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Expand Medicaid, fund schools: Kansas governor outlines goals in State of the State speech

Governor Laura Kelly at a grocery store in Olathe.
Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Gov. Laura Kelly at a grocery store in Olathe in May 2022.

Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly outlined her proposals on everything from taxes to child care in the annual address.

Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly urged lawmakers to expand Medicaid and cut taxes in an annual State of the State address that she focused on the rural parts of the state.

She laid out her priorities and how they would affect education, child care, health and economics in the rural parts of the state.

“When rural Kansans are doing well, all Kansans do well,” Kelly said.

At the top of Kelly’s list is expanding Medicaid, a hallmark issue for the governor since taking office in 2019. In her speech, she said many rural hospitals are at risk of closing without expanding the government-run insurance program for low-income and disabled Kansans.

Kelly said struggling hospitals are forced to increase costs, lay off health care workers and cut some services.

“Then, counties often resort to raising property taxes in a last-ditch effort to keep those hospitals afloat, and when that fails, Kansans must drive longer and longer distances for basic care,” Kelly said.

Kelly wants to offer health care coverage to 150,000 Kansans through expanded Medicaid, particularly those who don’t have employer-based health insurance but make too much money to qualify for the program under current law.

While expansion is unlikely to win over the Republicans who control the chambers, Kelly’s strategy seems to be rallying public support for it ahead of November’s elections, when all 165 seats in the Kansas Legislature will be up for grabs. She called on Republican leaders in both chambers to at least allow a hearing on expanding Medicaid.

But so far, legislative leaders show no signs of budging on the issue. In his response to the governor’s speech, Kansas Republican House Speaker Dan Hawkins said it would grow “the welfare state and dependency.”

“Billions in new state and federal spending to increase welfare for able-bodied, working-age people in the form of Medicaid expansion,” he said. “Limited resources should be reserved for the truly needy instead of siphoning them away to able-bodied adults who don’t want to work and who have access to other healthcare options.”

Hawkins said Republicans favor other approaches for reducing health care costs, such as increasing medical reimbursement rates, supporting community mental health centers, and supporting charitable health care clinics.

As of December, only 10 states have not expanded Medicaid. Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma have all done so.

A Fort Hays State University poll from last year indicates about 70% of Kansans support expanding Medicaid, including more than half of Republicans.

Kelly rejects vouchers, promises fully funded schools 

In Wednesday’s speech, Kelly made it clear that she would veto any bills that attempt to implement private school vouchers, which give tax credits for parents to use for private education.

“Vouchers will crush our rural schools, plain and simple,” she said. “Our teachers don’t support vouchers. Our local officials don’t support vouchers. And Kansans don’t support vouchers.”

Last year, Kelly vetoed a bill that would have given up to $5,000 in tax credits for parents to use for private school or homeschooling.

Hawkins made no direct mention of private school vouchers in his rebuttal, but said that Republicans would continue to pursue changes.

“Encourage education innovation to ensure Kansas kids receive the absolute best education possible,” Hawkins said.

Kelly also said that her proposed budget would fully fund Kansas schools, which Hawkins said Republicans support as well.

Kelly and Republicans differ on tax reform

In this year’s State of the State address, Kelly also highlighted her plans to reduce taxes in Kansas. She unveiled her proposals on Monday at the start of the new session.

Among those proposals are eliminating the food sales tax by April instead of next year, getting rid of taxes on Social Security income and increasing the residential exemption on state property taxes from $42,000 to $100,000.

“We must get that money back into Kansans’ pockets, and we will, in a fiscally responsible and targeted way,” she said.

A handful of Republican lawmakers support Kelly’s plan, but GOP leaders are expected to again pursue a single-rate income tax system, often called a “flat tax.” The Kansas Chamber, a group with widespread influence at the Statehouse, has released a proposal that would create a single income tax rate of 5% for annual income over $15,000.

Those who support a single-rate system say it would benefit all Kansas taxpayers and that the state can afford the lost tax revenue. Critics say it would disproportionately favor those with the highest income and would hurt state infrastructure and public schools.

Kelly vetoed such a plan last year and says she has the votes to prevent it from passing this year.

In Hawkins’ rebuttal to the governor, he said higher prices and economic uncertainty are weighing heavy on Kansas families.

“With a soaring ending balance and a healthy rainy-day fund, we remain more committed than ever to boosting household incomes and take-home pay,” he said. “Kansas families deserve relief from inflation in the form of tax cuts – not a bigger government.”

Daniel Caudill reports on the Kansas Statehouse and government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can email him at dcaudill@ku.edu.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Daniel Caudill reports on Kansas state government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service.
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