COLBY — The crowd was small, approximately 80 people, but the Thomas County Democratic Party and many in the audience were excited to have a full panel Saturday for its Democratic gubernatorial candidate forum.

The forum, at Colby Community College’s Frahm Theater and Cultural Arts Center, was the first in western Kansas anyone could remember since October 2002, when Democratic nominee Kathleen Sebelius and Republican nominee Tim Shallenburger met at the same location for a debate for the general election.

It also was the first forum for Sen. Laura Kelly, Topeka, who declared her candidacy in December. Earlier Saturday, she was in Hays for a meet-and-greet event. Several other candidates made other stops earlier in the day as well. Rep. Jim Ward, Wichita, visited Garden City, and former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer was in Dodge City.

In the forum, which lasted a little more than its 90-minute schedule, audience members submitted questions on cards that were delivered to moderator Tom Moorhous. Each candidate had two minutes to answer each question with a one-minute follow up after each candidate spoke; however, the follow-up was later dropped at the suggestion of Josh Svaty to give more time for questions.

Topics addressed included how to bring back a budget surplus, how to help rural hospitals, immigration, restoring groundwater and women’s reproductive rights.

Generally, the candidates were in agreement on their approaches to the topics, drawing focus in their answers to the need for the state to increase revenue by attracting more business through quality education and improving the image of the state.

The candidates generally agreed on many of the issues at question, with Dr. Arden Andersen straying from the consensus on several issues. While he agreed healthcare coverage should be expanded to more people, he does not think expanding Medicaid is the answer.

As a family physician, he deals with government program coverage for approximately one third of his patients, he said.

“I have to deal with that crappy system every single day in my practice,” he said. “Every day I have people come to me who need valuable medicines or therapies only to have someone who has no medical background tell me this is not medically necessary. And you want to expand that program?

“If we overhaul the system, we can double the number of people we cover ... without shorting them of any care they are currently getting,” he said.

Regarding groundwater management, he said it is mainly an issue of carbon sequestration — the long-term storage of carbon naturally and by manmade means.

“The real issue in the soil is not how much water you dump on it, the real issue is what is your carbon sequestration rate. Or reverse that, how much carbon do you have in the soil, because that correlates to water-holding capacity. That is a farm managment issue,” he said.

On a question of women’s reproductive rights, the candidates spoke mostly of their support for women’s rights in general. Andersen said the issue is not “black and white,” and that at 24 weeks of gestation, he is pro-life.

“Less than that, I’m pro-choice,” he said.

Ward also spoke of his record of voting for bills allowing women to make their own decisions regarding reproductive care.

Only high school student Jack Bergeson used the word “abortion,” saying he was pro-choice, but abortion should be made less common and adoption processes should be made easier.

Bergeson also was the only candidate to propose legalization of marijuana as a new revenue source.

In the final question of the forum, candidates were asked what they believed is the biggest issue facing the state and how the governor should address those issues.

Svaty and Brewer said the state’s image will be important to bringing new businesses.

“All the economic development and tax incentives we try to do as a state can only work if people and business around the rest of the country have a sense that Kansas is headed in the right direction,” Svaty said.

“We have to start sending out a different message than one that has been sent out there,” Brewer said. “I know that Kansans are better than what our representatives have shown the rest of the country, the rest of the world we are.”

Andersen, Ward and Kelly all agreed the economy and jobs are the most important issue.

Robert Klinginberg, a Salina truck driver and salesman, said the state needs to consider the effect automation of jobs will have on the state economy.

“There is really not one job that can’t be replaced by a machine,” he said, citing in particular the development of self-driving cars, self-checkout kiosks and Amazon’s experiments in brick-and-mortar stores that check out customers on their smart phones.

“No cashiers, drone stocking. These are things we should really take time to examine how they’re going to impact us,” he said.

Bergeson said voter engagement is an issue that is affecting the state now and in the future.

“We need to make sure younger people understand there are crucial stakes in this election, 2020, 2022, 2024,” he said.