The Gardner Chamber of Commerce hosted a District 43 candidate forum Tuesday, Oct.11 at the Gardner Hampton Inn. Jason Lieb, chamber president, led the questions related to the area business community for incumbent Kansas District 43 representative Bill Sutton and Keith Davenport, who is running against Sutton in the November 8 election. Staff photos by Lynne Hermansen

Lynne Hermansen
The Gardner Chamber of Commerce moderated a forum for District 43 candidates at the Gardner Hampton Inn on Tuesday Oct. 11.
Jason Lieb, chamber president, led and moderated the forum through a series of questions ranging from their priorities as state representative to local economic development needs, education and more.
“I am happy to sponsor and support civic engagement,”Lieb said.
Each candidate had two minutes to respond to questions.
Bill Sutton has been the incumbent for District 43 for the past ten years.
“In my capacity I have served a number of committees of every facet of life,”he said. “Appropriations, Commerce, K-12 budget, education, transportation—a lot of budget committees. I spent the last ten years staring at spreadsheets. Budgets are just numbers. What works and isn’t working. Decisions to deal with. It very rare it is a partisan vote. It is solving the number puzzle every year.”
Sutton said it was all of them working across the aisle.
“That’s the essence of good legislation,”he said.
Keith Davenport, an evangelical pastor and former Johnson County employee, is running against Sutton.
Davenport said he was driven to run because he felt the current representatives don’t represent the people.
“Our elected officials don’t do a good job representing us,”he said. “They just represent the party. We need someone who represents the common good.”
Davenport said there is a level of verocity in the blame game between political parties.
“What party you belong to matters less than what community you belong to,”he said.
Sutton said his top three priorities as representative are responsible budgeting, world class education and tax relief.
“It was a challenge not having money after 2009,” he said. “There was zero money in the budget. Then Covid was a wash that turned into hungry, hungry hippos.”
Sutton said the challenge was one time funds.
“We need to focus on getting rid of debt, saving money and not growing the government,”he said.
Sutton said when it came to education it was about solving problems administrators and school districts face and he wanted to work for a balanced State budget, reducing debt and not having the same level of taxation.
Davenport said his priorities were fully funding special education, childcare and inflation because these were the things he had been hearing from voters.
“Special Ed hasn’t been fully funded since 2011,”he said. “There is a 10 million dollar deficit in Johnson County.”
Davenport said the lack of affordable childcare for working families was causing businesses to struggle in getting the workforce they need.
He said reducing sales, food and property taxes and lowering and broadening the tax base would help with the rising inflation.
Davenport said a balanced tax approach was needed for the State because businesses can’t hire people and residents can’t afford to visit businesses.
“I will stand up to the party about the tax budget put forth,”he said. “They had the opportunity with legislation to help families this year but punted that.”
Sutton said no one should be surprised the sales tax revenue is up.
“The price of groceries went up with inflation,”he said. “Eggs went up 64 percent so the tax revenue went up. No one should be surprised by that.”
Sutton said they need to reduce government spending and he is proud of helping reduce the State’s debt.
“The KPERS pension fund is under control,”he said. “There are lots of debts and bonds. How do we develop a responsible budget while reducing for the long term.”
Sutton said he supported Derek Schmidt‘s tax relief plan.
Derek Schmidt is running against Laura Kelly for the Kansas Governor seat.
Sutton said he would hold the APEX bill up as a perfect example for economic development support.
“It targets industry,”he said. Suppliers and supporters are included too. $5 billion is promised in infrastructure and 9,000 jobs in DeSoto with developing land all around us. All communities will benefit greatly.”
Sutton said he would also like to keep Kansas students in Kansas and supports the Kansas Promise Act for people who might not attend college.
“62 percent of graduates leave the state,”he said.
Davenport said he believed in tax incentives and supported a full range of development and incentives.
“If one person stands up all have to stand up,”he said. “It is best done at the local level. We know what the community needs. Think about Main Street. We wouldn’t want the State to decide what businesses go in. Contracts and agreement have to be managed effectively. A developer needs to pay back if they don’t live up to the deal.”
The candidates were asked about their thoughts on the State’s Panasonic Project at the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site.
