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Jim McLean: Republican Maneuvers Will Test Kelly's Savvy As The New Governor Of Kansas

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Kansas News Service
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly
Jim McLean

Lawmakers, lobbyists and citizens following the goings on in Topeka should buckle their seat belts.

The 2019 legislative session is going to be a bumpy ride.

It looks like an obstacle course of sorts that will test the political skills, patience and resolve of new Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Republican legislative leaders appear determined to put Kelly to the test right out of the gate. They want to quickly restore state income tax deductions eliminated by recent changes in federal tax law.


In her State of the State speech, Kelly pointedly asked lawmakers not to propose any major tax changes. She wants them to hold off until she — and they — get a better handle on the state’s revenue outlook.

Waiting, GOP leaders said, would deny money that rightfully belongs to Kansas taxpayers. It would be a tax increase. So, they are charging ahead. Likely setting up an early confrontation with the governor.

To Republicans, that might seem like a win-win scenario. If Kelly signs the bill, great. They can take credit for cutting taxes.

If she vetoes it, also great. They can say, “Look, it’s only been a few weeks and she’s already broken her campaign promise not to raise taxes.”

A short-term political win, but one that could backfire in the long run.

Here’s why.

Kelly won the governor’s race for a reason. Exit polls clearly show that voters preferred her to Republican Kris Kobach because they saw her as someone who was less partisan. She appeared as someone who could deliver on her promise to work across the aisle to fix the damage that they agreed had been done by former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts.

More than 75 percent of voters polled said the tax cuts were “a bad thing” for the state.

Based on those results, voters might agree with Kelly’s cautious approach. They might agree that cutting taxes again now could hinder the recovery from the Brownback years. That’s a recovery that, Kelly contends, requires responding to urgent needs while maintaining healthy balances in the state’s checking account.

To be sure, the tax-relief ideas Republicans are proposing now aren’t really comparable to the Brownback tax cuts. They’re much smaller.

But their $60 million to $100 million annual price tag would preclude spending on other things that Kelly, at least, views as higher priorities.

Kelly’s performance in the districts of Republican legislative leaders might also be instructive as they plot a path forward.

Kelly won Senate President Susan Wagle’s Wichita district by 14 points. Her margin in Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning’s Johnson County district was a whopping 20 points.

There is another benefit to Kelly drawing a line in the sand. Relevance.

Vetoing the tax-relief bill while inviting lawmakers to revisit the issue later in the session would give her a bargaining chip. A big one to toss on the table when negotiating with Republican leaders on the issues at the top of her priority list: Medicaid expansion, funding schools and fixing a foster care system that isn’t adequately protecting vulnerable children.

All of this suggests that the biggest issues of the session won’t be resolved until the very end when the governor and Republican leaders strike some sort of grand bargain.

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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