By Erin Mathews

The Salina Journal

A question inspired by campaign ads posed to 69th District Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, and Democratic challenger Gary Swartzendruber got the first round of applause as the state government portion of the League of Women Voters' candidate forum began Tuesday night.

"I've heard some campaign ads from both of you in the last couple of weeks, and I've had too many questions (to) count about those ads," said Todd Pittenger of Salina Media Group. "I'll start out by asking about those. Two-prong question: Gary, are you a deadbeat dad? J.R., do you live in the district?"

Swartzendruber said he was not a deadbeat dad. He went through an amicable divorce 32 years ago, he said, and nine years later there was a new development related to to child support that he

complied with.

"I loved my children then; I love my children now," he said.

Claeys' answer was more succinct: "Yes." At several points during the forum, Swartzendruber said something that brought audience applause.

Applause lines included:

Gay marriage

-- On the constitutional amendment banning samesex marriage: "Here's what I really did not like at the state level: Passing a law hiding bigotry and discrimination in prayer is despicable." Claeys said that while the state should never make anyone feel ashamed to be who they are, the amendment was voted in by the people of Kansas. He said he thought religious liberties need to be respected, while at the same time the state should not be allowed to treat people "dramatically differently."

Differ on Medicaid

-- On the state's refusal to expand Medicaid benefits to cover health insurance costs for low-income families not covered by the Affordable Care Act, Swartzendruber said, "Yes, we need to expand Medicaid." Claeys said Medicaid expansion would not be appropriate right now because it's "extremely expensive" and it wouldn't do anything for the people already in the system. Swartzendruber said the state's refusal to expand the program has resulted in the loss of nearly $1 billion in federal revenue, in addition to the $1 billion the state spent to privatize the system. "We absolutely can't allow what happened to Medicaid to happen to Medicare," he said to more applause. "That would be a travesty."

Top issue heard

-- On the top issue heard from constituents, Swartzendruber said, "Walking in diverse neighborhoods in the 69th, having conversations and going to meetings, the No. 1 issue is: Restore funding to education." Swartzendruber said that with the tax cuts the state has implemented, education funding cuts are inevitable, as education makes up 70 percent of the state budget. Claeys said he hears a lot about taxation -- people tired of constant property tax increases -- and about "Obamacare."

Judge selection

-- On selecting judges: "It's despicable to have a personal agenda so that I as governor can handpick my judges so I can avoid decisions like Gannon (a lawsuit that resulted in a requirement that state funding of schools increase) in the future," Swartzendruber said.

Claeys said he does not think a constitutional amendment to change the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected is likely to be pursued.

Paying child support

At one point, Swartzendruber seemed to leave the audience confused. To a question about how to crack down on parents who don't pay child support, Swartzendruber responded, "You sure don't want to penalize the most vulnerable among us by making damn sure they get drug-tested when there are lots of people who are misusing drugs a lot more, as in prescription drugs."

"Answer the question," someone from the audience called out.

Given a second chance, Swartzendruber said people need to be held accountable, as he had been held accountable, and he had paid.

Claeys said he thinks current law addresses the issue fairly well, but some improvements may be possible in enforcement on people who are self-employed. Other issues

-- State budget woes. Claeys said the state has a fairly large budget surplus but revenue projections on which that the budget is based are being missed. He indicated that job growth and economic incentives for small businesses are part of the solution.

"Higher-end tax breaks actually create jobs in the state of Kansas," Claeys said. "I don't know why we'd be against that."

Swartzendruber said 200,000 businesses no longer pay income taxes under tax changes instituted under Gov. Sam Brownback. He said the state needs to "freeze tax giveaways to special interests at the cost of everybody else."

-- Legalization of marijuana. Claeys said marijuana for recreational use should "absolutely not" be legalized, but the drug may have acceptable medical uses. Swartzendruber said he would support legalization of marijuana and certainly encourage legalization of industrial hemp.

-- Teacher tenure. Claeys said a school-finance bill passed this year was a "huge win" for Salina because it provided local property tax relief, raises for teachers and funding for all-day kindergarten.

(c)2014 The Salina Journal