Davenport said he had been talking to local businesses and city staff and Main Street is on the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“The city is struggling working with KDOT,”he said. “Developers want to develop but can’t because of State rules. I want to work with the State for local needs.”
Davenport said education should be top of the line and public schools have to be the best especially special education.
“We should lean into a long term plan,” he said. “What type of business do we need. Help the local economy.”
Sutton said Davenport was exactly correct.
“Transportation is key,”he said.
Sutton said people in the Gardner area would need access to the Panasonic Plant and an outer loop to connect to I-70 and K-10 had been on the drawing board for the last 30 years.
“We have to deal with housing requirements,”he said. “We are going to have a great boom and will have to work with local officials.”
Sutton and Davenport had differences on funding and accessibility for K-12 education.
Sutton cited the Gannon case and said in 2018 the State finally came to an understanding with the Supreme Court in funding for education.
“Supreme Court made a good decision,”he said. “I have no will to change the progression and with higher inflation it is very difficult.”
Davenport said Sutton continually votes against public education.
“He has been called out by organizations repeatedly for consistent voting against public education,”he said. “My six year old loves his teacher. It’s our teachers that make our school great. There’s a 1,000 teacher and para educator shortage. We have to invest. Stop the rhetoric. Make sure teachers and parents work together.”
Davenport said he worked at Johnson County Community College in 2008 and 2009 and the State was reducing the support and increasing regulations at the time.
“We have to look at funding models,”he said. “It is essential for long term workforce and development. Without students being able to afford college we can’t fill workforce needs.”
Sutton said college education has skyrocketed.
“It is a nationwide problem,”he said. “Student loans are a part of it. We can’t handle it at the State level.”
Sutton said there were a few initiatives they were working on and one he liked would emulate a program in Iowa for a para to teacher college program that could be attended at night or online.
“We need to market the degree program to address the teacher shortage,”he said. “We need to develop the workforce and fill vital roles in the community. There is a nationwide shortage on teachers and we need to fill the gap.”
For growth and development of the workforce, Sutton said they needed to stop the out migration with people leaving the State by having families stick together and keeping college kids in Kansas.
“The Kansas Promise Act comes into play,”he said. “The two years after college are important years in a person’s life.”
Sutton said they need to emphasize that people can do well in Gardner and focus more on the Tech Ed Center at Gardner Edgerton High School.
“We have to develop further so they’re immediately employable,”he said. “This is going to be key to keep and build the workforce.”
Davenport said employee retention was important and businesses are challenged filling roles largely due to issues with childcare.
“We can’t get the workforce because they can’t afford childcare,”he said. “We are seeing local initiatives with more affordable childcare where the jobs are.”
Davenport said continued Education was also vital.
“There are ways the State government can partner with local business needs,”he said.
Davenport said they use the national transit authority models for childcare.
“Tax credits are not enough,”he said. “Johnson County Parks and Rec is the largest childcare provider.”
Davenport said childcare accessibility will provide a higher turn on investment for the workforce.
“We have to expand on Medicaid,”he said. “There is 72 percent support and 38 states have expanded. We would save $40 to $80 million annually for private businesses. There would be less people with mental illness in jails. I consider that winning.”
Sutton said the county setting up a childcare facility wasn’t a bad idea.
“We need to reduce the barrier of entry,”he said. “The weight, the licensing keeps a lot of people out of the industry. We need to climb through regulations to eliminate barriers.”
Sutton said he differed on health issues from Davenport and had seen the numbers of outcomes of Medicaid patients than those insured entirely.
“When one checkout line goes from 50 to 100 you’re not receiving the services you expect,”he said. “You’ve increased the number of customers but not the availability of doctors.”
Sutton said his view of government is there is a role for the State to make regulations uniform.
“In general decisions need to be made closest to people effected by them,”he said.
Davenport said he agreed that decisions have to be made at the local level but Sutton’s votes didn’t reflect that.
“The State has taken away local power,” he said. “They continue to tie hands to be able to do local decisions and continue to take away their local rule. They pass laws to nullify city decisions. If you don’t like the decision city council makes vote them all out. Votes have to match what you’re saying in front of people.”
Davenport said you can’t represent the community if you’re not present.
“We need a representative who can respond to a crisis and bring everyone together,”he said.