A large crowd at Liberal’s Rock Island Depot listens to candidates for Kansas’s 125th House District and Kansas State Board of Education candidate Sally Cauble answer questions from them and those listening to the broadcast of the forum Tuesday. Former county commissioner Shannon Francis and current county commissioner Jim Rice are vying for a seat being vacated by the announcement earlier this year that Kansas Representative Reid Petty would not seek a second term. L&T photo/Earl Watt
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
For the second time, Shannon Francis and Jim Rice are squaring off with a political seat up for grabs.
This time, the former and current Seward County commissioners are trying to get a position at the state level as the next representative of Kansas’ 125th House District.
The candidates answered questions from the audience at the Rock Island Depot Tuesday and from the audience listening to the broadcast of the forum.
A little more than 20 questions were made into Francis’s and Rice’s beliefs on different topics.
One of the inquiries focused on the candidates’s performance as commissioner when it came to the county’s mill levy.
Francis initially said during his eight years on the commission, the mill levy remained steady between 24 and 26 mills, and he then left Rice to talk about the levy during his time on the commission.
Rice said the levy had gone up in his five years on the commission, but he said there was a reason for this.
“There’s a fallacy everybody goes by,” he said. “‘Oh my gosh, the mill levy’s going up.’ The thing you need to remember is there’s a good possibility the reason the mill levy went up is because your valuation went down. When Shannon was on the commission, our valuation was $312 million. Today, our valuation’s about $252 million. We’ve had a drop of about 60 million dollars.”
Rice said in order to compensate for this and continue to provide services at the local level, the levy must either be maintained, or services must be cut.
“I haven’t had one person call me and say don’t order that fire truck or don’t bring that ambulance to my house,” he said.
Francis said in Rice’s time on the commission, the county has had an increase of about $1.7 million tax revenues.
“They’ve increased the mill levy 45 percent since I left office,” he said. “Things are tough. You always have to make things work.”
Rice then pointed to Francis’s record, namely the Seward County Administration Building, which was constructed at a cost of more than $4 million, as well as other issues.
“We had a little problem out at the fairgrounds with a lack of a proper maintenance program,” he said. “That costs us $375,000 to put the electricity back in that building.”
Later, the candidates were questioned about their top priorities. Francis said he wants work to be done with the area’s highways.
“In six years, the highway plan’s going to come up,” he said. “We need to have someone with some seniority in the situation that understands highways, that understands the way the state thinks to try to get something done on Highway 54. I’ve got a plan for that.”
Rice said no matter what happens, it needs to be done with the help of other lawmakers in the state.
“I think there’s some things that we can do, but you have to remember you have to convince at least 63 other representatives to be on your side and to help you pass legislation,” he said.
Candidates were later asked how they would help hold the state’s education system, which is already funded by 62 percent of the state’s budget, accountable for its expenditures.
Francis said much of the recent ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court to increase education funding was swallowed up by the state’s retirement system for educators.
“I think we need to get back to the basics on education, and we do have to have accountability,” he said. “I think we can have accountability at the local level as long as we understand what the standards are. A fourth grader in Liberal, Kansas, needs to know the same thing as a fourth grader in Las Vegas, New Mexico. We’ve got to get back to the basics. We need to let our educators focus on education.”
Rice said he believes accountability starts with the budget itself.
“I think it’s important those be taken a serious look at,” he said. “Go through them line item by line item. I know that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort, but I believe probably in the long run, the success rate will be great. There’ll be some savings to be made. Perhaps, there’s some other areas that need to be more funding than others.”
Rice said he, like many, disagrees with having the courts decide how much funding schools should get.
“I believe that funding should be decided by the school boards, the local school board folks and the state legislators, and the court system shouldn’t have anything to do with that funding,” he said.
Near the end of the forum, Rice and Francis were asked what the biggest challenges facing Kansas were, Francis said he believes it is the divide between the state’s urban and rural communities.
“I think the urban legislators think we owe them,” he said. “They’re subsidizing our lifestyle, our way of life. We have to get them to respect us. We have to get them to understand western Kansas being strong makes them stronger.”
Rice pointed to a major part of life on the High Plains – water.
“Across the United States, the Ogallala provides a lot of revenue dollars coming in,” he said. “I think once that’s gone and we’re waiting on Mother Nature, if we have five years in the future like we’ve had five years in the past, it’s going to be sad news out here.”
In his rebuttal, Francis said while he agrees the aquifer is an important piece of the puzzle in Southwest Kansas, he continued to make the case for the divide between urban and rural areas.
“It’s all of us working together to make Kansas better, making sure my kids have a good education, the kids in Johnson County have a good education, making sure my kids can come home and have a career and live here and be successful for the rest of their lives,” he said.