Thompson: Coronavirus left unfinished business in state Legislature

Rep. Kent Thompson wants to keep his seat in the 9th District in the Kansas House of Representatives. The state will need careful management to distribute millions of dollars in federal aid as part of economic recovery.

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October 2, 2020 - 4:07 PM

In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, several newly unemployed residents sought out Rep. Kent Thompson.

They needed help processing their unemployment claims. The Kansas Department of Labor’s antiquated computer system couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of applications, and families across the state were jobless and struggling.

Thompson spent hours on the phone, utilizing the connections he’d developed after seven years in state government to put them in touch with someone who could help. 

“Honestly, that’s been the most rewarding part of this for me,” Thompson said.

The past several months have been difficult for everyone, he said.

The pandemic changed a lot of things in Kansas and the world in general.

Before COVID-19, Thompson thought perhaps it was time to give up his seat in the 9th District.

But after a chaotic legislative session that ended with the passage of just 29 bills — far short of the typical 80 to 100 — Thompson changed his mind. He decided he couldn’t leave while so much work remains.

The recovery in Kansas and elsewhere is going to challenge everyone, particularly the state’s leadership. Thousands of Kansans have lost their jobs. Businesses are struggling to stay open. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into the state in the form of federal aid, and Thompson wants to make sure Allen and Neosho counties get their fair share. He’s counting on his experience and relationships to make sure that happens.

“The pandemic has been a game changer. Business as usual is no more,” he said. “How we recover as a state is up to us. The shutdown put a lot of pressure on our businesses. People are suffering.” 

“There’s an enormous amount of federal money coming into our state that needs to be handled correctly. We need to be strategic in how we come out of this.”

Thompson, a Republican, has served in the House for seven years, taking over the seat after the well-respected Rep. Ed Bideau died unexpectedly in 2013. 

Thompson is a lifelong Allen County resident and owner of Thompson Realty. Real estate had always intrigued him, and after earning a business degree at Pittsburg State University, he returned to Allen County to join his father in the auctioneer business and open a real estate company. 

At the age of 32, Thompson started what would become a 12-year term on the Allen County Commission. He didn’t expect to continue a political career, but heeded calls to run for the House seat after Bideau’s passing. 

In the last legislative session, Thompson served as chairman of the local government committee. It’s a post he’d long wanted and worked diligently on several issues before the pandemic forced a reduced session. He also serves on the state’s agriculture and transportation committees.

The session faced some big challenges, including a budget shortfall, a fight over Medicaid expansion and funding education.

The coronavirus threw all of that awry. Instead of gathering to address many important issues, the Legislature’s time together was limited. Much of the debate focused instead on how much power to allow the Democratic governor, Laura Kelly.

Thompson agreed with plans to give counties more control of the response, and to allow the State Finance Council to have approval over the spending of relief funds. It’s important for lawmakers to maintain some sort of oversight and keep the governor in check, regardless of party affiliation, he said.

“It’s about how much power to allow the governor when the Legislature is not in session,” he said. 

Even so, Thompson also gave Kelly credit for making tough decisions in an uncertain time.

“We were all scared. Nobody knew what was going to happen,” he said. “We’re never going to know how many lives may have been saved. She was concerned for our safety. I can’t be critical of that.”

Thompson was critical, though, of leadership whose strategy is typically to hold bills until the end of the session. This year, that meant all of the hard work done in committee was for naught. 

“A lot of wasted time,” he called it, describing hours of research and time spent convincing experts to testify in front of committees, and other work done by the committee members.

“I’m very disappointed in the way that last session ended.”

This next session will bring new challenges, in addition to those that typically come in a session.

Thompson supports Medicaid expansion, which came close to passing a couple of years ago but failed in the face of opposition by the Senate leadership. The coronavirus halted those efforts this spring, and the primary election season saw moderate Republicans defeated in favor of those with more conservate views. If those more conservative Republicans win, as expected, it’s less likely the state will pass Medicaid expansion.

“We’re losing billions of dollars by not expanding Medicaid,” Thompson said. “There are so many variables. For example, prisoners at the county jail could be covered and take that cost away from the county. It would improve access to mental health services, and help rural hospitals survive.”

The state also is facing a budget shortfall, which Thompson fears could amount to about a billion dollars in lost revenue. A report on Thursday, though, shows Kansas collected nearly $73 million more in taxes than expected, which suggests the economy is bouncing back faster than expected but the recovery is still fragile.

There’s not a lot of room in the budget for cuts, Thompson warned. The state’s recovery periods since the 2008 recession have been brief, hurt in part by former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts in 2012. The coronavirus has introduced new variables that will further challenge the budget.

“We’ve got to make some strategic decisions on how to handle that. Nobody wants to raise taxes,” Thompson said. 

“We’ve cut to the bone. There isn’t lavish spending in the government.”

That makes it even more important to use federal coronavirus aid to invest in businesses and boost the economy, he said. 

“Sitting here now, I think we’re all in better shape than we thought we’d be back in April, May and June,” he said. “Hopefully the unemployment rates will continue to go down. In a recovering economy, a rising tide raises all ships. This is certainly not the time to raise taxes.”

The state passed a new transportation plan that outlines priorities but doesn’t offer new funding sources. In past years, the state took money out of the Kansas Department of Transportation to shore up shortfalls in other areas. Thompson doesn’t want to see that happen again.

“We’ve got to defend this new transportation plan and not let the Bank of KDOT fund our government,” he said.

He’s being challenged by Humboldt’s Alana Cloutier. Read her story here.

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