PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the last of its three candidate forums Wednesday, giving incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand and Democratic challenger Nancy Ingle the opportunity to answer questions and make their respective cases to the public.

"I have several reasons why I chose to file for this office, but one of the overriding reasons was that I’m getting the feeling that Southeast Kansas is being overlooked or taken for granted," Ingle said in her opening statement. "It’s like our state has become a state of five big counties, and we’re a state of 105, and I think Southeast Kansas needs a strong voice to bring attention to us and to our needs."

Hilderbrand, meanwhile, pointed to both his political and business experience as reasons he should be re-elected. On some questions, such as one about what role the state should play in response to a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, his responses were succinct.

"The only role it should play is to advise and assist local government," he said. "That’s it."

Ingle, however, took a different view of the pandemic.

"I want to make it clear: COVID-19 is not the flu, and it is a serious public health problem," she said. "I believe that the federal government should have taken the lead, but they didn’t. … I think that the state operated on the best information they had at the time, and it kept changing — it’s still changing. We are now in a structure where the local governments have the decision-making power. I would have no intent of changing that, but I do hope that the local officials are taking this really serious."

Another issue where the two candidates differed was the issue of whether the state should expand its Medicaid program.

"I am for Medicaid expansion, absolutely. I think it just makes common sense. There’s been some theories that it’s going to raise our taxes. It’s not going to raise our taxes," Ingle said.

She added that by not taking federal funding that would be available if the state expanded Medicaid, that money was instead going to states like New York.

"Since 2014 we have refused over 4.3 billion — not million — billion dollars in our hard-earned tax money that was there to come back," she said.

Hilderbrand took a differing position on Medicaid expansion.

"Do I support it? No," he said. "Will we have an opportunity to vote on it again? We don’t know. Supreme Court’s getting ready to have a hearing on it to see whether or not it’s constitutional and to throw it out."

Hilderbrand said that while Ingle was promoting the idea of compromising and working across the aisle, Democrats refused to do so last legislative session.

"There was a compromise to get Medicaid expansion passed this past session, all we had to do was pass the Value Them Both Amendment," he said. "That didn’t get passed because zero Democrats would vote for it. They thought that the right to an abortion was more important than expanding Medicaid. Because of that, Medicaid expansion did not get passed in Kansas last session. On top of that, if it does get passed, how is Kansas going to pay for it?"

He also questioned Ingle’s assessment that Kansas taxpayers’ money was instead going to other states because of Kansas’ failure to expand Medicaid.

"$1.23 is what we get back for every dollar we send to Washington," Hilderbrand said. "Kansas taxpayers are not sending money to Washington and sending it to New York or sending it to California. That money is not sitting there. We are $26 trillion in debt in the US federal government. We are going to put more debt on our grandchildren and our great grandchildren to pay it back."

In response to a question about expansion of Highway 69, while Hilderbrand said it had been one of his priorities since he was elected, he also discussed the problem of highway funding being diverted from the "Bank of KDOT" to the state’s general fund and other agencies.

"Every year money gets robbed from the Bank of KDOT to balance the budget," he said. "These last two years have been no different. I actually am the one legislator in the State of Kansas to introduce a constitutional amendment that would permanently close the Bank of KDOT in Kansas."

Ingle, meanwhile, said that "expansion of a four-lane US-69 all the way to the Oklahoma border is absolutely essential for the economic development potential of Southeast Kansas," but also added that other area highways, such as K-7, are also in need of state funding.

In terms of working across the aisle, Ingle discussed her experience negotiating contracts in her career as an attorney, while Hilderbrand noted his sponsorship and co-sponsorship with Democrats of five bills in the last legislative session, four of which have been signed into law.

Another question had to do with differences within the various communities that make up the 13th District, which includes Crawford and Cherokee counties along with smaller parts of Labette and Bourbon counties.

"Pittsburg’s more of a college town, so you have the college that you have to make sure that you are taking care of or looking at, make sure their interests are being taken care of," Hilderbrand said.

