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Pandemic response, Medicaid expansion divide Hays area House District contenders

With parts of northwest Kansas seeing a recent surge in cases of COVID-19, the two candidates running to represent the 111th District in the Kansas House see the issue of containing the pandemic very differently.

State Rep. Barb Wasinger, a Republican, is critical of Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide stay-at-home order earlier in the pandemic and opposes similar restrictions even if the situation gets worse in the months to come. Wasinger didn’t reply to a Journal questionnaire about election issues. However, she told Smoky Hills PBS during a debate that enacting restrictions that impacted every county equally closed too many small businesses and hurt the economy,

“The first mistake we made was just a complete blanket closure of everything,” Wasinger said. “I think if we all just respect one another and take care of ourselves as well as our families, I think we will be well. The state needs to remember that we’re both rural and urban and both need to be treated differently.”

Eber Phelps, a longtime Democratic legislator who Wasinger unseated by 35 votes two years ago, says state officials need to make their decisions based on scientific evidence and guidance from health officials. The statewide shutdown helped the state get out in front of the virus and limit the damage, he says. 

“We need to maintain this proactive approach,” Phelps said. “Unfortunately, the pandemic did turn into a political issue a long time ago, as opposed to a medical issue, where you want to listen to medical scientists telling you how to deal with this.” 

From Phelps’ perspective, a national push to reopen faster has undermined what was gained this past spring. He blames President Trump for not heeding the advice of health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“At the very beginning, if the President would have just let everybody listen to Dr. Fauci, follow his lead, we may really have flattened the curve,” Phelps said. “But we didn’t do that.” 

No county in northwest Kansas had more cases of COVID-19 than Ellis County, more than 1,300 through late October. It has a higher case rate per 1,000 people than Sedgwick and Johnson counties, which had been pandemic hotspots earlier in the pandemic. In addition, recent outbreaks in Northon, Sheridan and Gove counties have made the region one of the nation’s newest COVID-19 hotspots, according to The New York Times.

Wasinger and Phelps don’t just disagree on COVID-19. They also differ significantly on the issue of Medicaid expansion. Wasinger voted against it in 2019 and says the state especially can’t afford it during a time of economic recovery from the pandemic.

“We have a budget crunch this year because of the COVID crisis and the only way to do that is to raise taxes across the board,” Wasinger told Smoky Hills PBS. “What I’ve heard door-to-door is they’re worried about whether or not they’ll have a job tomorrow with businesses closing.”

Phelps voted in favor of Medicaid expansion while serving in the Legislature in 2017. He says rural hospitals would benefit mightily from the program and he would support it again.

“The big winners are rural hospitals,” Phelps said. “I think that shows a disconnect with some people realizing that not realizing that even $80,000 or $90,000 to a rural hospital is a big deal. In my location here, Hays Medical Center, probably would get just under a million dollars a year. That’s a pretty good resource to add to their budget, as far as maybe new staff members or equipment. If I’m elected, that’s one of the first things we should do.

House District 111 includes many of the most populated areas of Ellis County, including all of Hays, Victoria and Munjor. Phelps served in the Legislature from 1997 until he was defeated by a Republican in 2012. He won back the seat in 2016, only to lose narrowly to Wasinger in 2018. The district has voted heavily in favor of Republicans in recent years, with Trump winning 71% of the vote in 2016 and Republican Kris Kobach defeating Democrat Laura Kelly 48%-42% here in the 2018 race for governor. 

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 House District 111

Barb Wasinger (Republican) and Eber Phelps (Democrat) 

Barb Wasinger

The Journal did not receive answers to its questions from Barb Wasinger. Below is a summary of her views based on publicly available data.

Views on Medicaid expansion:

Wasinger told Smoky Hills PBS:

“Health care affects everyone across the state. What we’re neglecting to look at is Medicaid expansion alone will cost the state between $80-$90 million and we’ll have to take that away from other places. We have a budget crunch this year because of the COVID crisis and the only way to do that is to raise taxes across the board. What I’ve heard door-to-door is they’re worried about whether or not they’ll have a job tomorrow with businesses closing.”

She also said that proposals to help the uninsured through programs such as Medicaid expansion should include elements that require those covered to pay their fair share.

“I think I also need to see that there’s a premium for people and it needs to be income-based as well.” 

Views on COVID-19

Wasinger told Smoky Hills PBS:

“We have really learned a lot during this past year. I think the biggest problem at the beginning was that the state used a blanket approach to every county. They were shutting down businesses on Main Street of Hays that never had more than a couple of people in them. The first mistake we made was just a complete blanket closure of everything … 

“I think if we all just respect one another and take care of ourselves as well as our families, I think we will be well. The state needs to remember that we’re both rural and urban and both need to be treated differently.” 

Views on broadband:

“The key to economic development in our rural areas is to make sure that all Kansans have access to broadband, to the internet. People now more than ever are working remotely and you have places like Agra, where Rep. Ken Rahjes lives, he has dial-up. I don’t think a lot of people realize there are dark spots within Kansas that have no service whatsoever. I think if we concentrate on getting that taken care of we can start doing other economic development growth because we have the ability to work from everywhere.”

