Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat in her second term as Kansas’ chief executive, said during the annual State of the State speech to legislators that she would devote herself to health care, education, tax, child care and and water issues. In this image, she discussed her priorities in a December interview with Kansas Reflector. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Governor admits to flubbing license plate, references a ‘great Kansan, Ted Lasso’
By Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly widened a well-defined agenda dedicated to public education, Medicaid expansion and broad-based tax reform Wednesday in the annual State of the State speech to highlight proposals for state investment in reversing shortages of quality water and child care resources.
Kelly, a Democrat speaking to a Kansas Legislature with a Republican supermajority, said the state government was in a position of strength with billions of dollars in cash reserves. She said lawmakers had an opportunity to work collaboratively and responsibly to spend down the surplus for benefit of Kansans, especially those living in rural communities.
“Too often, it seems as though people — especially here in the Statehouse — believe our rural communities are doomed to shrink, that our hospitals are doomed to close, that our schools are doomed to decline. That we should just throw up our arms, as if there’s nothing we can do about it. I think that’s nonsense,” she said. “Here’s my message tonight: Step up for rural Kansas. Step up. This must be a priority — when rural Kansas is strong, then Kansas is strong.”
Early in the speech, Kelly conceded she blundered by endorsing a plan to redesign the state’s license plate. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the initial design was hated. After a public contest among options, a new design was selected because in Kansas, “when people strongly support something, we listen to them and act accordingly.”
No on flat tax, ever
In the speech in the House chamber, the governor said she would again veto legislation creating a single-rate, flat individual income tax because it “only benefits the super wealthy while doing little to nothing for working, middle-class Kansans.” She said Arizona adopted a flat tax in 2021 and now were dealing with a budget shortfall by considering cuts to public schools, law enforcement and infrastructure projects.
“We have been down that road before and we can’t go back,” said Kelly, referencing massive income tax cuts signed by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 and the resulting state budget woes. “Not back to Brownback. Not back to four-day school weeks. Not back to crumbling roads, falling down bridges, all because some politicians want to push through another reckless tax experiment.”
Republican forces led by Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins have made it clear they would place a priority in this legislative session on implementing a single-rate income tax, perhaps in the style of the 5.15% version vetoed by Kelly in the 2023 session.
Kelly plugged her new bipartisan tax plan, which would immediately eliminate the state’s sales tax on groceries and do away with the state’s income tax on Social Security benefits. She recommended Kansas raise the residential statewide property tax exemption from $42,000 to $100,000, which would eliminate or nearly wipe out the state property tax for an estimated 370,000 families in Kansas.
Kelly warned of another veto if the House and Senate sent her a bill redirecting public education funding to private schools. She said vouchers for private schools would devastate K-12 public school districts, and cuts in public school aid could do damage to rural communities.
“Let me be crystal clear: I will not let that happen,” Kelly told legislators. “Vouchers will crush our rural schools, plain and simple. Our teachers don’t support vouchers. Our local officials don’t support vouchers. And, Kansans don’t support vouchers. Believe me, if you represent a rural area and you’re out there pushing for vouchers, you’ll be hearing from parents back home wondering why you’ve turned your back on their schools and why you’ve prioritized private schools hundreds of miles away.”
In a replay of previous State of the State speeches, Kelly proposed the Legislature vote to accept expansion of eligibility for Medicaid to about 150,000 people, including thousands of lower-income working Kansans. She said the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars annually in federal funding to the health care system would be a boost for Kansas hospitals, especially the 59 in jeopardy of closing.
“So many of our hospitals are hanging on by a thread,” Kelly said. “They’re forced to increase costs for patients, to lay off health care and other essential workers, to stop offering important services.”
She said GOP legislative leaders were opposed to Medicaid stepping into a void created when working Kansans didn’t make enough to afford employer-based health insurance and didn’t make enough to qualify for the state’s existing Medicaid program. Her latest Medicaid expansion proposal would include a work requirement for adult participants with exemptions for veterans, students, caregivers and people with certain medical conditions.
“This should not be a partisan issue and, in fact, I believe that if the issue were put to a vote today, the majority of you in this chamber would support it,” Kelly said. “Yet, there are some who are so adamantly opposed to expansion that they won’t even give you the opportunity to debate and to vote. They look away as rural, elderly citizens have to drive farther and farther for care or just go without.
“At this point, not expanding Medicaid is akin to giving up on your rural hospitals, your rural communities, your rural constituents. I refuse to do that. And, you should too.”
Kelly said her budget proposal to the Legislature included funding to expand state aid to special education programs to the level required by Kansas law. In addition, she said, Kansas should implement her plan for the largest single-year investment in early childhood development in Kansas history. Much of that money — precise numbers won’t be released until Thursday — would go to address the state’s child care shortage, she said.
“Over half of Kansas families in search of child care cannot find an open slot,” the governor said. “That’s bad for our children, stressful for our parents and, at a time when every business is desperate for workers, it slows down our economy.”
Kelly said it wasn’t enough that the state added 6,800 child care slots from May 2022 to August 2023 and provided tax credits to make it easier for businesses to provide care for their employees. She proposed creation of the Office of Early Childhood to consolidate services for young families and remove red tape that made life complicated for families with young kids and child care providers.
The governor said her recommended budget would include funding for rural towns to update their water systems, provide resources for the new Kansas Water Institute at Kansas State University and provide assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement water-saving practices.
Kelly said many legislators, including herself after about 15 years in the Kansas Senate, had scars to prove they were part of disputes on spending and policy. She suggested legislators — Republican, Democratic and independent — not let divisions of the past prevent lawmakers from doing right by Kansans.
“I encourage you to remember the words of that great Kansan, Ted Lasso, who said: ‘You know what the happiest animal on earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a 10-second memory. So, be a goldfish.’ We have a unique opportunity to build on the progress we’ve made and to truly make a lasting impact on the state we love and the people we serve.”
This article was reprinted with permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.