First district senatorial candidates discuss variety of issues in forum

By Kari Williams

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, and two Democratic hopefuls for the 1st District Senate seat discussed the Affordable Care Act and job creation, among other topics at a candidate forum Saturday.

Rep. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, and former Rep. Sue Schoemehl, a Democrat from Oakville, are vying for their party’s nod in Tuesday’s primary. The winner will face Lembke, who was elected four years ago to the Senate, in the November general election.

Lembke, Sifton and Schoemehl gave varied responses to whether they would support the expansion of Missouri’s Medicaid program, along with opinions of the GlaxoSmithKline, or GSK, settlement being returned to the state Medicaid fund.

GSK owes the state of Missouri roughly $32 million as part of a health-care fraud settlement.

Lembke said he would support the funds going toward Medicaid and he supports “access to affordable health care for all Missourians.”

“As far as the Medicaid fund in our state, it’s been growing at a rate faster than any part of our budget, so I certainly support that going back to the Medicaid fund,” Lembke said.

In Missouri, more than 900,000 citizens are on the Medicaid program, according to Lembke, and expanding to 133 percent of the poverty level “would add an estimated 410,000 Missourians to the program.”

“That will literally break the bank,” Lembke said. “Missouri cannot afford to expand Medicaid to that point, as it is breaking the bank for many states across this nation.”

Sifton said the GSK money should go to Medicaid, but whether it goes toward Medicaid expansion, “depends, of course, on whether we do that.”

But Sifton, a former Affton school board member, said he does not believe the state knows whether it is going to be able to fund Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

“Funding Medicaid expansion in Missouri will cost the state $150 million in order to get $2 billion in federal funding by the year 2019,” Sifton said, “and every year we make budgetary adjustments that are multiples of that amount. So it remains to be seen, but I think we should try.”

Scheomehl, however, agreed with Lembke in regard to the GSK funds being put back in the program. She said that is “exactly where it needs to go.”

“If we move it to another location that would be devastating,” said Schoemehl, who served four terms in the House before being term-limited out.

Increasing and expanding Medicaid is “necessary for the people we know,” she said, but the “cost is incredible.”

“Not crossing that line with raising taxes and also not going as far as cutting education, things that are important in all aspects for the whole budget, it’s important to take care of the people we know …,” Schoemehl said.

When asked about the state voluntarily establishing an insurance exchange, which would allow Missourians to select insurance coverage based on competitive rates and their particular needs, or allowing the federal government to impose its own, opinions differed.

Lembke said Missouri should not establish an exchange connected to “Obamacare,” but that it should continue to have discussions regarding healthcare access and healthcare affordability and adjust policies so the state is competitive and people have access to care.

“We should continue to have those discussions and debates on both sides of the aisle and see where we can find commonality for what is best for the state of Missouri,” Lembke said.

Sifton said Missouri “should take control of its own destiny”in regard to a health insurance exchange and adopt its own.

Schoemehl said she does not believe “we can be a yes or no to this at this time.”

“There’s so many things that are in the works and we lose control if we let the federal government, of course, go over all of that,” she said. “But in Missouri when we can sit down together and make a big difference, we can change this by the prevention aspects and the things that need to be in the cost of insurance, what’s covered and what’s not …”

When asked for ideas on job creation, positions ranged from looking at surrounding states’ policies to creating economic development policies.

Lembke said he would look at Missouri’s policies across the board to make Missouri more competitive with neighboring states. He said the state needs to look at tax policy, investment in education and infrastructure and regulatory reform.

“I think that what has served our state so well over the last 50 years is, as a state, we had an energy plan that allowed for Missouri to have some of the lowest cost of energy in the country,” he said. “And that attracted business, and grew business here.”

Sifton said economic development legislation needs to be passed in Jefferson City.

Twice last year – once in regular session, once in special session — the House passed “what was very possibly the largest economic development bill the Legislature has taken up in my lifetime,” but the Senate did not take up the issue.

“Special session was called, taxpayer money was spent for everybody to convene and try to get it right and take it up again,” Sifton said. “And again it passed in the house and again it did not reach a vote in the senate with the whole world watching.”

Regional business communities, according to Sifton, are “very frustrated” by the Senate’s lack of action on jobs and economic development legislation.

Schoemehl said the community and the state need to be aware of the Panama Canal and a new port opening in New Orleans.

“It is valuable having river trade for our state of Missouri,” she said. “We need to be taking advantage of things like that. There are jobs out there, and there is money that goes with every one of those jobs, and so we’re looking for development of ports in St. Louis, downtown St. Louis, and along the Bootheel area, there’s areas there that can help our region, our St. Louis community and the state of Missouri.”

Roughly 30 people attended the forum, which took place at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Crestwood.