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From candidate to legislator: Koesten prepares to begin her first term in the Kansas House of Representatives

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Joy Koesten in the House of Representatives at the Kansas State Capitol during leadership voting in December.

A little more than a year after she decided to run for political office for the first time, Joy Koesten will be sworn in for a two-year term in the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka when the legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 9. Koesten was part of the wave of newcomers who booted out incumbents in the August primary, when she defeated two-term incumbent Jerry Lunn. She was unopposed in the general election.

 

“When I filed, back on Dec. 29, 2015, I had no idea what the landscape would look like after the November election. But, I did know that it was time to stop complaining about the sad state of affairs in Kansas and start doing something to turn things around. As my husband (Stewart Koesten) frequently claimed, ‘nothing is changed by posting on Facebook!’ And of course, he’s right. So, I ran and I won!”

The rookie representative has been assigned to three committees: Corrections and Juvenile Justice, Government Security and Technology and Transportation and Public Safety Budget. 

“Every one of these committees is interesting and every one of these committees has some profound challenges ahead. We face a lot of big issues,” said Koesten in a recent interview. 

A member of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah and Kehilath Israel Synagogue, Koesten said she is honored to be serving the residents of Kansas. Even in the face of “tremendous challenges,” she is “very optimistic about what we’re facing.”

“I think we have 47 new legislators in the House, 37 of whom I spent two days with recently. We have some wonderful incumbents, Democrats and Republicans both, who are committed, so I look forward to getting to know them and getting to know the things that we might be able to tackle and actually make a difference,” she said.

The issues

Koesten believes the largest issue facing Kansas this year is the budget. In November 2016, state officials projected an almost $350 million budget deficit for the fiscal 2017 year.

“You can’t do anything unless you fix the budget. There isn’t one committee that isn’t affected by the lack of funds in this state. So until you fix the budget, there’s really not a lot to discuss,” she said.

A registered Republican most of her adult life, Koesten noted that budget decisions made in this session will consist of “hard conversations.”

“I don’t know that everybody is going to be willing to swallow the bitter pill of raising revenue, raising taxes. On top of that we’ll have to make more cuts because we are $1 billion in the hole going forward. You can’t do anything before you do that. That’s the biggest issue.”

Following the November election, Koesten said school financing will also be a top priority.

“We have not yet heard from the Kansas Supreme Court, so we know that’s going to be an issue as well.”

The expansion of Medicaid, she said, is yet another state issue that involves funds.

“For three years or so now, we have denied our state the ability to use federal dollars to expand health care to the neediest in our state. We’ve lost over 1.5 billion in federal dollars simply because of an ideological stance that has really hurt our citizens and our hospitals, our ability to care. We have a very small window to tap into that, if we move quickly at the right time. But the landscape has changed so dramatically with the national election and that can make things a lot harder for our state.”

In addition, Koesten said mental health issues facing the state are also tied into health care funding problems.

“We just have some incredibly profound challenges. They are all self-inflicted challenges and that is troubling.”

Koesten hopes the subject of guns on campus comes up again. 

“I was at a hospital association breakfast recently and our hospitals and our schools are vehemently opposed to the idea people can have conceal carry on their campuses,” she said.

A professor at both the University of Kansas and Johnson County Community College, the guns on campus issue is close to Koesten’s heart.

“I know we are losing faculty on our campuses not only because of the budget issues but for those kinds of issues. I know that faculty are tired of being treated in the way that threatens the way that they run their classrooms.” 

Jews and the issues

From what Koesten has been able to glean from her Jewish constituents, members of the Jewish community who are Kansas residents basically have the same concerns as other Kansans.

“They want to live in a state that supports them and their families. They want a state that operates in a way that is fiscally sound and what we are doing right now is unsustainable.”

“I think simply from a fiscal point of view, every person I speak to is concerned about our ability to turn things around so that we actually have state government, state services, good schools, good roads and bridges and the ability to encourage economic development. I think all of those are fundamentally tied to where we are in the state.” 

A busy legislative session

Koesten said she’s expecting more than 2,000 bills to be introduced this year in the legislature and “maybe 200 will get passed.” In her first year, she doesn’t have any “burning desire to put one out there yet” with her name on it, but she’s not ruling out the possibility of sponsoring a bill.

Koesten is a moderate Republican and that group makes up about a third of the 2017 legislature, with conservative Republicans and Democrats making up the other two thirds. She is hoping the moderates and the Democrats can find strength in numbers and form coalitions to pass some veto-proof legislation.

“I think that coalition is just forming. I think those relationships are still developing, but certainly the Johnson County delegation, which is comprised of both Democrats and Republicans, is pretty darn cohesive. I’m feeling optimistic that we have the numbers to move some things forward.”

One of those things will encompass very difficult budget decisions.

“We will have to raise taxes and we will continue to cut because the budget is such that we can’t do anything but those things,” she said.

The 2018 election

State representatives are only elected for two-years terms, thus putting representatives under the constant pressure of campaigning for re-election. Many of the moderates elected for this term, including Koesten, were supported by grassroots efforts of people who wanted change and often don’t participate in the political process. She believes those incumbents who were defeated in August may have been caught off guard, but won’t be again.

“I promise you, people are already lining up to take us out.”

She believes cutting the budget and raising taxes to move toward a balanced budget will be used against her and the other newcomers.

“It’s going to be ugly and I’m not naïve enough to think that that isn’t going to happen.” 

Koesten said moderate legislators are going to need incredible support — not just financial support, but verbal support.

“We will need communication among networks of reasonable people to say these candidates are good candidates and we need them to continue to represent us. I know most of us who ran in Johnson County and defeated incumbents will be challenged big time in the House in the next 15 months.” 

Koesten pledges to do the very best job she can and be as transparent as possible.

“People who follow my newsletter know that I tell it like it is. They may disagree with my position on things, but they will always know where I stand.” 

She also plans to be very accessible to her constituents.

“My new office is 268B and you can reach me by phone, email, text or come by to see me in person. I’ll be living in Topeka during the session, coming home only for the weekends and breaks,” she wrote in a recent newsletter.

Sign up for Koesten’s newsletter at www.joykoesten.com; email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (should be up and running by Jan. 9) or call 913-972-7883. You can also send a letter through the U.S. mail at Joy Koesten, Ph.D., Representative, 28th District, State Capitol, Topeka, KS 66612.