TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly encouraged the Republican-dominated legislature on Tuesday to embrace a bipartisan approach to the vexing policy issues of taxation, health care and education, providing Kansans with a sustainable state budget.
Kelly, who postponed the annual State of the State address in early January when it was incorrectly assumed she had COVID-19, stuck with familiar themes and legislative priorities. He urged members of the House and Senate to consider a $500 million tax program that would rapidly eliminate the state’s food sales tax, create a state sales tax exemption for school supplies, and protect Social Security income from state income tax.
The governor pleaded with lawmakers to embark on meaningful water policy reform and to avoid injecting the policy more deeply into K-12 public schools that serve nearly 500,000 students. He has amplified recommendations to expand Medicaid eligibility, legalize medical marijuana, accelerate workforce training and respond to calls for action on the rural housing crisis.
Kelly and the legislature collaborated in his first term to enact the contents of 286 bills, each requiring some measure of bipartisanship. He outlined a similar vision for his second term, fully aware that Republicans hold majorities in the Senate and the House. The GOP leadership has shown no sign of losing its numerical edge as it pursues a conservative agenda.
“We didn’t always agree, but the truth is that it was only when we came together that we made real progress,” Kelly said. “That’s why I’m asking you tonight, again, to meet me in the middle. On so many issues facing our state — from tax cuts to water to health care — the best solutions aren’t Republican or Democratic. They will come from compromise and collaboration. In the next four years, we need to see each other as partners, not enemies.”
Kelly said he would strongly oppose aggressive tax cuts that jeopardize state budget stability. You indicated that the zealous cuts to state income taxes advanced a decade ago by GOP Governor Sam Brownback would be unacceptable. The Brownback tax program, after years of fierce budget struggles, was mostly abandoned in 2017 when the legislature voted to override its veto on a repeal bill.
“Let me be clear: I will oppose any irresponsible tax proposal that erodes that foundation,” Kelly said. “We’ve been there before. We know where it leads. And we can’t go back. Don’t go into debt. Dilapidated streets. An overwhelmed foster care system. And, perhaps most devastating of all, underfunded schools. We can’t go back to the days when financial irresponsibility here in Topeka deprived our Kansas students of opportunity.”
He said the goal should be to adopt fiscally sound tax changes that the state could afford in the long run and serve the interests of working families and the elderly.
The governor’s budget called for the state’s 4 percent food sales tax to be repealed by the summer. In 2022, the legislature and Kelly agreed on a plan to phase out the state’s 6.5% food sales tax. The first stage occurred on January 1, when 2.5 percentage points were cut. The law would not reset it until January 2025.
“There is no reason Kansans should ever look down on grocery receipts and see this tax,” the Democratic governor said. “People can’t afford it. People don’t deserve it. And there’s no need to wait for 2025.”
He also proposed eliminating the state’s sales tax on diapers and feminine hygiene products, and suggested a four-day Back-to-School sales tax break each August for those who purchase school supplies.
In addition, he recommended that the legislature provide relief to retirees by raising the income threshold for applying state income tax to Social Security benefits to $100,000. Under current law, Kansas retirees earning $75,000 a year or less do not pay state income tax on Social Security. If they make an extra $1, 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 on the House floor: Danny Robeson, a fifth grader in the Shawnee Mission school district. He suffers from cerebral palsy, epilepsy and impaired vision and needed extra support to learn alongside his 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 has recommended that the current Legislature provide full funding for special education programs in K-12 schools across the state. The special education funding gap impacts every student in a school because districts end up diverting resources to providing services to students like Danny, she said.
“Laura has seen firsthand what the funding gap means,” Kelly said. “Sometimes Laura has to keep Danny home from school because there aren’t enough staff to ensure she can learn safely.”
The governor said he would oppose any attempts by lawmakers and special interest groups to pit parents against classroom teachers, communities against public schools or young people against the teaching profession. The legislative agenda introduced by Senate Speaker Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins included a bill of parental rights, including avenues for challenging library and classroom materials, and requiring transgender students to participate in gender-based sports at birth.
“I will stand up to politicians who want to score 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 best when parents and teachers are involved in their upbringing. So rather than distracting ourselves with wedge issues, let’s focus on giving them the resources and support they need.”
Kelly renewed his proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility to more than 100,000 low-income Kansas. The legislature has for years blocked changes to the state’s Medicaid offerings and in the process set aside $6 billion in federal funding that would have flowed to the state. The governor said the expansion would already create 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 have been devastated. These Kansan residents have to drive for hours to get basic care.”
Kelly pleaded with lawmakers to invest state resources in mental health services and address the rise in opioid overdose deaths in Kansas. She said the response should include naloxone funding for schools to address student overdoses and action to decriminalize fentanyl test strips so people have more information about the contents of the drugs they consume.
Kelly hailed the Kansas Department of Commerce’s work to recruit new businesses in Kansas, including Panasonic in De Soto, Hilmar Cheese in Dodge City, Amber Wave in Phillipsburg, and Bartlett Grain in Cherryvale. Since her administration began in 2019, she said Kansas has documented more than $15 billion in new capital investment and the creation or retention of 54,000 jobs.
However, he warned that economic growth would bring the state’s shortage of skilled labor into the spotlight. He said the state should increase funding for an apprenticeship program registered with the Department of Commerce that currently works with 3,500 Kansan residents
Kelly said the evidence was clear from Goodland to Liberal and further into western Kansas that dwindling water supplies could become a disaster. Parts of that region of the state have about 10 years of water for the agricultural economy to function.
“Waiting for some miracle to happen is not an option,” the governor said.
He said the state’s water plan was fully funded last year for the first time since 2009. The state paid off a $30 million debt tied to watersheds so the money could be diverted to investments that have worked for producers and irrigators concerned about water quality and quantity, he said. he said she.
The governor has recommended that lawmakers pass a bill to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In the past, the House passed a bill that the Senate ignored. Thirty-nine other states have allowed people to use marijuana for chronic pain, seizure disorder, and PTSD. Most doctors believe medical marijuana should be part of a comprehensive palliative care plan, Kelly said.
“Indeed,” he said, “just a few weeks ago, just before Christmas, the police raided the hospital room of a terminally ill man in Hays. Greg Bretz was using marijuana to ease his pain. He was then ordered to appear in court, despite being unable to get out of bed. We all know he was ridiculous.
He said Bretz died two weeks ago — the first week of the 2023 legislative session — and his passing illustrated the folly of a state law banning the use of marijuana for health reasons.