Joshua Svaty, a Democrat running for Kansas governor, made his 105th and final campaign stop in Hays on Monday, ending a sweeping tour that included every county in the state.
Svaty hosted an informal question-and-answer style meeting on the Fort Hays State University campus in the morning, taking questions from several students — many of whom are studying political science.
Svaty urged the students to “start paying attention” to local and state government. He also encouraged them to consider following in his footsteps if they have political aspirations.
Svaty, who farms in Ellsworth County, was elected to the Kansas Legislature shortly after graduating from college in his early 20s. He served for seven years, then was appointed to serve as secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture by former Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Despite being a Democrat, he was elected by a predominantly Republican legislative district, including Ellsworth and parts of Saline and Dickinson counties.
“I found, when I look back as a 22-year-old, that these communities who are worried about keeping young people at home were thrilled to have a young person that came out of that community, who graduated from there and demonstrated an interest in that town, who was willing to come back and represent that community,” he said. “I was amazed at how positively people responded to that.”
Svaty kept the event casual, at one point sitting on the edge of the stage in FHSU’s Memorial Union’s Cody Commons area to visit with students. A few dozen students and several community members attended the event, and Svaty also made a stop at Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas and planned a dinner event with the Ellis County Democratic Party.
Education funding was a recurring theme, with Svaty speaking strongly in favor of restoring funding cuts made by the state Legislature in recent years. Pending an official order from the Kansas Supreme Court regarding a mandated funding amount, Svaty said it likely would take “a couple million more” dollars to adequately fund K-12 education.
Svaty said funding likely will need to be phased back in through a few years due to the state’s current financial situation.
“We now have around 1,500 teacher vacancies in the state of Kansas, and we are losing teachers to Missouri and Oklahoma, which is unheard of,” he said. “It’s an indication of the reputation of what’s happened here. Some of that is simply pay, what schools can provide. Some of that is also due process and what is seen as a lack of respect for teachers and what they do.”
FHSU students also asked questions about higher education, which Svaty said also has been adversely affected by state spending cuts. Due to inadequate public funding, Kansas universities have been forced to raise tuition — sometimes for several consecutive years, he said.
“I do think we are beginning to push against the boundaries of what an affordable higher education would look and feel like,” Svaty said. “As a parent with three kids — soon to be four — people are saying, ‘Well, you need to save $150,000 per kid just to go to college.’ I’m like, ‘That’s insanity.’ There’s no way we can possibly get to that.”
Nonetheless, Svaty also noted the case for higher education is still strong, and data indicates a college education is the best way to be “upwardly mobile” in terms of earnings.
While education funding is important, Svaty said, he also noted the entire state economy and all government agencies have been hit hard by spending cuts and will need to be restored.
After his term with the agriculture department came to an end, Svaty worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for a few years before returning to farming. His experience in public service has made him aware that all state agencies — and their employees — are struggling, he said.
He praised the Legislature’s decision this summer to override Gov. Sam Brownback in restoring previous income tax cuts, and said he expects that to greatly assist in efforts to “rebuild” the Kansas economy.
“We have not had a legitimate, long-term transportation plan for a long time. We have to put something like that together,” he said. “We have to shore up staffing for corrections. We have to shore up staffing for our other state agencies, so the list of needs in the state is long. Higher education is in there, but it’s going to have to find its way forward to be sure it gets funded, along with everything else as we rebuild the state over the next three or four years. It’s going to take a long time.”
Svaty cautioned that tax decreases on a state level don’t always mean residents are saving money. Rather, the costs usually are pushed down to education systems and local governments, he said.
He said he is optimistic oil and agriculture values will bounce back in the next few years, and he favors cutting sales taxes on food as an effort to help lower-income families who might be struggling in the current economic conditions.
“We understand a tax burden for anyone is difficult, and we want to try and find a way where we are not aggressive and provide some sort of relief for you,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to fund the services Kansans believe in. We just have to. There’s no way to avoid it.”