Eber Phelps

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

In my opinion, that’s the most important issue coming up this next session. With all the states around us, passing it, and when you look at how long ago that program came to affect, the Kansas Hospital Association indicates that we’ve missed out on about $4.7 billion. Bottom line, I’m very much in support of that. My opponent, the current legislator, in addition, and a couple of  other legislators in the area have voted in opposition to it, and they still talk about it not being sustainable and so forth, or not really benefiting rural hospitals. The big winners are rural hospitals. I think that shows a disconnect with some people realizing that not realizing that even $80,000 or $90,000 to a rural hospital is a big deal. In my location here, Hays Medical Center, probably would get just under a million dollars a year. That’s a pretty good resource to add to their budget, as far as maybe new staff members or equipment. If I’m elected, that’s one of the first things we should do. Because it’s not a surprise issue. It’s not a gotcha issue. It’s there. The whole home medical community is in support of it. But more importantly, looking at it from an economic development standpoint, that’s a lot of money infused into our state, and that can help our budget. That can also obviously help those critical care centers and regional medical centers, and the rural hospitals.

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?

On the recovery issue, a lot of that comes down from the federal government. This is a national epidemic. This isn’t like a regional thing where all the people in California have this illness or people in the Midwest. It’s our whole country. It’s our whole continent. So, obviously, it’s got to be a joint effort. The federal government can do some things, state government can do some things too. Locally, one of the things they can do is not very expensive. That is maintaining a mask mandate, as well as social distancing.

Probably one of the first things to do is review our tax structure, and make sure that small businesses are being treated fairly, as opposed to the big tax breaks that, especially on the federal level, have been given to larger corporate businesses. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest economic drivers is our small businesses, and they’re so important to large cities as your rural communities. So there can be some things done there to save them some money, whether it be property taxes or personal income taxes.

A lot of people were upset with the governor during the shutdown. In the debate the other night, my opponent was saying, we shut it down when there were zero cases in Ellis County. Therein lies the difference of some people being proactive, and some people being reactive. We need to maintain this proactive approach. And unfortunately, the pandemic did turn into a political issue a long time ago, as opposed to a medical issue, where you want to listen to medical scientists telling you how to deal with this. 

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?

I was always aware of the need for broadband in some of the rural areas in northwest Kansas, I’m also learning we even have some urban areas that are in kind of a void of broadband. We’re going to have to see that the Department of Commerce really takes this on and gets to the bottom of it once and for all. Identify all the areas and go after it. The rural communities themselves aren’t going to be able to probably afford, as they say, that last mile to the hookup. I think it’s got to be a part of, just like so many things right now, a partnership between the federal government, state government, and some local communities. I think there’s going to be more focus on it, and the reason I say that is that with COVID-19, we’ve seen more and more people working from home. We’ve seen more education services move to a home-based or virtual-type learning. 

With that in mind, we’re going to have to put the focus on the areas that are in need. Because in Kansas, every student, every child, is by our constitution, granted an education. They used to say every kid deserves a quality education that’s not based on their zip code. I think you can say the same thing for broadband. It’s no fault of the people in rural areas. They’re there because of agriculture. That’s our food source, whether it be crops or cattle or any other kind of livestock. You do those kinds of things in a rural setting and those people have children that are going into rural schools, so they deserve that same opportunity. 

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?

One of the things I’d like to see is people trust science. I think we need to realize that there are people who are authorities on this. It was something new and so there were a lot of quick decisions that needed to be made. Were they all correct? I don’t know. I know that one thing when everything shut down, the curves flattened. When they decided to open up, a lot of states did that early, or didn’t close down. Florida, Texas, Arizona, Look at the huge spikes in the number of deaths that they’ve had. So at the very beginning, if the President would have just let everybody listen to Dr. Fauci, follow his lead, we may really have flattened the curve. But we didn’t do that. 

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?

They need to lead by example. One thing that’s happening in our country is that myself and a lot of people are concerned about the divisive nature of everything and the nastiness of it. I was fortunate enough to come to the legislature back in 1997 when everybody just realized that the way to get things done was to work together on it.

I always use the example of where I was the ranking Democrat on the insurance committee and when we would kick a couple bills out of committee. The vice chair (Republican) Don Meyers and the chair, (Republican) Bob Tomlinson, worked on the bill briefs together. We’d decide what kind of comments we’re going to make on the floor and talk about potential amendments and whether they were good or bad. All three of us would realize that sometimes some partisanship would come into an issue here and there. But for the most part, we were just trying to get a bill that was good and effective and fair. 

I was out of the Legislature for four years and then came back for the 2017-18 session. I used to know where everybody was from, their names, and all that. I went through two years there and there were people there that I had never even spoken a single word to. There wasn’t that much interaction between everybody and everyone just kind of did their own thing. So getting back to all these social issues, we need to realize that we’re all in this together.

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