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Legislators discuss rural challenges

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

Western Kansas legislators addressed a broad range of topics from education to taxes Saturday morning at Hays Area Chamber of Commerce's first Eggs and Issues forum of the year.

Rep. Sue Boldra, R-Hays, Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, and Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, greeted approximately 80 people and responded to questions during the forum at Fort Hays State University's Robbins Center.

For freshmen legislators Boldra and Couture-Lovelady, the forum was their first Eggs and Issues appearance.

Boldra, a longtime educator, told the audience her short time in the Legislature has taught her a great deal.

"I've learned so much about so many things that I thought I knew about, just about the way the legislature works," she told the audience. "It doesn't quite match all the diagrams that I put on the chalkboards all those years.

"It's a very interesting and a very gracious place, and I'm very excited to be there."

In light of the January court ruling, which found the Kansas Legislature is failing to meet its constitutionally defined responsibility to fund the state's education needs, the legislators answered a few questions regarding educational funding.

Ostmeyer said he sees a need to focus more on students than on educational buildings. In addition, he said he continues to see a disparity between educational funding in eastern and western Kansas.

"Weskan or Johnson County," he said, "they should both have the same basic education opportunities."

Responding to an audience member's question about whether western Kansas is losing influence in state politics, Couture-Lovelady said he believes that is the case. He also said he sees a need to grow Kansas' population to retain influence nationally.

"I think Kansas, in general is at risk of losing influence in 10 years if we don't start to grow," he said. "We could lose a congressman.

"You know who really loses if Kansas goes from four to three (districts) is the rural areas of western Kansas."

Weighing in on the question, Ostmeyer said small towns in Kansas must persist in order for western Kansas to remain viable. He acknowledged property taxes on farmland might need to be raised in order to retain services in small communities.

"If Grinnell doesn't survive, Gove doesn't survive," he said. "Western Kansas won't survive."

Questioned about legislation on collective bargaining, Boldra brought her personal experiences to bear.

"I started teaching at a time when we didn't have that (collective bargaining) in our schools," she said. "The salary schedules were different for secondary teachers and they were certainly different between men and women.

"As a young married woman, I watched another woman who was pregnant walk in front of her principal once a week to show the size of her belly so he could decide when she was too big to be in the classroom."

"We've come a long way from that," Boldra said.

The legislators encouraged their constituents to contact them regarding any legislation or issues of concern.

Couture-Lovelady said legislators are ready to assist Kansans during the state's transition to KanCare, Kansas' new Medicaid program.

"If there are specific problems, let us know," he said. "We need to know about that so we can tell the administration so they can look into that, so we can get those issues resolved."