Candidates in 158th District race spar over Medicaid, taxes

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

More than 60 people attended a candidate forum Tuesday night

Sparring over Medicaid cuts, right-to-life credentials and taxes made for a lively evening at a three-way candidate forum two weeks ahead of the special election to fill the 158th District Missouri House seat.

More than 60 people attended the event sponsored by the League of Women Voters. They heard former state Rep. Mary Kasten, the Republican candidate, cite her public service experience. former Cape Girardeau postmaster Mike Keefe proclaim himself ready to buck his party to meet public demands and pharmacist Steve Kinder proclaim himself the true conservative in the contest.

Voters will go to the polls Feb. 5. The Republican-leaning district must elect a new lawmaker to replace former Rep. Nathan Cooper, who resigned Aug. 14 after pleading guilty to two counts of federal immigration fraud. Cooper reports to prison Thursday.

Over the course of a little more than an hour, Kasten, Keefe and Kinder answered 17 questions on topics that covered the gamut of issues that lawmakers will face from spending priorities to controlling drugs, as well as some they would not, such as global warming. The forum will be broadcast in coming days on Charter Cable Channel 5, but the exact times were not available last night.

One of the most controversial issues throughout the state, likely to be a defining issue in the November election for governor, are the 2005 cuts in the state Medicaid program. In Cape Girardeau County, those cuts have reduced the number of people covered by the program by 17 percent since June 30, 2005, to 6,640 in November from 8,023.

Keefe promised to work to restore the cuts. Republicans have claimed that would cost the state $1 billion or more, while Democrats contend the cost is much less for state taxpayers because much of the program's cost is paid with federal matching funds.

"We should not make cuts that devastate people without knowing the consequences," Keefe said.

Kasten defended the cuts, but added that steps have been taken to mitigate the pain and that some have seen their benefits restored.

"The governor had the obligation to balance the budget," Kasten said. "There were some ways for people who need care to get care."

Kinder, meanwhile, said his work as a pharmacist has convinced him that too many people who are well-off enough to pay their own way for health care are still on the program.

"I would do nothing to reinstate" the cuts, Kinder said. "I would be in favor of further cuts."

A question about stem-cell research offered the candidates an opportunity to also offer their views on abortion. All three said they oppose research that uses human embryos.

But the competition was on as each candidate sought to convince voters that they have the strongest views on pro-life issues. Kasten noted that her 18-year career in the Missouri House, which spanned 1983 to 2001, proved her fidelity to the cause. "My record stands for being pro-life."

Keefe was even more adamant on the abortion issue. "I am the only candidate endorsed by Missouri Right to Life." Keefe said. "I live and breathe the importance of the right to life issue."

Kinder, meanwhile, stuck closer to the question, noting his opposition to embryonic research and cloning "in any form."

Two questions centered on taxes. One focused on whether retirees should pay income tax on pensions and the best way to provide property tax relief for senior citizens.

Kasten called for the elimination of taxes on pensions, but added on property taxes that the entire subject needed discussion.

Kinder also called for an income tax exemption for senior citizens. He said he wasn't well enough versed in the property tax issue to take a stand.

And Keefe said income tax adjustments must make sure everyone pays a fair share, but that seniors need property tax relief on homes that have escalated dramatically in value during the years senior citizens have lived in them.

Each candidate also found a voice delivering one-liners that found the heart of their views on an issue. For Kasten, it was whether there should be a statewide smoking ban.

"I believe we have become a nanny state where we look out for everybody and everything," Kasten said. "We are too much to overseer of everybody's actions."

Keefe's recurring theme of restoring Medicaid made for some of his best lines. "When we made these cuts, we gave in again to the special interests."

And Kinder's moment came when he explained why he is a Libertarian after years in the Republican Party. "I could no longer tell the difference between my Republican Party and the Democrats," Kinder said. "The Libertarian Party is the last bastion of conservative thinking."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 126

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