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Which way will a suburban Wichita Senate district tilt in 2020?

There will be a changing of the guard in who represents District 30 in the Kansas Senate come 2021. But how big of a change it will be remains to be seen.

Should she be elected, state Rep. Renee Erickson would bring many of the same conservative Republican credentials that her predecessor, Senate President Susan Wagle, brought to the office: endorsements by groups such as the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, Kansans for Life PAC and the National Rifle Association. But will the political preferences of District 30 be the same this year that they have been the past two decades?

Melissa Gregory, a Democrat who has staffed prominent politicians such as Dan Glickman and Kathleen Sebelius, is also running for the seat, which represents much of east Wichita and parts of Andover. The district supported President Donald Trump in 2016 but has been trending blue, supporting Democrat Laura Kelly for governor in 2018.

The district’s political shifts become fodder for statewide political conversation when Wagle told a Republican group that Erickson would need to gain more Republican-friendly neighborhoods to her district through reapportionment to be re-elected. The comments, which also mentioned the opportunity to use redistricting to pave the way for four GOP representatives in Congress if Republicans can hold their super-majorities in the state Legislature, prompted Kelly to propose that a nonpartisan commission draw the state’s maps.

In this year’s race, Erickson and Gregory differ on key issues such as Medicaid expansion, which Gregory supports and Erickson has voted against. 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 30

Renee Erickson (Republican) and Melissa Gregory (Democrat)

Melissa Gregory

Melissa Gregory Kansas Senate

Please briefly introduce yourself.

I was born in Wichita and am a proud graduate of Wichita public schools and Wichita State University. I have spent most of my professional career in the public sector as a member of the executive staff of two of our great Kansas leaders, former Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, and our former Governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. As individuals and as elected leaders, they held a strong sense of responsibility to the people who they were elected to serve. Both provided outstanding constituent service through their offices and were accessible and responsive to their constituents. This is not the case today as we have seen our state leadership close hearings, and block needed legislation for political purposes. I believe this is disrespectful to the people of their district and disrespectful to the office. The pandemic has presented a highly challenging set of circumstances that have unfortunately been politicized to the detriment of our public health and safety. I will work diligently to find solutions in the best interests of my district and our state. 

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

While we don’t know what the state will look like in January when the next Legislature convenes, we need to focus on keeping people safe and healthy, restoring jobs lost to the pandemic response and bolstering healthcare, by expanding Medicaid to our working families and children. We also need to protect public education funding and reform our law enforcement/judicial justice/juvenile justice/ corrections system. 

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.

My past experience has given me a background in looking for answers to complex questions, to seeking the best and most timely research available and how to collaborate with like minded people to reach solutions. I would be new to the chamber, but not to the process. I will look for ways to ensure that communication lines with local government, businesses and stakeholders are open and flow both ways. 

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

Lack of access to insurance

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

We have a hybrid system now that results in access and care determined by income. This is a very complicated and highly politicized issue.

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.

Very complicated and nuanced question, and I would start with working on a model that places the consumer at the center. Today in the US our system relies on a direct-fee system and private health insurance and government-provided Medicare for those eligible. Because it is based on fees there are numerous restrictive practices that affect the care a patient receives, such as managed care, racial/ethnic bias in delivery of services and the convenience and ability to access care. The system in the US is so complex, changes in the industry are very slow. The issue of the role of government in the future of health care is part of the national debate, and is highly partisan. Yet, there is wide variation in Medicaid programs because individual states tailor their programs, and questions like eligibility for benefits are highly politicized; and this is a government system that is supposed to pay for health care for low income and disabled people. During the pandemic we have watched elected officials ignore and dispute the findings and recommendations of public health professionals and scientists. This is wrong. 

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.

In 2021, the Kansas legislature should pass Medicaid expansion. Emerging from a pandemic is not the time to deny health care coverage to people and their families who have lost their insurance due to being laid off or their small business has closed. Too many working families cannot afford the cost of premiums for their family. 

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?

The pressure and expectation for public officials to act in this ongoing crisis is enormous. Citizens look to their governments for information, guidance and leadership and expect to be kept safe and healthy. The pandemic is ongoing and many solutions are still short-term, like stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits and SBA grants and loans. Once we begin to recover from the pandemic I hope that leadership will emerge and provide guidance and support to the state and local units of government that ultimately deliver the services. This is an opportunity to consider long-term improvements and efficiencies to public operations. In anticipation of future risks, this could include becoming more digital and upgrading old rules and regulations. Telehealth and remote work could become permanent options. I would like to see a unified approach to recovery that is based on helping our country at every level of society and use the opportunity to address societal issues as well at each phase.

