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story.lead_photo.caption From left, Senate District 6 Democrat candidates Nicole Thompson, Bryan Struebig and Mollie Freebairn take questions during a candidate forum Thursday at City Hall. Photo by Emil Lippe / News Tribune.

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Five Jefferson City residents want voters to choose them as Mid-Missouri's next 6th District state senator, succeeding former Sen. Mike Kehoe, who was term-limited and couldn't run for re-election even before he became the state's lieutenant governor a month ago.

Two of those five — Republican Mike Bernskoetter and Libertarian Steven Wilson — are guaranteed a spot on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, because they have no opponent in the Aug. 7 primary election.

Three Jefferson City Democrats want the right to challenge those two in November — and they answered questions during a News Tribune-sponsored forum Thursday night.

As they are listed on the primary election ballot, the candidates are:

Bryan Struebig, of Eldon, who operates several small businesses, including a tax and accounting company and a floor-laying company. He also helps with the family farm near Hartville, south of Lebanon.

"I decided to run because I've seen the future for a lot of our rural communities," he said, noting a number of small towns in states like Iowa and Nebraska already are "completely shuttered up (and) that's kind of the direction rural Missouri is heading because we're exporting 95 percent of our high school graduates" away from rural communities.

Nicole Thompson, of Jefferson City, a workplace safety and health specialist who worked nine years for the state Labor and Industrial Relations Department before starting her own consulting business, said she wants to see more "open, honest and responsible government."

Mollie Freebairn, of Jefferson City, an energy and environmental scientist and strategic planner and executive director at Show Me Solar, said she's "running for state Senate because I care deeply about the issues affecting Missouri's quality of life."

She's concerned with the effects of a bill lawmakers passed this year to eliminate the Merit System from nearly all of the jobs covered by it and a plan to reduce the state's pension benefits.

The district covers seven counties: Cole, Moniteau, Morgan, Miller, Maries, Osage and Gasconade.

All three agreed state employee lowest-in-the-nation average pay is an issue lawmakers must face and correct.

Thompson said of her nine years working for state government: "We could double our salaries by leaving the state."

She said lawmakers must understand "Missouri (government) can run more efficiently through higher pay," and undoing the recent cuts in individual and corporate income taxes would provide more money for the state to increase its employees' pay.

Thompson also pointed to expensive lawsuit settlements and jury awards, especially in the Corrections Department, and said, "I think through better management, we can find some sources of money by better managing our state government."

Struebig said the number of job openings throughout state government makes it "very obvious that state workers are underpaid," and he focused on the 700 openings in the Corrections Department alone that could "lead to the possibility of prison riots (and) already is leading to higher lockdown rates in the prisons."

He's concerned there will be more program cuts than pay raises, but agreed with rescinding the individual and corporate income taxes, and suggested state government could get more revenues through sales taxes on online transactions, sports betting and marijuana sales for recreational uses.

Struebig said "shrinking the size" of the state workforce more won't improve services.

"Everybody has a vested interest in their state government running as efficiently as possible," he said.

Freebairn noted "so many things in Missouri are underfunded because we keep cutting taxes. We've already seen a reduction in force in state government of nearly 20 percent."

She encouraged leaders to "go back and see how we built our state government and educational system" over the past decades, and figure out ways to improve state pay and other programs.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," she said. "If cutting taxes was the solution, we'd have a great economy by now."

All three also want the state to expand Medicaid assistance to nearly 300,000 poor Missourians not served by the current system, using the extra federal money that would help pay for that expansion.

Freebairn said that would help expand the number of jobs in Missouri and help improve the economy.

Thompson said the expansion would help keep rural hospitals from closing and reduce the overall health care costs.

Struebig worried the Trump administration and the current Congress might not continue the federal funding for that expansion and suggested finding a public option for people to buy into Medicaid or Medicare.

All three supported background checks for people wanting to buy guns, and Thompson and Freebairn supported raising the minimum age for being able to buy a gun.

Struebig said properly educated young people should be able to buy a gun.

Freebairn and Thompson also opposed having armed teachers to prevent school shootings.

Struebig said he doesn't support the idea but — especially in rural areas where it might take time for a law officer to get to a school — the final decision should be left to the local school board.