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Voters in south Wichita House district have a choice to make this time around

For the first general election since 2014, voters in District 96 will have a choice to make when it comes to their representation in the Kansas House.

Brandon Whipple, who resigned this year after winning election to be Wichita’s mayor, represented the south Wichita district beginning in 2013 and went unopposed in the 2016 and 2018 general elections. Stephanie Yeager, the owner of a communications and fundraising business, was appointed to take Whipple’s seat. She faces Tom Kessler, a liquor store owner who’s served on a number of civic boards, in the Nov. 3 general election.

Their views on the issues echo many of the partisan differences being seen through Kansas this election cycle. Yeager, a Democrat, favors Medicaid expansion and emphasizes the need to work across party lines when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The biggest take away for myself, and I know for a lot of people that I’ve spoken to, is really the need to listen to each other,” Yeager said.

Kessler, a Republican, opposes Medicaid expansion because it provides “taxpayer-funded health insurance to able-bodied adults.” With the state and its budget recovering economically from the pandemic, now is not the time for a new government program, he said.

When it comes to rebounding from the pandemic, Yeager emphasizes supporting job growth in Wichita. Kessler is critical of the government lockdown earlier in the pandemic and said the state must follow the lead of everyday Kansas families in making hard budgeting decisions and becoming more efficient. He would prioritize getting the economy restarted, since “the best way to increase revenue is to increase jobs.”

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:

Kansas House District 96

Stephanie Yeager (Democrat) and Tom Kessler (Republican)

Stephanie Yeager

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

My views are that I think that it would be good to expand it, especially in my district, I have a lot of people that have faced layoffs. And part of facing layoff is losing your insurance. And having that as an ability for you don’t lose everything, because of a medical emergency, especially in age COVID, I think is very important.

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

As far as getting the legislature to come together on it, I think that it is going to require, frankly, legislators that are really focused on what’s good for the people in their districts. Because it’s not just my district that is facing layoffs like this. Medical emergencies don’t go anywhere. And I think we have an opportunity to actually provide some kind of relief for the people in our districts, and it’s our duty to do so.

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?

I’m always kind of a believer that the government’s role should be limited. But with what’s happening with COVID, I think that we do have a duty there to try to support job growth in Wichita, specifically. I think it’s really important that we support development that will bring in new jobs, so that we aren’t always riding this down kind of wave in employment. My own husband works in the aircraft industry – we face layoffs, strikes, all of that. So I think maybe it’s less government’s role and more about just being good citizens to try to bring in new companies and new development, so we can get more good paying jobs for people. We don’t just (want to) depend on aircraft.

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?

Even before we were doing with COVID, this was something that was important to me, because trying to encourage development and new jobs, one of the features that we just got to have in place is broadband. Companies expect it. They need it. And I think, for areas of Kansas right now that still don’t have it, how can they grow and have businesses want to come in, if they don’t even have that? I agree that we should do whatever we can to expand that broadband, not just for new jobs, but also for medical care, and really any kind of business that wants to come in is going to need it.

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

The biggest take away for myself, and I know for a lot of people that I’ve spoken to, is really the need to listen to each other. And I know that that seems kind of like an odd thing. But I say all the time, “you know when you’re right.” That’s what it is. I think that as the nation has kind of gotten into this partisan divide, it is definitely absolutely affecting Kansas, both at the state level and right to the local level even. And I think that we do ourselves a real disservice. I think it’s important to have all of the voices at the table and I think that it’s important that we treat each other with respect and we’d be willing to listen, because you just never know where a good idea is going to come from and to get past something like this. And to be able to actually grow in it is going to require innovation and the only way that we get there is not by judging someone’s ideas based on a letter behind their name in some database somewhere, but by sitting and listening to each other, and trying to move forward together.

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 think it’s important that we sit and listen to each other and we don’t let national media outlets or whatever, kind of decide what we think. Because before all of this, I know everyone was working together for criminal justice reform. That was something that we were already doing. President Trump was working on it as well. There’s no reason why that work should stop because of what’s happened this summer. I think that it is really important that we get refocused on that. I think that we have people in prison who don’t necessarily need to be in prison, especially for things like marijuana. I think that we can move forward together, if we can kind of stop buying into that division and get back to the work that was already on the table.

Tom Kessler

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

Medicaid expansion is an expensive program that provides taxpayer-funded health insurance to able-bodied adults. This is in addition to current taxpayer funded programs that already provide health coverage to the truly needy. Our state faces a massive budget deficit, now is not the time to be adding costly new programs that would require a tax increase to implement.

 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?

Many Kansas families have faced hardship due to the government lockdown. They have been forced to make hard budgeting decisions and become more efficient. They should expect nothing less of their state government. Our state must become more efficient. We must carefully review how every dollar is spent. That is the approach I take with my small business and will take the same approach to the state budget. In addition, we must prioritize getting our economy restarted. The best way to increase revenue is to increase jobs.

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?

Internet access is a necessity in our modern world.  I believe it will take a cooperative effort between Federal grants, Kansas Legislature, telecommunication companies and the business community. We can make a big difference in getting access throughout our State if we can work together. 

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?

Everyone has done their best in a difficult situation. In hindsight, the lockdown was too extreme and damaging to our economy. The state should have put its focus on protecting our most vulnerable citizens. From an economic standpoint, the focus should have been on helping businesses open safely, not one-size-fits-all lockdowns. Moving forward we all need to work together on building a post COVID economy and returning our state safely back to normalcy.

 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? 

Criminal justice reform is a multifaceted issue that needs multifaceted solutions. I will always support peaceful protest, but I do not support violence or destruction of property. We must maintain law and order above all else.  

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.