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Karr, Longbine face off in Senate candidate forum

Managing editor

Party lines were drawn on some topics by Senate candidates Jerry Karr, D-Emporia, and Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, during a candidate forum Sunday afternoon at USD 408 Performing Arts Center, Marion, but the two candidates also agreed on many issues.

The most popular question asked by readers of the Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal, and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin was whether the candidates supported the state’s willingness to exempt TransCanada from property taxes in Marion County and five other counties for 10 years.

The pipeline is nearing completion in Marion County.

With the exemption, Marion County could lose nearly $4 million of tax revenue during that 10-year period.

“This is an important issue,” Karr said. “It impacts our future with taxes.”

The original projection of tax abatement was $250 million, Karr said, but has increased “three-fold” in size, further impacting Marion County taxes.

“There is a bill pending in lieu of taxes,” he said, but it has stalled in the Senate.

Recent efforts by “well-intentioned” Marion County Commissioners have not affected to the outcome.

“The project wasn’t exactly as portrayed,” Karr said.

“I’ve had difficulty understanding how this happened,” Longbine said.

He said if he were in the Senate when this occurred, he would have been in contact with local elected officials to determine the impact of abating property taxes on the TransCanada pipeline through Marion County for the first 10 years.

“I’m disappointed that they didn’t do that,” Longbine said.

State abatement requires job creation and he said he wasn’t aware of any jobs from this project.

Longbine also suggested the county commission go through perhaps district court or the state board of tax appeals to determine if this exemption is viable.

The two candidates agreed that the majority of school funding needed to remain the responsibility of the state but wanted more flexibility for local school districts.

One point of disagreement was whether same-sex couples should receive state employee benefits.

“I believe a marriage is between one man and one woman,” Longbine said. “The state should not provide benefits to those not married in that fashion.”

Karr said Congress had addressed the constitutional issue and many private sector companies have allowed individuals to have the same opportunity for extended sick leave if a partner was ill.

“The state may want to consider mirroring what large corporations are doing,” he said.

About the candidates

Education is Longbine’s main concern. He said he talked with most of the school superintendents in the 17th Senate district. His main concern is the lack of flexibility with funds provided by Kansas legislators.

The economy also needs to improve with more private sector jobs.

“I helped to create 1,000 jobs in Emporia,” Longbine said.

Longbine is the mayor of Emporia and has served four years on the Emporia City Council. He also is active with local economic development efforts.

“I can bring unique skills to Topeka,” he said. “I’m not a career politician.”

President and Chief Executive Officer of Longbine Auto Plaza in Emporia, Longbine said if he was elected, he would look at the state Senator position and the state government as a business.

Karr said this special election — prompted by the resignation of Jim Barnett — is an important race.

“Job opportunities are challenging,” he said. “Fortunately Kansas is in a better position than other states.”

There needs to be experience in Topeka, he said, with people elected who can be trusted and who can communicate with constituents.

Cutting, eliminating corporate income tax

“Always a challenge,” Karr said, adding he would not advise cutting it or eliminating it. To remain competitive in a business climate, state legislators need to look at the state’s tax structure.

Longbine agreed.

“With a tight state budget, I’m not sure we can eliminate taxes,” he said. “I’m in favor of looking at the state government from a business point of view.”

Do you support the sales tax increase?

Longbine said he wasn’t involved in the discussions but knows there were numerous tax proposals.

“Sales tax is erroneous to my personal business,” he said, “and is most damaging to those who cannot afford it.”

However, Longbine said he would not support an appeal. He does support the transportation benefit from the increased sales tax.

“Transportation for our economy is very important,” he said.

With major cuts, sales tax was the only option, Karr said.

“There is a sunset on the tax,” he said. “It’s not a permanent condition.”

Karr added that it was a bi-partisan effort.

Health care plan

“The health care bill had warts and is in need of improvement,” Karr said.

He wants legislators to consider more options to provide affordable and accessible health care. He also wants more private efforts to raise money for disasters and disease.

“We have to look at ways to work with programs,” Karr said. “Right now we need flexibility.”

“The Obama health care plan is scary to a lot of individuals because no one really understands what was passed,” Longbine said. “No rules or regulations were written. I’m a firm believer that everyone needs to have a choice of health care.”

The use of tax incentives to attract business

“The reality is economic development is very competitive,”Longbine said. “Incentives are often used. In my experience with economic development, cash grants were not used but land and property tax abatements were.”

Each project should have a cost-benefit analysis, he said, to determine if it qualifies. Kansas needs to remain competitive.

“Every day there’s a phone call to Wichita to move whole plants from Wichita,” Karr said, “typically to southern states. We have a skilled work force and infrastructure and we need to encourage in-state development.”

Coal-fired power plants

“It is an interesting challenge in southwest Kansas,” Karr said. “There are emission problems.”

He continued that the power plants would supply electricity to other states. He was supportive of Governor Mark Parkinson’s proposal to reduce the size of the plants.

“There are external challenges,” Karr said. “The project would produce jobs but probably not as many as advertised. I still have questions about it.”

“I had concerns about this as the process took place a couple of years ago,” Longbine said. “There was a company that wanted to invest a lot of money in Kansas and should have been welcomed.”

Alternatives resources are important, he added. The plant project would have improved distribution and power lines. There has to be a strong base load power and transmission lines.

Longbine said he was also concerned about Governor Kathleen Sebelius when she tried to defeat the plant project through regulatory means.

“It sends a negative signal to other companies considering moving to Kansas,” he said. “It should have been a policy decision.”

KPERS shortfall, possible changes

“It’s a huge concern,” Longbine said, relating the issue to his wife’s recent retirement after 24 years of service.

He said from their calculations, the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System would lose money within a few years of his wife’s retirement.

“We need to look at all KPERS retirement benefit programs,” he said.

Longbine also suggested reviewing the number of points required for retirement. However, the worst thing the state could do is panic.

“As stock market and investments improve, some of that liability will be reduced,” he said.

He would not support reducing benefits for those already retired or nearing retirement age.

“I would support looking at changing the system for new hires or those working for a short period of time.”

The KPERS funding problem is not new, Karr said. There may be more emphasis now because of stock market changes.

“The House and Senate were probably trying to save money by reducing the amount of state contributions, further complicating the unfunded liability,” Karr said.

The issue was addressed in the 1990s but now have more problems.

“We need to look at several major employers and see how the public sector can compete with the private sector,” Karr said. “Changes in retirement plans are occurring in the private sector as are changes in health care.”

He said the state needs to attract quality employees but wasn’t certain if changing at this particular time would keep the state competitive.

Other topics

Neither candidate supported term limits for elected state officials because it could cause more problems with no one having experience or a knowledge of the history of bills.

Both agreed that promoting agriculture was a priority. Longbine was concerned about finding opportunities for young people, to keep them in communities.

Karr said there is a tremendous struggle in rural communities and value-added agricultural products was a key.

When asked for suggestions to keep post-secondary education affordable, Karr said the atmosphere of higher education has shifted from the state to student, parents, scholarships, and grants.

He said many other state universities are nearly privatized.

Karr also said he was concerned about the debt in the hands of students. He noted that more college students are living at home because of the cost of college.

Longbine said higher education needed to be a focal point of state government. Regents should look at duplication of programs and review ways the programs can be streamlined. Post-secondary educators should consider working together to provide more affordable education, he said.

The general election is Tuesday when voters in parts of Marion, Coffey, Greenwood, Morris, and Osage counties, and all of Chase and Lyon counties will select Karr or Longbine to serve in Topeka.

Last modified Oct. 28, 2010

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