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New Governor In Kansas, Same Partisan Tensions With The Legislature

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly delivers her first State of the State speech on Wednesday night, flanked by Republicans House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle.

The cast of characters may be new, but the script taking shape at the outset of the Kansas Legislature’s 2019 session rings familiar. 

The new governor — Democrat Laura Kelly — proposes a budget that pays for her priorities. It highlights things that she believes her election shows that voters also want. Republican legislative leaders respond with what amounts to, Thanks, but we’ve got a better handle on what Kansans want.

Such give and take is typical at the start of a session, but this year’s is sharper because Kelly is a Democrat and the leaders of the Legislature are virtually all conservative Republicans.

The sharpness of those differences is evident when comparing the State of the State speech that Kelly delivered to lawmakers Wednesday to the Republican response given by Senate President Susan Wagle.


On school finance

Kelly called on lawmakers to fully fund the state’s public schools by complying with a Kansas Supreme Court order and boosting the funding package passed last year to cover inflation. It’s estimated that would cost an additional $364 million over the next four years.

●       Kelly: “The days of doing the bare minimum to fund our schools are over. It stops now. We are going to properly fund our schools this year. And next year. And the year after that. Every year, every month, every day that I’m governor.”

●       Wagle: “(Kelly) would have us surrender to the edict of an unelected Supreme Court spending even more than the $1 billion increase already approved for public education through the year 2023.”

On Medicaid expansion

The governor said the budget she’s proposing will “pave the way” for expanding KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, to cover an additional 150,000 low-income, disabled and elderly Kansans.

She argues that the rejection of expansion by former  Republican governors Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer cost the state billions and put rural hospitals at risk. So she's forming a  bipartisan working group to “finalize a path forward.”

●       Kelly: “To date, our failure to act has cost Kansas over $3 billion in federal funding. That’s 3 billion of our taxpayer dollars we’ve sent to the federal government that has gone to benefit other states. It’s $3 billion that could have helped save Kansas lives, Kansas hospitals, and Kansas communities.” 

●       Wagle: “Governor Kelly has proposed expanding Medicaid under a broken Obamacare system while many Kansans are already suffering from skyrocketing premiums in the individual marketplace. Now is not the time to spend money we don't have on programs we can't afford.” 

The Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare,  requires the federal government to cover no less than 90 percent of a state’s expansion costs.

Competing priorities

One of the top priorities for Republicans is the return of what they’ve labeled “the federal windfall.” That's money that flowed into the state treasury because of changes Congress made in the federal tax code in 2017. 

GOP leaders appear determined to quickly restore state tax deductions that some Kansans can no longer claim because of the federal changes. Not doing so, they say, would amount to a tax increase.

●       Wagle: “The windfall from the Trump tax cuts belongs to Kansas taxpayers, not government. Gov. Kelly has vowed to fight the decoupling of federal and state tax deductions, but we are not backing down.”

Kelly isn’t spoiling for a fight. But she’s urging caution because of the bill’s estimated $90 million annual cost. She argues it would be more prudent to get a firmer grip on the state’s revenue situation before passing what she sees as a tax cut.

●       Kelly: “We must be cautious, conservative and fiscally responsible. We must live within our means. Prioritize what matters most. Always look for ways to save. And always make sure our children come first.”

Kelly saved her strongest language for what she called the “reprehensible crisis”  in the state’s foster care system. She pledged to restructure the Department of Children and Families to address chronic problems that resulted in the agency losing track of some children while failing to protect others from abuse. She called it a matter of  “life and death.”

●       Kelly: “In the last few years, nothing has made me more angry than the callous disregard some agency leaders demonstrated towards our vulnerable children and their families. The incompetence and lack of transparency we witnessed … put a spotlight on this reprehensible crisis. This is an emergency. These are our children in our communities facing abuse, neglect and worse."

Kelly's call for overhauling the foster care system brought both Democrats and Republicans to their feet in applause. Wagle and other GOP leaders say they’re willing to work with the governor to address the problems. But they warn that the money needed to fix them, when combined with Kelly’s other spending priorities, could put the state back in the red.

●       Wagle: “The Republican majority in the Kansas Senate stands ready to work with our former Senate colleague, but not at the expense of Kansas families. Unfortunately, Governor Kelly's first budget would squander our fiscal recovery with a massive spending increase."

Reminding lawmakers of the “breathtaking years of crisis” caused by Brownback’s 2012 income tax cuts, Kelly said she was elected to “rebuild our state.” But, she said, she has no intention of spending down the state’s recovering balances or breaking her "no tax increase" pledge. 

Reconciling her priorities with those of the Republican-led Legislature, Kelly said, will require a kind of bipartisan cooperation that has recently been in short supply at the Statehouse.

●       Kelly: “While the time for fingerpointing is over, we’re not off the hook for the long-term consequences of past policy decisions. If we are going to succeed, I need your help to protect both sides of the budget equation until our fiscal health stabilizes. As many of you have already said, we must show restraint. Because, ultimately, we do not know what lies ahead.”

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks

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

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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