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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly Weighs Her Progress After One Legislative Session

Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
The first few weeks in office for a Kansas governor are often consumed with negotiating a state budget. 'It is a lot of stuff,' said Gov. Laura Kelly. 'Actually in my nerd-like way, it was kind of fun.'

One might think the end of her first legislative session as Kansas governor would give Laura Kelly some relief.

"Oh, not much," she said. "We've been extraordinarily busy."

With lawmakers out of town until January, the governor has been rounding out her cabinet, appointing permanent replacements to lead the departments of administration and corrections, for instance. But Kelly says there are still "probably literally thousands of other appointments to boards and commissions that have to be done, many of which were left neglected for years."

Beefing up government infrastructure, she said, will "allow it to function."

Here's what Kelly told KCUR about issues left on the table.

School funding

In June, Kelly's administration scored an important win when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that its latest funding bill sends enough money to local school districts. The ruling effectively ended a nearly decade-long lawsuit. But the court didn't fully dismiss the case, leaving open the possibility that future funding squabbles could end up back before the high court.

Kelly said that success is a great example of delivering bipartisan wins in the face of hostile leaders in the Kansas Senate.

"That was because of the 14 years I had been working in the Senate and had established relationships across the aisle," said Kelly. "It was not the Republicans, generically, opposing everything that I wanted to get done — it was Republican leadership."

Credit Charlie Riedel / Associated Press pool photo
Associated Press pool photo
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt defends the state's school funding levels to the Kansas Supreme Court earlier this year.

Ultimately, said Kelly, "I ran to be the education governor, so being able to fulfill that promise and adequately fund our schools and the cycle of litigation is very satisfying."

The passage of a school finance solution also means Kelly can turn more of her attention to other things, like what she called her legacy project: establishing the best and most robust early childhood education system in the country.

Medicaid expansion

The battle over Medicaid expansion was another example of the beef between Kelly and Republican leaders in the Senate.

"The House passed Medicaid expansion and there were enough votes on the Senate floor to pass Medicaid expansion as we presented it," Kelly said. "There were obstacles just in Senate leadership."

Two legislative committees will now study the idea, but the governor said there's no longer any excuse for continuing to hold out. She insisted expansion would be a boon for the health and economy of Kansas.

"There have been endless numbers of studies and research done on Medicaid expansion, you know. We also now have five years of other states who expanded Medicaid, so we know what the results have been there," she said. "So there's no excuse, there's no need for more study, there's just a need to get it done."

Despite the fact that most lawmakers are back in their home districts, Kelly said she's not sitting idly by.

"We are continuing to work on, you know, tweaking what we presented last year and building support," she said. "What we want to do is make sure that we don't end up in that situation where the legislature is forced to vote on a Medicaid expansion plan that really won't meet the needs of Kansans."

Prison reform

Kansas prisons are in a crisis, the governor said. While riots aren't breaking out like they have in recent years, progress so far includes only a small pay raise for corrections officers.

Credit Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
In February, KCUR spoke with Hunter Defenbaugh, who sometimes works overnight shifts lasting 16 hours at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas. His story punctuates the Department of Corrections' inability to retain enough officers. 'I've been here for eight months,' he said. 'I'm basically a veteran now.'

"We still have a lot of very serious problems to resolve in our correction system, and we're working on it," Kelly said. "The salary increases were imperative because we were not able to recruit (staff, and) we certainly couldn't retain."

Those raises won't solve things overnight, though, and the state's prisons are sorely overcrowded.

"We're double-bunking people who should not be double-bunked," Kelly said.

That's when prisoners live two-to-a-cell, and the head of Kansas' prison system has said the practice contributed to rioting in 2017. It also means the capacity issue is worse than it appears on paper, Kelly said.

"We're probably going to have to contract for some private, out-of-state beds just because the numbers are so huge," she said. "I mean, we're talking we have to move hundreds and hundreds of people, not, you know, 40 or 50."

She said she was not excited about that solution, but the state might have to resort to it out of desperation.

"I don't believe in that model, but we're at a crisis situation right now and the private sector is the only sector that has enough beds to help us alleviate this," she said.

The bed shortage doesn't mean a new prison is imminent. The governor admitted she'd avoid building another prison "at all costs," but then corrected herself.

"Well, I shouldn't say at all costs. If that's what we have to do that's what we will do, but I want to look first at every other alternative." She said that includes sentencing reform, community-based treatment options in lieu of incarceration, and more robust workforce development inside the state's detention facilities.

Sports betting

"We came so very close this past session getting that passed, and then there was just an end of session roadblock that got in the way," Kelly said.

While the governor does want to see sports gambling rolled out in Kansas, she warned the revenue it's projected to add to state coffers won't be a panacea.

"It's not going to fund our schools or fund our roads or anything, (but it is) in some ways a service to our folks and I think we have a responsibility to do that."

Whatever sports betting ends up looking like in Kansas, "I want to make sure that it's clean," Kelly said. "I want to make sure we've got really tight guardrails on however we do this."

Medical marijuana

Kansas is now situated between three states that have legalized some form of medical marijuana: Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri. Despite the proximal familiarity, the governor knows progress toward legalized medical marijuana will be slow.

"I think there's still a lot of education that needs to go on, a lot of fearmongering to be dealt with," she said.

Some in the legislature fear medical marijuana is just the first step to legalization of recreational use, said Kelly, and any successful bill would have to address those concerns.

The 'border war' over economic incentives

Years of empty talk could soon be over when it comes to ending the long-running "border war" between Kansas and Missouri over each state's practice of offering economic incentives to lure companies across state lines. The governor said an agreement could come shortly.

"I have talked to (Missouri) Gov. (Mike) Parson about this and he knows that we're as anxious as he is to end this war," Kelly said. Left to iron out are issues on the local level.

"The states can make an agreement but we need to make sure that the playing field is level on the local level, and so we're working those out," she said.

Gov. Laura Kelly spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at <a href="mailto:luke@kcur.org" target="_blank" link-data="{&quot;cms.site.owner&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000016e-ccea-ddc2-a56e-edfe57dc0000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20&quot;},&quot;cms.content.publishDate&quot;:1678386246938,&quot;cms.content.publishUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000170-820a-de8d-af78-a70f6b270000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.content.updateDate&quot;:1678386246938,&quot;cms.content.updateUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000170-820a-de8d-af78-a70f6b270000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.directory.paths&quot;:[],&quot;anchorable.showAnchor&quot;:false,&quot;link&quot;:{&quot;attributes&quot;:[],&quot;cms.directory.paths&quot;:[],&quot;linkText&quot;:&quot;luke@kcur.org&quot;,&quot;target&quot;:&quot;NEW&quot;,&quot;attachSourceUrl&quot;:false,&quot;url&quot;:&quot;mailto:luke@kcur.org&quot;,&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000186-c79d-db71-a7b6-dfbd97080001&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a&quot;},&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000186-c79d-db71-a7b6-dfbd97080000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288&quot;}">luke@kcur.org</a>.