County and state representative candidates focused on workforce development and funding programs that support people with disabilities at a forum hosted by the Columbia Disability Issues Coalition Thursday evening.
Candidates for Boone County presiding commissioner and state representatives for the five Boone County legislative districts were all in attendance.
Boone County presiding commissioner candidates
Workforce development and housing were the main concerns of the candidates for Boone County Presiding Commissioner.
Republican Connie Leipard, who owns Quality Drywall Construction, teared up while speaking about her daughter, who she said has a significant disability.
“It’s a fight every single day, to see that my daughter receives the services that she needs,” Leipard said.
She said she has always been an advocate for her daughter and all families deserve resources for their children with disabilities.
In order to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, she suggested the disability advocacy community get involved with businesses to help them understand what they can add to their organizations.
Democrat Kip Kendrick said he previously worked in mental health case management for Job Point, a Missouri employment center that prepares people to enter the workforce.
Kendrick said he fully understands the importance of people with disabilities being able to join the workforce.
“Oftentimes, it wasn’t necessarily about the money or the paycheck, it was about that self respect, it was about getting out and being part of the community,” Kendrick said.
He said that employment support agencies should have access to the human resources department to see all job openings and work together.
When asked how the county can make housing more accessible for those with disabilities, both candidates said there isn’t just one solution to the problem.
Kendrick said there are issues with Section Eight housing vouchers. When making decisions on housing, he said the commission needs a seat at the table.
He also said when talking about homeless issues, the county needs to include those who have no permanent home. It should be a collaborative effort, he said.
Leipard said housing prices have exploded in Boone County, and the county needs all stakeholders involved because the issue is not going away.
In order to help the homeless population, Leipard said the county needs to address the varying underlying issues that cause homelessness, like mental illness.
Contested elections candidates
The candidates in the contested elections largely agreed that more funding is necessary to address the needs of people with disabilities. All six candidates said they would support cost of living adjustments for professionals who work with people with disabilities.
Currently, moderator Jacque Sample said, these support professionals are paid $15 an hour.
Douglas Mann, the Democratic candidate for the District 50 seat, said he has several friends who have worked as direct support professionals.
“If we want to be hiring and retaining the best people, which we should be doing, we need to be paying them competitive,” Mann said.
Cheri Toalson Reisch, incumbent Republican in the District 44 seat, noted a correlation with the labor shortage. She said one of the goals should be getting people back to work and opening up job opportunities for people with disabilities. She mentioned her work on a bill that allowed people who were convicted of felonies to work in jobs that they couldn’t previously.
All the candidates supported additional state funding to match federal money that supports Missouri’s Vocational Rehabilitation program, which enables people with disabilities to enter the workforce. Toalson Reisch and John Martin, the Republican candidate for the District 47 seat, noted that their support for matching funds would depend on whether the state budget allows it.
James Musgraves, the Republican candidate for District 50, said that while his first instinct is to support matching federal dollars, he would prefer an assessment of the situation first.
“I want to know what the demand is, how much additional funding we need, that would support an increase in funding,” Musgraves said.
The candidates also supported increased funding for education, calling into question the state’s Foundational Funding Formula.
Dave Raithel, the Democrat running for the District 44 seat, said the formula is written in such a way that it is not hard to fulfill. He said he supports increasing taxes, noting that state tax revenue is not where it should be.
“The state is six and a half times richer than it was in 1980, but the state only collects five times as much,” Raithel said.
Raithel said throughout the forum that helping people with disabilities boils down to a willingness to spend money. He said Republicans have a tendency to cut taxes and spending, so people who care about disability issues should vote Democrat.
But Musgraves, whose son has a neurological condition called dystonia, responded that Raithel’s claim is untrue.
“You feel helpless when you’re a parent,” Musgraves said with a shaken voice. “My family is invested in helping disabled people, period.”
Adrian Plank, the Democrat running for the District 47 seat, called attention to low teacher pay.
“If we’re going to pay teachers living wage with benefits — and you’re talking about specialty teachers that can actually go in and help (people who are disabled) — in a time where wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, then we need to be leaders in funding so we can keep those teachers,” Plank said. “We’re idiots if we don’t invest in education.”
Martin, who is a small business owner, said he would evaluate the state budget like he would his company.
“We get some of these folks who should be working and we can remove from the dependency list so that we can support education more if there are more funds,” Martin said.
Uncontested state representative candidates
The two candidates running in uncontested races for Districts 45 and 46 focused on supporting public education.
Kathy Steinhoff, the Democrat running for District 45, is a retired teacher.
She said the topics of wage increases, education and workforce development are all important, but even more so for those with disabilities.
Steinhoff has been concerned about the teacher shortage for years, and said it hurts students with disabilities who may need extra resources and attention. She said the state needs to step up and put their fair share of funding into schools.
David Tyson Smith, the Democrat running for District 46, is an attorney who was originally elected to District 45 in 2021 but due to redistricting is running in District 46.
Smith said no matter the specific issue, the programs that help people with disabilities need funding.
He said he is always voting for legislation that helps people with disabilities.
“It is like pulling teeth in Jefferson City to get people to provide money for social services for people who have disabilities,” Smith said.