COLUMBIA — Two prominent figures in Columbia politics sought to distinguish themselves — and their policies — in a debate Tuesday evening, less than a month before Election Day.
Local radio station KSSZ/93.9 FM, The Eagle, hosted a debate between the two candidates running for the 24th District of the state House: incumbent state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and challenger Laura Nauser, the Fifth Ward city councilwoman and a Republican.
The candidates debated for more than 45 minutes, answering questions from three panelists as well as taking questions written by the audience.
When asked to identify her greatest advantage over Kelly, Nauser highlighted her desire to see a more limited government and less regulation at the state level.
“Since we are both well known and have worked in government, it really comes down to political philosophy,” she said.
In answer to the same question, Kelly said he has worked across the political aisle throughout his legislative career.
Kelly has spent 14 years in the legislature in two stints, the first from 1983 to 1994. He said the biggest difference since he was re-elected to the House in 2008 has been the partisan acrimony.
“I am committed to increasing bipartisan cooperation,” he said, mentioning his partnership with the former House majority leader and incoming speaker, Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, in proposing a $700 million bond issue during the past legislative session.
Both candidates agreed that budget issues would define the upcoming legislative session but offered different ideas about how to address the state's predicted shortfall.
Nauser suggested that social services should face some cuts, as they constitute 42 percent of the general budget, in order to maintain the current level of funding for higher education.
“Education and job growth are the keys to eliminating poverty,” Nauser said.
Kelly disagreed, arguing that more than 90 percent of money spent on social services is federally mandated, most of it for medical expenses.
“If we cut some of those programs, we would lose lots of federal-matched money for other medical programs because they are all linked together,” he said.
Kelly said there would be greater flexibility in cutting elementary, secondary and higher education. Before cutting the budgets of those programs, however, he would prefer increasing the tobacco tax.
The two candidates also disagreed about the General Assembly's use of federal stimulus money to balance the state budget.
Nauser said using stimulus money was a double-edged sword because it would set a precedent of dependence on the federal government.
“In the future, we have to wean ourselves off federal money,” she said.
Kelly, in contrast, said that the stimulus money was beneficial for the state and especially for Columbia because it protected educational institutions.
“Columbia would have been decimated more than any other city in Missouri,” he said.
Former mayoral candidate Paul Love, 40, was one of those attending Tuesday night's forum. He said he found the debate useful but planned to attend more events to see whether there were greater differences between the two candidates.
In addition to learning more about the candidates' viewpoints, he said he came to the event to observe how they spoke in public.
"I wanted to see how they handled themselves and how they responded to surprise questions," Love said. "If you don't present yourself well in this kind of debate, you will have a tough time in state or federal legislature."
The election will be held Nov. 2. The final day to register to vote is Wednesday, Oct. 6.