PITTSBURG, Kan. — It’s debate season in the US, and Pittsburg is no exception. On Monday evening, Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, and Republican Charles "Chuck" Smith who are running for the District 3 seat in the Kansas House of Representatives sat down in Pittsburg City Hall to discuss hot button issues affecting southeast Kansans.
The candidates had three prepared questions, six from the public as well as an opening and a closing statement. They had two minutes to answer every question. From expanding Medicaid to the Highway 69 project, moderator Blake Benson led the candidates through a wide range of topics.
First, they discussed the state’s response to the current public health crisis.
Smith, who served District 3 from 2015 to 2017 when Murnan took over, advocated for opening up the state again. Specifically, as a former educator, he discussed how important it is for children to be in schools.
"We closed our schools, we closed our businesses and we thought we were doing the right thing, but probably that was the worst thing we could have done. Kids need to go to school," he said.
Smith even said he was thrilled that his grandson, who is staying with him, is going to school despite the risk it poses to himself.
"I’m the one that is in danger," he said. "If my grandson brings that virus home from school, I’m ready for it. That’s a chance I am willing to take."
Murnan, who has served as the District 3 representative since she defeated Smith in 2016, agreed that it would be great for schools and for businesses to be able to open again, but said that it’s important to consider the whole picture.
"The word public is there for a purpose. It’s for the common good, it’s for the good of the many over the good of the few," she said.
Murnan also discussed what she said the pandemic has taught us.
"The role of government is leveling the playing field for all," she said. "I think that this public health crisis has shown us that the field is not level for all."
The debate then moved to Medicaid expansion. Something that most of the surrounding states have adopted in some capacity, and something the Kansas legislature is firing up to work on in the upcoming session.
Murnan reminded the public that she supports Medicaid expansion and that she has since virtually day one.
"It fills in a gap," she said. "It fills in the gap with a specific group of people. It fills in gaps and anytime we are trying to make a strong community you have to watch your gaps."
She also said it just makes good economic sense.
"We are just leaving money on the table on a daily basis. So if you don’t buy the humanity component of it, you’ve got to buy the economic impact. As of today, we as a state have left $4.3 billion on the table that is going to other states. That doesn’t make economic sense," she said.
Smith on the other hand said that while he would love to help the people that need it, the state simply cannot afford it.
"It’s not that I don’t want to help people, it’s just going to cost us money that we don’t have and the federal government can’t give money away that they don’t have," he said.
He said that the money to fund the expansion would just fall to future generations.
"That’s just a loan and my grandson is going to have to pay it back in 30 years," Smith said. "We are really jeopardizing our grandchildren’s future, which isn’t fair at all."
The candidates also discussed the Highway 69 expansion project which has been in the works for decades. Both agreed with the current state of things—and a projected $1.4 billion state deficit by 2022—they are going to have to fight tooth and nail to get that project to the finish line.
"I know the businesses in Pittsburg need it," Smith said. "They have been promising us this for 20 years, but I think it’s going to be a while longer before it gets built. But I will do everything in my power to get it done."
"The hard facts are we will have to look at every transportation plan harder than before," Murnan said. "I will continue to work with everybody possible to get this off the checklist because it needs to be done."
Later in the debate, the conversation drifted back to that projected deficit. Murnan said it’s not a huge shock that the deficit could be that large since they have been digging the state out of the "hole" that the former Governor Sam Brownback created, a policy that she said Smith supported. Smith fired back saying that until the pandemic, the state was doing fine.
"They are still blaming Brownback for everything," Smith said.
The debate also touched on other topics like education — not surprising as both candidates are former educators.
Smith said if elected he would push for more of an emphasis on alternate routes to college like trade schools.
"What we did as a state is we kind of made everyone go towards a college prep, and I think that’s a mistake," he said. "I think it’s great that everyone can go to college, that everyone can get a college degree, but that doesn’t get you a job."
Murnan agreed that education in Kansas does need to change.
"Public education is the great equalizer, it is, it always has been," she said. "We can’t keep doing business the way we’ve been doing it forever. It’s not 1975 anymore, we have to adapt."
The candidates also touched on how they have regularly reached across the aisle to get the job done.
Murnan talked about her work with the women’s caucus group to work through the Brownback tax experiment.
"If it doesn’t happen every day you’re not doing a good job," she said. "If you’re only talking to people that you agree with, you might as well just stay here."
Smith talked about how he voted during his time in the legislature, and how he requested to sit near the Democratic members of the house so he could talk with them.
"Pittsburg is 50 Democrat, 50 Republican and I think it’s important that I represent both sides," he said.
Then came time for the closing arguments.
Murnan spent her two minutes talking about her qualifications and what she would continue doing if the people of Pittsburg voted for her.
"I have the capacity to do the job," she said. "I want to do the job because I believe that once you get to Topeka our voice here in the southeast is awfully quiet and I don’t like that and so I want to be that voice and I want to continue to be the voice."
Smith spent his time talking about how Murnan is not their voice up in Topeka since the Republicans have such a majority.
"With my opponent, we don’t have a voice in Topeka," he said.
Smith also spent his closing argument discussing abortion, an issue he said he cares very deeply about, even going as far as to cite a beloved children’s story in his argument.
"In ‘The Lorax,’ he says ‘I speak for the trees,’" Smith said. "Well, I speak for the unborn babies."
To watch the full debate go to the City of Pittsburg’s Youtube channel.