TOPEKA — Democratic congressional candidate Kali Barnett is convinced Congress must pass a new COVID-19 stimulus bill for struggling businesses and the millions of unemployed people despite cringeworthy accumulation of trillions of dollars in federal debt.
“Right now it is incredibly important that we take care of our working Americans,” said Barnett, who is running in the 1st District of western Kansas. “We will not have our small businesses in the future post-COVID if we are not taking care of them right now.”
On the contrary, Big First Republican nominee Tracey Mann said state and federal government made huge mistakes responding to a pandemic that has been a factor in the death of more than 180,000 people in the United States since March. Congress voted to respond with trillions of dollars to sustain businesses, expand unemployment benefits and pay for coronavirus testing, protective equipment and vaccine research. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly closed much of the economy to deter spread of the virus.
“We need not to throw trillions of dollars at this problem,” said Mann, of Salina. “We also know that we don’t need to shut down the economy again.”
He said the United States should “figure out how we exist and move forward and live with this disease. There may or may not be a vaccine. We hope there is.”
Mann and Barnett appeared at a Kansas Chamber forum for U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates Wednesday night at an event for the business organization’s members watching online and gathered at a Topeka hotel. Of 10 candidates invited to discuss business issues, eight appeared in person and one by video link. U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, the 4th District Republican seeking re-election, could not attend due to a family medical emergency.
Democratic candidate Laura Lumbard, who is challenging Estes in the district centered on Wichita, said Congress’ response to the pandemic needed to include additional aid for to laid off workers as well as new investment in infrastructure projects and technical training. She said it would be a mistake to abandon the Affordable Care Act during the pandemic.
U.S. Senate candidates Roger Marshall and Barbara Bollier, who are competing for the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, spoke about coronavirus from the perspective of doctors who have starkly different opinions about the medical challenge.
Marshall, who currently serves as the 1st District congressman, said the top priority of Congress should be passage of liability protections for businesses who might be sued for decisions made during the pandemic.
He said businesses had been undermined by an “overly rich” unemployment benefit package approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump that served as a disincentive for people to promptly return to work.
“We need to stop the fearmongering,” he said. “We should respect this virus, but we’re winning the war on it. To get people back to work, we’ve got to stop living in fear of it. We respect the virus, but we can’t let it consume us.”
Bollier, who has denounced Marshall for “pants on fire” misinformation about COVID-19, said the federal government was making a mistake of framing the virus as a political rather than medical problem. She’s said Marshall didn’t help Americans by not wearing a mask or social distancing while campaigning in public and of championing Trump’s claims that antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was effective against the virus.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in July cautioned against use of the drug for COVID-19 outside a hospital setting or clinical trial.
“We cannot politicize a virus,” Bollier said. “I’m a doctor. This is real. We know what public health is.”
Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, the Democratic nominee in the 2nd District of eastern Kansas, said the decision in Washington, D.C., to make COVID-19 a political weapon was “heartbreaking.”
She said political clashes led to a muddled government response to the pandemic. Cities should have been provided a portion of federal disaster funding so it could have been better targeted at small businesses, she said.
“We saw so many of our local businesses struggle. The way we have handled COVID has been challenging and fractured. We could do better as a country, as a state, as local leaders to ensure our message is cohesive.”
Jake LaTurner, the Republican nominee in the 2nd District and the elected state treasurer, said Democrats in Washington were foolishly sought to spend more than $2 trillion in a new relief package and Republicans were angling for a more reasonable $1 trillion bill. The federal government shouldn’t bail out states that made bad budget decisions unrelated to the pandemic, he said.
“It needs to be targeted,” Laturner said. “It needs to be smart. It doesn’t need to be used to prop up budgets because of bad spending choices at state levels.”
Third District Republican candidate Amanda Adkins said the initial response to the pandemic was led by health care professionals and government leaders who didn’t adequately balance the perspectives of business people.
Forcing businesses to temporarily close and implementing stay-at-home orders damaged the economy, she said.
“We should have been making decisions both about health care and about the economy at the same time,” Adkins said.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the Democrat representing the 3rd District covering Johnson, Wyandotte and Miami counties, said the next federal relief package ought to include funding for cities and state governments to make certain each could continue to perform core functions of firefighting, law enforcement and public education.
Congress also needs to support expansion of workforce training and infrastructure development, she said.
“We’re going to get to the other side of this,” she said by video. “I think some of the decisions we’re making right now are going to get us hit the ground running.”