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Candidates for Leavenworth/Wyandotte Senate seat offer contrasting health priorities

Where should lawmakers start when it comes to providing health care for those who lack access to it in Kansas?

State Sen. Kevin Braun, a Republican who is trying to win his first term at the ballot box after being appointed in 2018, indicates he would start with the funding of indigent care, not expanding for Medicaid able-bodied adults. Braun, who voted against a procedural motion to advance Medicaid expansion in 2019, didn’t respond to questions from The Journal about his candidacy But he told the Wyandotte Daily in a January forum that it’s direct care, not having health insurance on paper that really matters. He’s also mentioned his support for increasing funding for safety net clinics in Kansas City, Kansas.

State Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Democrat also campaigning for the seat, says he often hears the argument that taking care of the disabled or elderly should be a higher priority. But he doesn’t think it’s a good argument against Medicaid expansion. 

“We absolutely have to do that and reduce the wait time to get services,” Pittman says. “But that’s a whole separate problem. People often use that as a misdirection for what the core is, which is this is money that’s available that we could use today and there’s a lot of people that would benefit from that.”

Pittman, who has voted in favor of Medicaid expansion multiple times when it’s come before the Kansas House, argues that most states have adopted Medicaid and that it could serve as an economic development and workforce development tool. He says he would keep pushing for the program in office.

“When I look at my district, there are some haves, who have insurance for life. There are some have-nots, who are working minimum wage jobs and are struggling between two different positions, because they can’t find a full time job that gives benefits in the area,” Pittman says. “They still have healthcare needs. Sometimes it’s an individual who’s just getting started. Medicaid expansion is a way to make sure our workforce has the resources to take care of themselves, to take care of any conditions they have, and also to help with their mental health to make them more stable in the job market. That alone is a great economic development and workforce development tool that we have in our toolkit.”

Senate District 5 includes Leavenworth, parts of Lansing and parts of three cities in Wyandotte County – Bonner Springs, Edwardsville and KCK. The previous incumbent, Republican Steve Fitzgerald, won two straight narrow victories in 2012 and 2016. Solid majorities backed Donald Trump for president here in 2016 and Democrat Laura Kelly for governor in 2018.

In addition to his support for indigent care, Braun also talks about his support for law enforcement – he’s endorsed by Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt – and his ability to deliver for the district as a member of the majority party. Republicans hold 29 of the 40 seats in the Kansas Senate, and while their majorities could shrink, the party is all but certain to retain majority control after the Nov. 3 general election.

Pittman says criminal justice reform is one of his passions and he’s concerned about disproportionate imprisonment of brown and black prisoners in the system. But he sees the Legislature making progress on advancing alternatives to incarceration, even if there’s more work to be done.

He points out that most of the protests for racial and social justice in the state have been peaceful, and concerns about riots that have been hyped up at times haven’t come to fruition here. 

“What we need is unity in our communities,” Pittman says. “We’ve organized marches here. We’ve gotten the police and the urban youth. And different members of the community together of different ethnicities and leaders. We’ve had the conversations here in the Leavenworth area. Is everything perfect? No. But I believe it’s come to a head now and we have to address this.”

Kansas Senate District 5

Kevin Braun (Republican) and Jeff Pittman (Democrat)

Kevin Braun

The Journal did not receive answers to its questions from Kevin Braun. Below is a summary of his views based on publicly available data.

Background

From his website:

State Senator Kevin Braun is a lifelong patriot with 30 years of success in business, military service, and educational advancement.

As a U.S. Army veteran with two overseas deployments, Kevin Braun has fought to defend us and our way of life.

State Senator Kevin Braun is serving you in Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties.

  • 30 Years of Private Sector Business Success
  • Retired as Lieutenant Colonel Army Reserve in 2018 with 32 years service
  • United States Army Veteran
  • Deployed overseas with Kansas Army National Guard
  • Fort Leavenworth, KS CGSOC Instructor 5 Years USAR
  • Bachelor Degree in Business
  • Master Degree in Business Law from Friends University
  • Lifetime Member, VFW
  • Lifetime Member, American Legion
  • Member of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church of KC, KS
  • Member of the Knights of Columbus
  • Lifetime Member NRA, Member KSRA
  • Member Chamber of Commerce
  • Member Kiwanis Club
  • Member Eagles Club
  • Current Kansas State Senator for Senate District 5

Views on Medicaid expansion:

In 2019, Braun voted against a procedural motion to advance legislation on Medicaid expansion to the Senate floor. At a legislative forum earlier this year, he said his focus would be on providing care for the most vulnerable ahead of expanding insurance coverage for able-bodied adults.

Views on COVID-19-pandemic:

In comments to the Wyandotte Daily, Braun touts his support of a $50 million COVID-19 relief bill early in the pandemic while also “voting for local county control to open business safely”

Views on criminal justice:

Braun told the Wyandotte Daily that ensuring public safety is among his top priorities.

