Regardless of who wins the right to represent Kansas House District 17, the district’s voice will be more moderate than in the past.
Republican Tom Cox of Shawnee defeated conservative Republican incumbent Brett Hildabrand in the August primary with more than 61 percent of the vote. Cox will face Democrat Helen Stoll in the Nov. 8 general election for what would be the first elected office for either of them. The district covers portions of Lenexa, Shawnee and Lake Quivira.
Cox, 31, is a Shawnee-based businessman. He said he decided to challenge Hildabrand after looking at his voting history and determining his conservative politics didn’t adequately reflect the more moderate district, which voted for Democrat Paul Davis in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
He said his main focus is tax reform and finding ways to increase revenue so the state no longer struggles to meet its budget obligations. He said he would favor repealing the 2012 income tax exemptions for limited liability corporations, which many critics say is the key source of the state’s budget woes, but only as part of a larger re-evaluation of the state’s finances.
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“A lot of people call for just a pure repeal of the LLC exemption, but that’s bad as well because that puts us back in the position where we’re an economically unfavorable state,” he said. “We don’t need to repeal the LLC (exemption), we need to replace it with something better, something that encourages businesses to come to the state and rewards businesses when they truly grow the economy, when they add jobs, when the company expands.”
The overall financial discussion must also include ways to lower sales taxes that were raised to make up for some of the shortfall, including the region-leading sales tax rate on food.
As for education, Cox said he would support creating a new funding formula for public schools that involved input and approval from teachers, administrators, legislators and parents as a way to prevent ongoing legal challenges. He also said it still would need to include some level of local option, or the ability of local districts to raise their own money for some operations, which has been criticized in recent years.
“I recognize that we’re the wealthiest part of the state and I want to help contribute to the success of the rest of the state,” he said. “But we do need some form of option to protect our local schools and allow us not to get taxed but to continue to grow and to meet our full potential.”
Stoll, 54, lives in Lenexa and works at Johnson County Community College. She said she is running “because Kansas is in a crisis under the Brownback administration.”
Her first priority would be to fix what she called “structural flaws” in the state budget that she said have made it impossible to properly fund education or tackle other needs, such as expanding the number of low-income and disabled people eligible to receive health care through Medicaid.
“People are getting sick and going to the hospital, but the providers are not being reimbursed for care,” she said. “We’ve seen hospitals close in the state as a result.”
Stoll said the 2012 LLC exemption must be repealed as well as a decision to shrink the number of income tax brackets from three to two, which has further harmed revenue.
She also said she wants to revisit budget decisions that she said have ended up costing the state more in the long run, such as putting off road and bridge maintenance and cutting programs that allow seniors to stay in their homes instead of more costly assisted living centers. She said she also wants to reduce sales taxes, particularly on food.
Increased revenue will help lawmakers create a new funding formula for public schools that will satisfy the courts for adequacy and equity, she said.
Stoll said her job at JCCC allows her to see directly how cuts to higher education have affected students and their families with many stretched financially and some students forced to quit, heading into a job market burden with both no degree and high student debt.
“We’re losing the ability to attract students and instructors,” she said. “I’m for adequate funding at all levels.”
Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said races like this one will be interesting because they will show whether voter animosity toward conservative Republicans in the primaries continue to help more moderate Republicans or their Democratic foes in the general election.
“You’re bringing in a lot of less informed voters, and it’s possible the Republicans could be damaged just because the voters may not be following every twist and turn in politics and not realize these Republicans have differentiated themselves from Brownback,” Smith said. “That might be the Democrats’ best hope.”
David Twiddy: firstname.lastname@example.org
Education: Bachelor’s in political science and history, University of Kansas, 2008; master’s in journalism, KU, 2010
Occupation: Vice president at Strat Property Management Inc., a self-storage operator
Elected experience: None
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration, University of Kansas, 1984
Occupation: Records department at Johnson County Community College
Elected experience: None