Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and his running mate for the state’s top executive office, Goodland businesswoman Jen Sanderson, are hitting the campaign trail hard during the next few weeks before the Aug. 7 primary.
While Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach appear to be the frontrunners for the Republican nomination, Selzer said he believes he and Sanderson have the best experience in business and agriculture to lead the state.
Selzer, elected insurance commissioner in 2014, is a certified public accountant who worked in the reinsurance industry for 30 years. He received his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Kansas State University and a master of business administration from the University of Southern California.
A fourth-generation Kansan, he grew up in Goessel, near Newton, and his wife, Deb, grew up on a farm near Kansas City. They own a farm south of Kansas City, near the family farm where her mother still lives.
Sanderson grew up in Plainville, the daughter and granddaughter of oil producers. She’s a graduate of Fort Hays State University and graduated with honors from the Graduate School of Banking in Boulder, Colo. She has worked in the banking and financial industry and owns a Sonic in Goodland with her husband, Kevin.
She has served as chair of the Leadership Kansas Board of Trustees, on the board of the Sherman County Convention and Visitors Bureau and as president of the endowment foundation for Northwest Kansas Area Technical College.
“We know agriculture like nobody else does in this gubernatorial race,” Selzer said in a Friday interview with The Hays Daily News. “So we’re truly emphasizing ag issues and the need to make Kansas grow. It has to start with ag, because ag drives the economy here in Kansas.”
The running mates emphasize approaching government with a business-like mindset.
“We have to think about running government in a more businesslike way. That starts with leaning in on costs every day and it starts with making Kansas grow. It’s those two things that have to happen that haven’t been dealt with over the last seven, eight years and aren’t being dealt with now,” Selzer said.
Selzer noted the state budget increased by 6.8 percent last year and the state had a flat economy.
“That can’t be tolerated,” he said. “We’ll never be able to invest in education in a way that we need to be if we don’t make Kansas grow and if we don’t figure out how to be more productive about every tax dollar that we gather.
“Those are your dollars. They’re not the state’s dollars. We need to think in those terms. Our current governor isn’t doing that, and many legislators don’t think in that way,” he said.
Selzer and Sanderson addressed several issues in the question-and-answer session with The HDN. Their answers were slightly edited for clarity.
What can the state do to open new agriculture markets or bring back markets we might lose in the wake of a trade war with China?
Selzer: We need a governor who is out there championing agriculture every day. Championing markets. By that I mean working on new markets, working with others governors to make it known about the devastating impact that tariffs are going to have on our soybeans, our pork products, other ag products. We need a governor who can articulate agriculture issues. We don’t have that now and we need that.
What kind of new markets do you see?
Selzer: There’s all kinds of things. You hear about cotton, you hear about agricultural hemp, you hear about other things. We can look to our surrounding states and we see governors who are leading the way in developing new markets, who are working on export markets, who are banding together with other state governors to make things happen in the ag sector. We don’t have that. We need that. Kansas needs that. It’s so important to us. Other states, other agriculture-driven states who are even more ag-driven than we are have figured out how to make their states grow faster than Kansas. That’s again evidenced by the fact we were dead last in the Midwestern ag-driven states in our economy last year. That has to change.
Are you in favor of agricultural hemp production then?
Selzer: You bet I am. We have federal restrictions that make it rather cumbersome to do. Those need to be changed at the federal level. We need a governor who is out there advocating for ag hemp, hemp at the federal level. We don’t have that now.
Sanderson: It’s easier on water usage, correct? Look at all the hard work that Hays has done for years, going back how many governors? They’ve done it on their own and the water usage is much less from a municipal standpoint. We know Hays doesn’t have water. I remember as a young girl (the city) being on water rationing and you couldn’t water the grass. You guys have done such wonderful things through all the years, such a bright shining star for conserving such a needed resource. We’ve got to take that all the way across the state. We’ve got to really champion for what’s been done here and share those ideas.
That segues into my next question. Hays 20 years ago purchased a ranch in Edwards County and is now starting the process of the water usage change and water transfer request. Are you in favor of that proceeding and being approved?
Selzer: I think what’s in place needs to continue. Clearly a growing metropolitan area here that needs water. There’s a plan in place to make that happen and I think we need to support that.
Sanderson: Absolutely. It’s been in process for a long time and it’s unprecedented, and that makes people a little nervous when you do something unprecedented. It’s necessary and needed and it’s been coming since 1995.
Selzer: We need to protect water rights here in the state of Kansas and people who have senior water rights, we need to be very supportive of that, and we will be. There is a scarce resource that we all have to make a commitment to save and to treat as a scarce resource and treat it as an asset. We’re going to be very thoughtful about it. We have an ag committee that we have appointed that is a blue-chip ag committee throughout the state of Kansas. There’s a number of people on that committee who are water experts. We’ve surrounded ourselves with people who have an expertise in the water issues. I feel good about the direction that we’re going on water policy.
Gov. Brownback was in northwest Kansas last year touting the success of the Sheridan County 6 LEMA and research that it showed sustainable water usage of the Ogallala Aquifer. Do you agree with that conclusion?
Selzer: I do think we need voluntary programs and educational programs that, as you know, moving to new water technologies, irrigation technologies, requires a capital investment and that’s expensive for farmers who are using irrigation to make those changeovers. But we need to be able to demonstrate to them and work with different groups around the state to demonstrate the value of some of those water-saving technologies. (To Sanderson) In fact the school that you serve on the board, the endowment has a really neat program.
Sanderson: Northwest Tech. They teach the student farmers how to work with the moisture probes and the technology that’s available in agriculture now, and boy, what a neat program. Farmers can work so much more efficiently. They can check their wells while they’re at their child’s ballgame instead of driving around the county trying to figure out what well to shut down.
Selzer: And could we blend that issue with the outmigration issue that Kansas has here? We have a huge issue with outmigration in Kansas, from rural areas to the urban areas and from all of Kansas. It is an outmigration issue that is ripping our economy because we don’t have enough workers. We don’t have enough ag workers, we don’t have enough workers in manufacturing, we don’t have enough workers in many of the professions.
One of the things we will champion in order to slow that will be some of things that Jen just alluded to, developing programs that are serving the needs of the local communities. At Northwest Tech, they have some really first-class programs that should be shared and are being shared around the state, water technology for example. But the kids coming out of there have jobs in the local communities. If we can get our community colleges, our tech colleges and the universities to be more focused on the output from our educational system, all the way through and including high schools that give certificates and things like that, like nursing certificates and other things, welding certificates. If we can get them to focus on the needs of the local community, so that the kids that come out of school have the certificates and the qualifications to do the jobs that are available in the local communities, that will help slow the outmigration from Kansas because they will be readily able to find a job that pays well in their local community.
How does immigration play into the job factor you mentioned, of not enough workers for the jobs we have?
Selzer: It’s real clear we need more border security in the United States. We will always support and advocate for border security, including the things (President Donald) Trump is trying to do. We need to limit chain migration, we need to end the lottery system. We need to do all of those things. We need to stop the sanctuary city concept in Kansas.
What we do need to do, and are in very much in support of, is fully screened legal immigration. We will always be supportive of fully screened legal immigration. That includes a new H2C program if we could get it passed for ag workers in Kansas, where ag workers can stay for longer than the six months as they have in the past. There’s a huge investment that feedlots and other ag businesses make in training their employees. They ought to be able to stay longer than the six months if they’re sponsored by an employer and fully screened, meeting the qualifications for an H2C visa. We need to be more thoughtful than we have by a longshot. We will always support fully screened legal immigration.