“I have delivered a safer Kansas,” Braun told the website. “In regard to safety, protecting Kansas families and their property is an essential responsibility of the government. I am fully committed to properly fund law enforcement and demonstrated that by full funding of state law enforcement, first responder agencies and carrying and supporting bills that enhance both. Those actions are why I am endorsed by Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash, our Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and several other local law enforcement and corrections officers.”

Jeff Pittman

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

My voting record shows my position quite well. I’ve voted for Medicaid expansion over and over again and amendments (for it), as well as supported it publicly. Medicaid expansion has been adopted by so many states, well over a majority. We’re kind of a laggard in that sense of not looking at an opportunity for Workforce Development, for healthcare, infrastructure investment, and for really doing an ethically good thing for the people of Kansas.

When I look at my district, there are some haves, who have insurance for life. There are some have-nots, who are working minimum wage jobs and are struggling between two different positions, because they can’t find a full time job that gives benefits in the area. They still have healthcare needs. Sometimes it’s an individual who’s just getting started. Medicaid expansion is a way to make sure our workforce has the resources to take care of themselves, to take care of any conditions they have, and also to help with their mental health to make them more stable in the job market. That alone is a great economic development and workforce development tool that we have in our toolkit.

The other thing is that we denied investment in our state from the federal government, to the tune of about $4 billion over the last five or so years. That’s a lot of money that we’ve turned away. I think it’s time to move forward on this. I would like to see us work out a plan, depoliticize the issue, look at the economics. If the federal government were to remove it, we wouldn’t necessarily continue it. The state probably couldn’t afford a full 100%. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though. I think there’s enough states that have expanded it that we don’t need to live in fear of that. They’re not just going to take the rug out from under us from the federal level and stop funding it.

I also often hear the argument that we need to take care of those that might be disabled or elderly. We absolutely have to do that and reduce the wait time to get services. But that’s a whole separate problem. People often use that as a misdirection for what the core is, which is this is money that’s available that we could use today and there’s a lot of people that would benefit from that.

We have to keep pushing. There’s a lot of passionate people that are ready to go on this. It was almost ready to go, but the Senate leadership mustered a blockade on the issue. We need to find the votes. We need to depoliticize it. We need to look at arguments against it and perhaps put in a program to reduce those wait times for the disabled and the elderly. We need to make sure that we continue to have the provision that if the federal government stops paying for their share, the program comes to an end. We need to continue to put pressure on those who sided with leadership last year on the Senate side and blockaded it. We need to either change the seats or put pressure on them to change their votes on that.

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?

In the early days of the pandemic, we saw the governor take some early leadership, and whether you agree with her or not, she took leadership where a lot of others didn’t and I appreciate that.

We need to ensure that our workers, when they go back to work, that they’re working safely. That they have PPE, if they require it, in their particular jobs. We need to ensure that small businesses and regional businesses have access to capital as they weather the storm of uncertainty. The government can ensure some access to capital and look at losses in particular. It can look at tax write-offs and say, “hey, what do we need to do that’s special for the pandemic?” For example, with landlords and renters, when the government comes in and says you can’t evict people when they stop paying. What can we do to ensure that businesses don’t all go under while we encourage a safe return to economic prosperity?

It’s the role of government to set the standards. When conditions get terrible in a locality, they sometimes need to step in during an emergency. It’s been the way it’s been for at least 100 years. I do believe that we can return strong to a strong economy if everybody takes the precautions  to get through these next few months. Afterward, we can look for ways that maybe we hadn’t thought of before to encourage businesses to adapt into the new world and make use of the leadership, entrepreneurialism and spirit that got a lot of our companies through this, and see what we can do to incentivize that.

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?

I see it in our community. It’s not always just about broadband. Sometimes it’s about economic disparity. It’s about families, the use of technology and their adoption of it. Where we sit here on the northeast side of Kansas, there’s been a lot of urban and suburban areas where some of the kids don’t have access to good internet services.The schools will provide Chromebooks, but sometimes the house infrastructure doesn’t facilitate that. I did help a company come in here to our lower economic area and offer cheaper broadband services. I think that that helps. But to your point, when we look at the way our schools are changing in particular, a priority for me is continuing the education of our kids. I’ve got three kids of my own and I see firsthand what it’s like for online schooling versus in person schooling. 

When we look at how schools are going to have to change and be adaptive, I’ve been an advocate for some time, with my technical background, that online schooling was going to have to be an option for us, especially as we get into more rural areas that have a lot more distance between them. But going through it now, I realize we have to put a heavy duty focus on that curriculum development and the approach to either hybrid or online schooling and saying, “Of all the different things that are going on, what’s effective?”

Broadband access is something that we’ve got federal money to help develop. We’re going to continue with that. We have to say, “what’s the minimum speed we need for effective learning?” Then we have to say, “what’s the effective throughput that we need for any kind of E-commerce situation?” Is it just broadband everywhere and that’s the only solution? I don’t think that’s the answer. I think it’s about what’s minimally viable, what’s cost effective and how can we utilize federal monies to facilitate broader development and bring it out to some of the rural and in gray areas. Then also, how do we incentivize inside of urban areas and other places the adoption of technology for education.

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?