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?

Of course we do not know what the revenue picture in 2021 will be, but clearly it will be challenging. Once it is available, I will review the Governor’s budget and recommendations with an open mind. The pandemic has put great pressure on K-12 education, and school boards have responded in the best way possible for their respective districts. Everyone wants to see our children back in school when it is safe to do so. Governor Kelly and other governors are urging Congress to provide federal aid to avoid deep cuts in state and local services and she has said she will try to protect school funding. I will work to get the best outcome possible based on data. Kansas schools rely on state funding and limits how much schools can raise locally. That keeps property taxes lower and tends to provide more equal funding. So any reductions in state aid would have a large impact. This is a complicated issue and must be considered responsibly.

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?

This has been talked about for years and is not a new or surprising problem. It is a perfect recovery infrastructure project and should be started immediately.

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

I was dismayed by the disregard by many state and local elected officials to the guidelines and recommendations of our public health officials. 

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

Keep people safe and healthy as we work to restore the economy.

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?

A pandemic cannot be addressed solely as a health issue. A crisis of this scope places stress on all existing systems of a society, but none more so then the health system, where workers are the first and last line of defense. Now every segment of the state has been affected by the pandemic, and piecemeal is inadequate to keep people healthy and safe. We have seen in Kansas a Governor who took decisive action, based on science and data and in support of the head of the Department of Health and Environment, be undercut by members of the legislature for political purposes. Everything from requiring masks, enforcing social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings to closing schools was diminished and disregarded. We needed a unified response rather than disconnected controversy and dispution. Governor Kelly and Dr. Norman communicated effectively clearly. Sadly, we witnessed partisan responses that played politics with the health and safety of the people of Kansas.

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? 

Yes, of course. I will fight discrimination and mistreatment of any Kansan, or efforts to single out people for exclusion or to be treated differently under the law. As legislators we have to start to figure out what we need to learn and need to do. Some local leaders in my community have responded to community demands and grievances with a model for community public safety, and It is a good start. But we cannot pit advocates against each other for funding or change is stifled and the system stays the same. As elected leaders we have to remain vigilant to the issues and not just give lip service. And by issues, I include the broad spectrum of systemic racism in our culture. We can reach out and engage with others who can share their experiences and offer solutions and then we have to turn that into something meaningful.

Renee Erickson

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

Background:

From her website:

“Renee Erickson is a native Kansan, born in Newton and a graduate of Newton High School. Her parents owned and operated the grocery store in Valley Center, where she also worked, before they moved to Lyons, where they operated a restaurant until their retirement. These experiences taught Renee how small businesses are the lifeblood of the Kansas economy.

Renee earned scholarship offers, which allowed her to graduate from Hutchinson Community College and Oklahoma Christian University with a degree in Business Administration. She also earned a degree in Business Education from Wichita State and two Master’s Degrees; one in Public School Administration from Baker and another in Family Life Education and Consultation from K-State.

After staying home with her children for a few years, Renee began her professional career, working as an educator for Parents as Teachers, a financial planner for a major investment company, a high school teacher, a data and assessment coordinator at North High, as director of the USD 259 instructional technology center, director of 3 adult learning centers in USD 259, and finally as a middle school principal in Wichita.

Following their retirements, (Renee’s husband retired as principal of Newton High), Renee and her family moved to east Wichita and have worshipped at a local congregation here for several years. Her children and grandchild live in the area as well, which allows for Sunday dinners together as a family. Renee’s children are college graduates and gainfully employed.”

Views on Medicaid expansion:

Erickson voted against a bill expanding Medicaid in 2019.

Views on COVID-19 pandemic:

Erickson mentions the COVID-19 pandemic on her website in relation to the economy:

“COVID-19 has hit us all hard. Creating new jobs and rebuilding the economy has to be our top priority. We will do this by helping small businesses rebuild, easing unnecessary restrictions, attracting manufacturing jobs away from China and focusing on building our technology sector.”

Views on criminal justice:

Erickson is one of more than 50 lawmakers who has signed a letter organized by state Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican, expressing support for Kansas law enforcement officers and decrying “unhealthy disregard for our law enforcement professionals in various areas of the country.”

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