TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday encouraged the Republican-dominated legislature to take a bipartisan approach to tease policy issues of taxation, health care and education while delivering Kansans a sustainable state budget.
Kelly, who postponed the annual state of the state address in early January when it was wrongly believed she had contracted COVID-19, stuck to known issues and legislative priorities. She urged members of the House and Senate to consider a $500 million tax program that would quickly eliminate the state sales tax on groceries, institute a state sales tax holiday on school supplies, and shield Social Security revenue from state income taxes .
The governor appealed to lawmakers to enact meaningful water policy reform and avoid injecting the policy more deeply into K-12 public schools, which serve nearly 500,000 students. She reinforced recommendations to expand Medicaid eligibility, legalize medical marijuana, accelerate workforce training and respond to calls to action on the rural housing crisis.
Kelly and the legislature worked together in her first term to enact the substance of 286 bills — all of which required a degree of bipartisanship. She outlined a similar vision for her second term, recognizing that Republicans hold a supermajority in the Senate and House of Representatives. The GOP leadership has given no indication that they intend to falsify their numerical advantage while pursuing a conservative agenda.
“We didn’t always agree, but the truth is that we’ve only made real progress when we’ve come together,” Kelly said. “So tonight I’m asking you to meet me in the middle again. With so many problems facing our state – from tax breaks to water to health care – the best solutions are not Republican or Democratic. They will come about through compromise and cooperation. In the next four years we must see each other as partners, not enemies.”
‘Make me clear’
Kelly said she would strongly oppose aggressive tax cuts that threaten fiscal stability. She pointed out that zealous state income tax cuts pushed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback a decade ago would be unacceptable. The Brownback tax program was largely abandoned after years of bloody budget battles in 2017, when lawmakers voted to override their veto of a repeal bill.
“Let me be clear: I will oppose any irresponsible tax proposals that undermine that foundation,” Kelly said. “We have been there before. We know where it leads. And we can’t go back. Not to blame. crumbling streets. An overwhelmed care system. And, perhaps most devastatingly, underfunded schools. We cannot go back to the days when financial irresponsibility here in Topeka deprived our Kansas students of opportunity.”
She said the goal should be to pass fiscally sound tax changes that the state can afford in the long term and serve the interests of working families and seniors.
The governor’s budget calls for the state’s 4% sales tax on groceries to be eliminated by this summer. In 2022, the Legislature and Kelly agreed on a plan to phase out the 6.5% state sales tax on groceries. The first phase of this took place on January 1, when 2.5 percentage points were cut off. The law would not set it to zero until January 2025.
“There’s no reason Kansans should ever look down at their grocery receipts and see this tax,” the Democratic governor said. “People can’t afford it. People don’t deserve it. And we don’t have to wait until 2025.”
She also proposed dropping the state sales tax on diapers and feminine hygiene products, and proposed allowing a four-day back-to-school sales tax exemption each August for those who buy school supplies.
She also recommended that lawmakers give retirees relief by raising the income threshold for applying state income tax to Social Security benefits to $100,000. Under current law, Kansas retirees who earn $75,000 a year or less pay no state income tax on Social Security. If they earn $1 more, their entire Social Security income must be subject to state income tax.
“These are all ideas that Republicans and Democrats have proposed and supported in the past,” Kelly said.
Kelly introduced lawmakers to a guest in the House of Representatives chamber – Danny Robeson, a fifth grader in the Shawnee Mission School District. He has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and vision problems and needed extra support to study alongside peers at school through special education services. He was sitting on the balcony with his mother Laura, a former teacher who volunteers at his school.
The governor recommended that the current Legislature provide full funding for special education programs in K-12 schools statewide. The special education funding gap affects every student in a school, as counties end up redirecting resources to provide services to students like Danny, she said.
“Laura has seen firsthand what the funding gap means,” Kelly said. “Laura sometimes has to keep Danny away from school because there aren’t enough staff to make sure he can study safely.”
The governor said she would oppose any efforts by lawmakers and advocacy groups to turn parents against classroom teachers, communities against public schools, or young people against the teaching profession. The legislative agenda put forward by Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins included a parental rights bill, including ways to challenge library and classroom materials, and a requirement that transgender students participate in physical education at birth, based on sex.
“I will resist politicians who want to gain political points at the expense of our students and our families,” Kelly said. “Our students should not be used as political pawns. Never. We all agree that our children do better when parents and teachers are involved in their education. So instead of distracting ourselves with wedge issues, we focus on giving them the resources and support they need.”
Kelly renewed her pitch for expanding Medicaid eligibility to more than 100,000 low-income Kansans. Lawmakers have blocked changes to state Medicaid offerings for years, setting aside $6 billion in federal funding that would have gone to the state. The governor said the expansion has now created 23,000 jobs.
“I know I sound like a broken record, but that’s only because we have a broken healthcare system,” she said. “Too many rural hospitals have closed their doors. When that happens, communities are devastated. These Kansans have to drive for hours to get their basic supplies.”
Kelly urged lawmakers to invest state funds in mental health services and tackle the rise in opioid overdose deaths in Kansas. She said the response should include funding naloxone for schools to deal with student overdoses and action to decriminalize fentanyl test strips so people would have more information about the contents of the drugs they were using.
human resource development
Kelly welcomed the work of the Kansas Department of Commerce to attract new companies to Kansas, including Panasonic of De Soto, Hilmar Cheese of Dodge City, Amber Wave of Phillipsburg, and Bartlett Grain of Cherryvale. Since beginning her tenure in 2019, Kansas has documented more than $15 billion in new capital investment and the creation or preservation of 54,000 jobs.
However, she warned that economic growth would put the spotlight on shortages of skilled labour. She said the state should increase funding for a registered apprenticeship program at the Department of Commerce that currently works with 3,500 Kansans
Kelly said the evidence is clear from Goodland to Liberal and beyond in western Kansas, declining water supplies could become a disaster. Portions of this region of the state are estimated to have had water for the operation of the agricultural economy for 10 years.
“Waiting for a miracle is not an option,” the governor said.
She said the state water plan was fully funded last year for the first time since 2009. The state has paid off $30 million in reservoir debt so the money could be redirected to investments that worked for producers and irrigation companies concerned about water quality and quantity, she said.
The governor recommended that lawmakers approve legislation legalizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes. In the past, the House of Representatives passed a bill that the Senate ignored. Thirty-nine other states have allowed people to use marijuana for chronic pain, seizure disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A majority of physicians believe medical marijuana should be part of a comprehensive palliative care plan, Kelly said.
“Indeed,” she said, “a few weeks ago, just before Christmas, police searched the hospital room of a terminally ill man in Hays. Greg Bretz used marijuana to relieve his pain. He was then ordered to appear in court, although he was unable to get out of bed. We all know that was ridiculous.”
She said Bretz died two weeks ago — in the first week of the 2023 legislative session — and that his death demonstrated the folly of a state law that bans the use of marijuana for health reasons.