for the government to invest in programs that would make healthcare more accessible and affordable for Kansans, including legislation addressing surprise medical billing, prescription drug costs, mental health programs, disease and addiction prevention programs, and nutritional programs. Investing in Kansans’ health and wellness will not only drive down long-term costs, but will create stronger families, communities, and economies.

How should the Legislature resolve the ongoing debate about Medicaid expansion?

It should pass Medicaid expansion.

In a few sentences, please explain your thinking on how the Legislature should resolve the Medicaid Expansion debate and your views on the issue.

I believe that it is critical to expand Medicaid in order to provide as many as 150,000 Kansans with access to healthcare, keep local hospitals and clinics open, and maintain and create essential jobs across the state. Kansas taxpayer dollars belong right here to the benefit of hardworking Kansans. A healthier, more productive workforce helps our state economy grow. For the rural communities in Kansas, expanding Medicaid helps ensure their hospital doors remain open, providing essential care to Kansas across our state.

What should government’s role be in facilitating economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there specific things you would like to see done or not done?

Our leaders need to look for opportunities in the challenges we’ve faced this year to identify ways to improve Kansans’ lives in the long-term while reducing the burden experienced by working families. Expanding Medicaid and broadband access will help our fellow Kansans stay healthy and get back to work during these uncertain times. Both policies will also create jobs and infrastructure that will strengthen our economy and communities long after we’ve defeated this virus.

What would you prioritize when dealing with shortfalls in revenues that fund state services? What would you do about taxes? How would you deal with the state budget’s funding for K-12 education?

Although there is much uncertainty right now, I am committed to moving Kansas forward with renewable energy, comprehensive transportation and infrastructure planning, sustainable and prosperous agricultural practices, and continued investments in education, which is the foundation of a strong economy. All of these create good-paying jobs and ensure a vibrant future for the next generation of Kansans. I support responsible and balanced tax policy in Kansas with a “3 legged stool” approach, relying on property, income, and sales tax. The Brownback experiment created an unbalanced system, relying too much on property and sales tax. As a local elected official, I know my constituents are struggling under this system with higher than ever property taxes, and so the system needs to be stabilized to create relief for everyday working Kansans. With 16 years of experience as a public school teacher and a Masters in Educational Policy, my commitment to education is unwavering. I have experienced firsthand the detrimental impact inadequate funding can have on our schools. During the Brownback era of tax cuts, I experienced teacher pay decline and a lack of classroom supplies. Only recently have our K-12 schools been adequately funded, and as we’re recovering from the economic consequences of COVID, I do not want our state to move backwards in our commitment to funding schools. Kansas kids, families, and businesses deserve better, and as state senator I will make education funding a priority.

The pandemic further exposed a lack of broadband access in parts of the state and other divides in access to Internet service. What do you think should be done?

Reliable, efficient infrastructure is critical to the health and vitality of our state. COVID-19 has shown us that reliable, high-speed internet connection is more important than ever for businesses and workers. Our state should invest in new technology, which will help future-proof our infrastructure, present cost savings for the state, and promote economic development.

How would you evaluate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Kansas thus far?

The adequacy of the response has varied depending on the jurisdiction. Our health experts are doing their best to make recommendations to mitigate the spread, and our elected leaders are doing their best to balance these recommendations with the needs of working families and small businesses. That being said, we clearly have lots of room for improvement. We need to increase our testing and contact tracing, provide accurate information on cases in our areas, and provide clear guidelines on best practices for stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Should the COVID-19 pandemic continue into 2021, what would your top priority be?

Stopping the spread and keeping the economy going directly impact one another and are both critical in protecting the lives and livelihoods of Kansans. Mitigating the spread of the virus is key to keeping people healthy and safe, which is what allows our businesses and schools to open safely.

What key lessons would like to see Kansans take away from the pandemic and the response to it? Do you see the need for changes as a result of what’s happened?

Kansans are resilient, and in my work as both a teacher and President of Climate Action KC, I’ve found that when we work together to solve complex problems, we come out stronger. I’m proud of the work our communities have done to support families, small businesses, and workers throughout this pandemic, but have been disappointed in legislative leadership’s decisions to play political games with our lives and livelihoods. We need to elect leaders who will listen to experts and data when making decisions.

How should legislators respond to the events of this summer (such as the prison outbreaks of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and concerns about preserving law and order) in shaping the state’s criminal justice system for the future? 

Legislators should affirm that Black Lives Matter, listen to and learn from the experiences of their Black constituents, and commit to identifying solutions that address systemic racism. Many of our decisions in government have consequences beyond our original intent, and it is difficult for legislators to recognize the impact on a community a decision might have without that community’s voice at the table. On the city council and as President of Climate Action KC, I have advocated for and sought out collaboration with stakeholders and the community before voting on an issue or deciding a course of action, and I will continue to approach my decision-making this way in the legislature. 

Navigating the Pandemic Election

How to Vote and Be an Engaged Citizen During a Time of Disruption, Conflict and Uncertainty A KLC Journal Magazine Virtual Launch Event and Discussion Join us from 5-6:15 PM. on Thursday, Oct. 22, for the virtual release of the KLC Journal magazine’s Fall Edition with a focus on issues and voting in one of the most unusual elections most of us have ever seen.

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