Kelly, Schmidt debate water, energy, health care and other rural issues at Kansas State Fair

The raucous crowd cheered, booed, whistled, rang cowbells, and chanted during the spirited gubernatorial debate at the People’s Bank and Trust Arena at the Kansas State Fair Sept. 10 in Hutchinson.

Greg Akagi, ag director for WIBW Radio/Kansas Ag Network, moderated the political debate between Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Media panelists were Jennifer M. Latzke, editor of Kansas Farmer; Nick Gosnell, news director for Hutch Post and Eagle Radio; and Alex Flippin, investigative reporter and managing anchor at KWCH.

After each candidate offered an opening statement, sharing their successes and trading a few partisan barbs with each other, Gosnell kicked off the debate by asking the candidates to address the need for childcare across the state.

Schmidt said burdensome regulation prevents good, quality childcare from meeting the needs of working Kansans. Kelly pointed to her record on funding early childhood education and childcare. She also created a cabinet-level position to focus on those issues.

Latzke, former associate editor at High Plains Journal, asked each candidate to address the importance of conserving the state’s ground and surface water resources to agriculture, particularly in the Ogallala Aquifer region.

Schmidt referred to his farm experience and his tenure as chairman of the state’s Senate Agriculture Committee. He stressed the importance of standing against the Waters of the U.S. rule and federal overreach in support of farmers and ranchers.

“The future of our water resource is intimately tied to the future of our state. There is perhaps no more important issue we must deal with. The truth of the matter is we will manage the resource or eventually it will manage us—those are the only options,” Schmidt said.

Kelly said she recognizes that agriculture “is a driving economic force in our state.” She created the Office of Rural Prosperity to focus on issues like water that are important to rural Kansans. “I’m the first governor to fully fund our water plan in the last 15 years,” Kelly said.

“I am the only candidate in this race endorsed by the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association—the people who live on the land, who love the land, who make their living from the land, and who know that I am the leader we need on long-term issues in rural America, like water management,” Schmidt retorted.

Latzke also asked the candidates what the state should do to encourage young Kansans to consider food and agriculture as a career path. Both candidates mentioned critical workforce shortages in the state and the need for skilled workers.

Kelly said she attended the recent inauguration of Kansas State University President Richard Linton and praised the university’s plans for investing in and targeting agriculture research using state-of-the art technology and equipment. She wants to continue to expand those partnerships.

Schmidt said career and technological education is important to the future of Kansas kids, and he wants to increase CTE opportunities in schools.

In response to a question from about health care costs, Kelly said that as long as Kansas does not pass Medicaid expansion, the state is hurting rural and urban hospitals and bleeding health care workers to other states that have expanded Medicaid. Schmidt voiced his skepticism about Medicaid expansion because of concerns about funding and thinks there are other solutions to pursue.

Schmidt and Kelly also shared their views on E-15 waivers and renewable energy. Schmidt supports an “all of the above” approach to energy policy for Kansas, supporting ethanol and biofuels as well as oil and gas. Kelly said she has advocated for domestically produced energy sources and also takes an “all of the above” approach. She noted that investing in renewable energy helps keep costs down.

Flippin asked the candidates about the “devastating labor shortage in the ag industry in Kansas” as it regards immigration policy.

Schmidt said he supports legal immigration into the United States and urges Congress to fix the broken immigration system. He stressed the importance of securing the southern border and pointed to his efforts to get leaders to address the problem.

Kelly agreed on the need to secure borders and said the state sent 250 National Guard members to the border previously to help. “The lack of comprehensive reforms has hit so many sectors and contributes to our workforce issues, but it’s particularly poignant in our agricultural world,” she said. She has assigned Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to build a nationwide coalition to appeal to Congress and develop comprehensive immigration reform.

The final question posed to the gubernatorial candidates focused on farm transition and how to help farmers hand down family farms to the next generation.

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“I think it’s absolutely imperative that we do work on a number of policies that ensure that our families can hand their farms down to the next generation. I think we also have to do a number of things to ensure that the next generation wants to have the farm and wants to stay and work there,” Kelly said.

She pointed to her administration’s work with small farmers to find resources during the pandemic to help them continue to be viable businesses and stressed that she wants to make the environment in the agricultural community the best that it can be.

“It’s also important that we work with our Department of Commerce to ensure that we have the housing, childcare, and access to health care that our rural communities need to incent these young people to stay there and work on those farms,” Kelly said.

Schmidt said the continued outmigration of Kansans is a critical issue, noting that the state’s population is shrinking. He pointed to his efforts as a state senator to repeal the Kansas estate tax and the state inheritance tax, which he said disincentivize farmers from passing down their farms. He also supports “Retire Tax Free” initiatives that would eliminate state income tax on retirement benefits, as have been passed in 13 other states.

“When Grandpa and Grandma choose to retire and stay in Kansas, it makes it much more likely that son and daughter and grandchildren will stay home, stay here, and stay on the farm,” he said.

During the debate, the candidates also discussed the state’s foster care system, school funding and education, gun safety and Second Amendment rights, correctional facilities, mental health services, and the proposed abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution that was defeated in the August primary by Kansas voters.

In closing, Schmidt said he would fight for Kansas families to succeed. He condemned “big government socialism” in Washington, D.C., and the recession their policies have caused. “My friends, it is time for us to stand up for Kansas,” he said while stressing the need for change and protecting Kansans’ way of life.

Kelly concluded the debate by reminding the audience of her accomplishments as governor, including bringing record economic investment to Kansas, eliminating the food sales tax, and retaining a budget surplus. “Our best days are ahead of us, and I know that by working together we will make Kansas the best state for everything—for living, for working, for raising your family.”

Libertarian Seth Cordell and Independent Dennis Pyle will also be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot for Kansas governor but were not included in the gubernatorial debate at the state fair.

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or [email protected].