In contrast to the partisan politics in Washington D.C., representing the 111th district of Kansas in Topeka the past two years has been a positive experience, said state Rep. Eber Phelps, speaking Friday evening at the annual meeting of the Ellis County Farm Bureau in the Schenk building at the Ellis County Fairgrounds.
Phelps, the Democratic candidate for the 111th seat in the Nov. 6 general election, compared the experience to riding in a car to events in western Kansas during his early years in the Legislature with Republican Dan Johnson, who represented the 110th district.
“Dan and I spent many miles driving up and down I-70 to events,” Phelps said, noting the two had a lot in common and that Johnson was one of his “all-time best friends.”
The experience showed him that most people agree on about 90 percent or 95 percent of things, including issues in this part of the state, like the oil and agriculture industries and education.
“Dan and I were both bullish on western Kansas,” he said. “I think Dan and I always kind of looked at that being the main reason for being in Topeka, to be a voice for all those things that make up this part of the state.”
That’s the spirit in Topeka now, Phelps said, as Republicans and Democrats restore funding and fix the budget and school funding crisis that emerged from the tax experiment of former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
“In 2016, the election brought a bunch of people to Topeka that I think are willing to get into the same car because we’re all trying to go in the same direction,” he said. “We’re all trying to fix the budget.”
A spirit of cooperation and collaboration was apparent at the start of the 2017 session, he said.
“When we went into the 2017 session, the state was facing probably a $900 million budget hole, and as we left the 2018 session we were on a lot more stable financial ground, somewhere in the neighborhood of a $350 million ending balance,” Phelps said. “We’ve had 15 straight months of growth, and not only with revenues, but also job growth as well.”
The hope now, he said, is that with a little bit of breathing room, school funding will stay on track, and instead of borrowing from education, Kansas can move forward and fix roads, as well as do maintenance and enhancement.
“The outlook is good. I hope to go back, but if not I hope that there’s a group of people there that have seen what’s taken place the last two years,” said Phelps, thanking Farm Bureau for its endorsement of him as a candidate. “… I really enjoyed the last two years. I got to serve with some remarkable people and I look forward to doing that again.”
Farm Bureau, one of the largest advocacy organizations in the nation, has 271 member families in Ellis County.
Rep. Ken Rahjes, a Republican from Phillipsburg, represents the 110th district, which includes northern Ellis County and parts north, also spoke at the meeting, dinner and dance that drew a couple hundred people. He also thanked Farm Bureau for their endorsement.
But unlike Phelps’ message of cooperation, Rahjes sounded a note of alarm about a rural-urban division in the state.
“We’re going to have a lot of new people in Topeka, a new governor, whoever that might be, and I’ll tell you, you need strong folks that are advocates for Ellis County and for agriculture,” Rahjes said. “They’re there. The barbarians are at the gates folks. I’d love to paint the rosiest picture that everybody loves you the farmer and rancher, but they don’t.”
Rahjes said bills being introduced target animal agriculture and production agriculture, but that if re-elected he’ll fight to stop attacks on the industry.
“if you’re involved in animal agriculture, they don’t want you to to do it anymore,” he said. “Some want those in agriculture production to pay higher taxes. Guys like me are going to continue to fight.”
Speaking in favor of use value appraisal of agricultural land, Rahjes said he’ll fight to keep that from being opened up for change. He also predicted the ag economy will turn around and rebound, as it has in the past, he said. Rahjes urged the crowd to get out and vote in November’s general election.
“It’s critical as we continue to see more and more population on the other side of the state want to dictate what goes on in your backyard,” Rahjes said. “You want change, it happens at home. It happens with those you elect to your city commission, your county commission, your state legislators, your judges, and up the line it goes. But the best way to start is voting. You have a choice.”