Dreiling challenges incumbent Billinger for state senate seat

Randy Gonzales
Special to Hays Daily News

One candidate is looking to make a difference after losing his job last year. The other candidate feels there is unfinished business.

Voters will decide Tuesday on who will represent them for the next four years as state senator from the 40th district, Democratic challenger Larry Dreiling or Republican incumbent Rick Billinger.

Dreiling, 62, is from Hays and last year was laid off after 30 years as a journalist covering agricultural issues for the High Plains Journal. Billinger, 68, is a Goodland farmer who won his first term as state senator in 2016. Previously, he served two terms in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Dreiling, after a 40-year career in journalism, was mulling over what to do next last spring, keeping in mind he was caring for his father, who turns 100 next week.

“I wanted to do something locally, that still would be something meaningful and important,” Dreiling said.

Billinger said tending to his crops has limited his time campaigning, and the COVID-19 pandemic also has played a role.

“I’ve been pretty much tied up trying to do fall harvest,” Billinger said, adding he mostly has yard signs up. “It’s just pretty tough. Some folks are reluctant to get too close to people.”

The 40th district includes Ellis County and the northwest corner of the state.

“There are two different kinds of things in the district,” Dreiling said. “There’s the Hays area, and then there’s the remote areas of the state.

“You can’t satisfy everybody, but you can find as good of middle ground as you can,” he added. “That’s the point of this campaign. Part of being a Kansas senator is trying to find that middle ground.”

One issue that could come up in the next session of the Legislature is Medicaid expansion.

“We have to have Medicaid expansion,” Dreiling said. “It’s not what we should be doing, is turning down free money. It’s a loss in revenue for the counties. That’s money that can be used by the hospital.”

Medicaid expansion, which would have 90% federal funding and 10% from the state, has failed previously in the Legislature. The Kansas Hospital Association’s website shows that the state has lost more than $4 billion in potential funding since 2014. It has been estimated that 130,000 uninsured Kansans would benefit.

“I’ve supported Medicaid expansion,” said Billinger, who voted for the bill in 2017, which was vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback.

However, Billinger said several questions need to be answered for any Medicaid expansion legislation, which did not advance in the Senate after losing procedural votes in 2019 and 2020.

“Until you see a bill, it's hard to sit here and say we can do this or do that,” said Billinger, who added among things lawmakers need to know is the cost for the state, whether there is a work requirement or a pathway to work, and should there be premiums based on income.

“The more you ask, the more questions there are,” Billinger said. “What will be in the bill?”

Dreiling, who subscribed to newspapers in the district to keep informed, has noticed an increase in obituaries recently as coronavirus cases continue to mount.

“When a little town needs two pages of obituaries, that tells you something,” he said.

To help curb the rise of COVID-19 infections, Dreiling favors a state-wide mask mandate with counties not being allowed to opt out.

“I am a person who believes in science, first of all, and the science says we need a mandate, because people aren’t going to do it on their own,” he said. “I’d rather live with a mask for a while than die.”

Billinger favors local control when it comes to face coverings.

“I support now, as I always have, local government having the autonomy over the decisions of their communities,” he said. “Local decisions are best made closest to the people. I also support those local leaders having the best access to accurate information and any resources they may need to make the best decisions and protect their communities.”

Billinger pointed to a couple items on his agenda for the next session, if he is re-elected.

“There are things I really want to see us get done,” he said. “When I ran four years ago, I committed to running for two terms.”

Billinger said addressing the expected shortfall in revenue is a budget priority. He also believes adjustments need to be made on property tax.

“The tax lid clearly has not worked, it’s made it worse,” Billinger said. “I don’t go anywhere where property tax doesn’t come up.”

The printed ballot has come up as an issue in Ellis County. About 3,800 incorrect ballots were sent out to voters who requested to vote by mail. The Senate 40th district race was affected and the remedy included the printing of new ballots and the extension of early voting hours. The incorrect early ballots that have been returned will still be counted.

“This is voters’ rights,” Dreiling said. “We don’t know if it’s incompetence or whether it’s voter suppression, or both. I’m hoping we don’t have any further problems.”

Billinger was unconcerned about the error.

“It was an honest mistake,” he said. “I don’t think anybody tried to do anything.”

Billinger said voters know what they will get from him.

“First and foremost, I’m honest, have integrity and well-respected on both sides of the aisle in Topeka,” he said. “I get things done.”

Dreiling said voters deserve honesty and fairness in their elected officials, and a senator who recognizes the different constituencies in the state.

“We have to have somebody who can work with these urban legislators; it’s not just a Republican and Democrat fight, it’s going to be a rural and urban fight,” Dreiling said. “We have to have somebody who can work together, cross those bridges of urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, and try to do the right thing for our very big corner of northwest Kansas.”