"Cherokee County for instance, one of the things that we do have is we’re on a border, so we border Missouri and Oklahoma. Property taxes are a big issue. Sales taxes are a big issue because you can go across the state line and get things a little bit cheaper."

Ingle noted that there are differences between rural areas of the district versus more urban areas such as Pittsburg, and acknowledged that the proximity to other states has been an issue for decades when it comes to issues such as sales tax incentives to buy things across the state line.

"But that’s not what I would want to focus on," she said. "What I want to focus on is the commonality, the issues that bring us all together like healthcare, education, childcare for our working parents that need a place they can feel safe to leave their child while they go to work. I believe that the different areas of the 13th District have more in common than they have as differences."

Ingle said despite wanting to focus on commonality, she would listen to what people had to say from different parts of the district.

"I would hold town halls in each of the areas to find out what’s going on and to listen to them," she said. "But we need to not focus on our differences but on our common values."

The issue of increased unemployment benefits of an additional $300 per week amid the COVID-19 pandemic also came up during the forum.

"I find it hard to believe that someone can live on their unemployment and $300 and that makes them not want to go back to a job that pays 11 bucks an hour or something," Ingle said, but added that she was not sure how long the additional benefits should be allowed to continue.

"I don’t believe that $300 is that kind of an incentive," she said. "Maybe for some people it is but I couldn’t pay my mortgage, I couldn’t put food on my table with just unemployment, with just straight unemployment when there’s no jobs to go and apply for, so I’m not that concerned about the $300. We need to keep an eye on it though."

Hilderbrand, meanwhile, stressed that the additional $300 in unemployment benefits is paid out weekly, rather than monthly.

"Someone making $11 an hour wouldn’t bring home $440, but that would be their gross pay," he said. "After they paid taxes it would be more like $300, so if you put that on top of the 400-some-dollar max weekly UI benefit, that’s a pretty big incentive to stay home. What can you do about it? It’s a federal program. You have to follow the federal guidelines. One of the things that should be in there if it’s not in there is if you’re offered employment or if your job calls and says ‘Come back to work’ and you refuse, you should lose your unemployment. That would be how you would fix that."

Both candidates were also asked how they would deal with the significant budget deficit that the state is projected to be dealing with by fiscal year 2022.

"We have a lot of tough cuts ahead," Hilderbrand said, "but we’re going to have to make them and do them to where we’re prioritizing where it’s going to have the least impact but where it will have the biggest rebound when we come out of it when finances are back up and going good."

Ingle said she agreed to some extent.

"There’s going to be some really hard decisions that have to be made," she said.

She also added, however, that taxes should be raised on the state’s highest income earners to help balance the budget.

"I would also like to look at a fourth bracket of taxes for maybe the higher income people," she said. "Not on the backs of the unemployed and the small business people that are operating here in Southeast Kansas, but a fourth bracket that adjusts a little bit more the taxes to the higher levels of the tax code of income. But it’s not going to be easy."

In closing, Ingle said she was not running for office to represent any particular group.

"I want to be there for everyone," she said. "I want to represent the Democrats, the Republicans, the independents, the Libertarians, I want to represent the people that don’t even register and vote."

Although Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, announced endorsements last month of several Democrats challenging Republicans in Kansas Senate races, Ingle was not on her list. A spokesperson for Kelly’s office did not respond this week to a request for comment as to why Kelly declined to endorse Ingle. Ingle commented on the lack of an endorsement, however, in a recent interview.

"She’s free to endorse whoever she wishes and I’m not going to try to speculate on why she chose those," Ingle said.

She added, though, that the lack of an endorsement from the governor "just goes along with what I’ve been saying — that we need a strong voice here in Southeast Kansas."

In his closing statement Wednesday, Hilderbrand said there was a stark difference between himself and Ingle.

"So you have an opportunity to choose," he said. "Which path do we want to take? You can take the path that’s going to raise your taxes, vote for budgets that are deficit spending again and not be fiscally responsible, or we can finally take care of business, get down like we do at our kitchen table when we’re discussing our finances and say ‘This is what we’ve got coming in, this is what we can spend going out.’ That’s something we have to do at the state."