I work as a supply chain engineer for a company that does planning software. Our specialty is looking at a complicated network of production, procurement, distribution, forecasting and help companies handle major disruption in their supply chains. What we’ve seen is a global disruption of not just the supply chain, but of socioeconomic norms, geopolitical norms, commercial norms. We have a few provisions in place for what we would call a normal, localized emergency like a wildfire, a tornado. From the Cold War, we’ve even had provisions about what to do in the time of an attack. We weren’t prepared for something of this nature. 

I’m not faulting anyone. It’s just we have lessons to learn about how we react to things when our very ability to get together, to legislate or to administer, to do business is disrupted. We need to put in place policies that are driven by science and metrics that we agree to. We need to balance freedom of the individual with the safety of the collective citizens of Kansas. We were in a high emotion, high-stress period looking at a situation during the beginning and the middle part of this pandemic, and we didn’t put the thought into saying, “What happens in this circumstance? What are the metrics that we need? Should we only do this locally or should we do it across the state?” I think we have to take a look at that and come up with policies and agreements about the state’s role and the counties’ roles. We’re going to have a situation like this happen again. I don’t know what form it’ll take. But we need to get better at agreeing to what powers are shared and who needs to be involved. We can’t arbitrarily give a council automatic authority just because we don’t have anybody else. We should think through what are the best ways to represent the people’s will and the need for the safety and health of the people and of the economy here in Kansas. There was just a lack of structured policy examined and agreement on how to proceed on something that wasn’t just a localized disaster.

There’s a State Finance Council and a Legislative Coordinating Council, both of which aren’t authorized to be administrative bodies (in an emergency), necessarily. They’re really meant to take care of the legislative duties outside of the session. They were given a lot of authority. I might have supported that at the time, just because we didn’t have a better option. But we need to come up with something that’s more representative of the political situation in the branches of government and how they interact. Then we’ve got to look at other states and ask “how do we resolve this situation? Without becoming an authoritarian culture and still a democracy, but ensuring the safety and health and welfare of all citizens at the same time.”

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? 

When we look at our prisons, that’s near and dear to my heart here and in the Lansing area. We had a huge infection rate at the beginning of this. Let’s face it, we had a chronic lack of funding in the prison system for years as we went through this whole Brownback tax experiment. We started getting raises for corrections officers, but they certainly didn’t have the amount of PPE that they needed at the time nor quick access to it.

The rates were skyrocketing. They tried doing separation techniques. They finally came up with a strategy and we just so happened to have the new prison in Lansing that they were able to use with a positive air flow system that kept the virus pushing out versus recirculating. So they were able to use that extra capacity coming online to isolate some of the COVID infected inmates. So they were able to start stemming the spread that way. Even then, this was beyond what they had expected and so they had to react. I think that we need to have better policies when it comes to containment of these types of things in these environments, whether it’s meat packing facilities, or the dense populations of a correctional facility, a mental hospital or the nursing homes. These are sensitive environments to infectious disease spreads and we need to come up with better processes, better ways to isolate.

When you look at criminal justice reform, it’s a big passion of mine. If you just look at our statistics, we’re at capacities in our prisons. In the United States, we’ve got a lot of folks incarcerated. We could be better use of diversion, better use of punishments that aren’t necessarily imprisonment. Because, people still have to do the time for the crime.

But we also have to look at why we have a disproportionate proportion of African American and brown and black prisoners and the system. Why is that? Is it because of economic conditions? Is it because of systematic racism? It feels a lot like we’ve targeted a certain population, and we need to put metrics in place to help correct that.

When I was on the Public Safety Committee, we looked at the Sentencing Commission, and asked them the numbers around some of these things. We have a lot of people in prison for nonviolent crimes. We can look at programs, like that Senate Bill 123 that we’ve increased funding for over the last year or two, to get people out of that cycle of addiction, that cycle of recidivism. We can look at ways of educating them on their way out, even better than what’s been attempted up to today. We really need to look at how they’re positioning themselves in the community, days after their exit from the prison. There are good programs out there that I think the state needs to lean into those programs. We also need to look at their access to public defenders. We’ve had a chronic lack of funding there and that has a significant impact on our African American population. I think we need to do more there for sure.

That said, we haven’t had really what you call riots, here in Kansas. We haven’t had the looting that you see publicized on some of the news channels. We have to be realistic and say, “is that threatening my town? Do I have to feel fear because of looting?” We’ve had some messages go out on social media that tried to hype up that there was going to be a big riot in different areas. I feel like there are  instigators at work trying to hype that up.

What we need is unity in our communities. We’ve organized marches here. We’ve gotten the police and the urban youth. And different members of the community together of different ethnicities and leaders. We’ve had the conversations here in the Leavenworth area. Is everything perfect? No. But I believe it’s come to a head now and we have to address this. We have to realize that Black lives do matter. That there has been systematic racism out there that some notice and some don’t. When people get so frustrated and the boiling point is reached, it’s high time to take some action. Some of that might be like getting metrics in place. Some of that might be looking at how we use body cams for the safety of our officers as well as the safety of our citizens. There’s a lot of different aspects of ways that we can move forward on this.

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