TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday asked Kansas officials to stop distracting themselves with “problems wedge” in education, sharply berating a Republican-controlled legislature pursuing policies that cater to dissatisfied conservative public-school parents .
Kelly used his annual state of the state address to denounce what he called efforts to “turn parents against teachers” and “communities against their schools.” She wasn’t specific, but top Republicans have vowed to pursue several ideas buzzing in GOP-led states, including restrictions on what K-12 public schools can teach about gender and sexuality.
Republican lawmakers plan to pursue a measure to allow parents to claim tax dollars previously earmarked for public schools to cover private or home schooling costs. Iowa’s GOP-controlled legislature approved such a plan early Tuesday. Kelly strongly opposes the idea.
Kelly also toughened his tone in advocating for the legalization of marijuana for medical uses, calling the state’s current ban “ridiculous.” She highlighted the case of a terminally ill man whose Northwest Kansas hospital room was raided by police because he was using marijuana extracts to ease his pain.
The Democratic governor’s tough speech on these issues contrasted with his glorification of pursuing intermediate policies elsewhere in Tuesday night’s address to a joint session of the House and Senate. He also called for the continuation of bipartisanship in the inaugural address that opened his second four-year term earlier this month.
“We can all agree that our children do best when parents and teachers are involved in their upbringing,” Kelly said in her 40 Minutes speech. “So rather than distracting ourselves with wedge issues, let’s focus on giving them both the resources and support they need.”
Kelly had been scheduled to deliver Statehood on Jan. 11, but tested positive for COVID-19 the day before, only to later find out it was a false positive. His office moved forward with the release of the proposed $24.1 billion state budget for the 2024 fiscal year effective July 1.
She ended up giving the address on her 73rd birthday, and lawmakers serenaded her with “Happy Birthday,” followed by applause.
The state is flush with cash, and Kelly had already proposed a number of tax cuts, including eliminating the state’s 4 percent grocery sales tax on April 1. Republican leaders are pushing a proposal to move Kansas to a “flat” income tax, with one rate for individuals and businesses, instead of three for individuals and two for corporations.
Republicans outlined an agenda two weeks ago that includes measures welcomed by GOP conservatives in several other states, including banning transgender athletes in girls and K-12 women’s sports, clubs and colleges. Kelly vetoed two previous proposals.
In the official Republican response, filed two weeks ago, Senate Speaker Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said that under Kelly, the state is on track to transform K-12 schools “into little more than factories for a radical social agenda.” Masterson said he plans to pursue restrictions on how public schools discuss gender and sexuality, such as what critics are calling Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Kelly said: “Know this: I will oppose any attempt to pit parents against teachers, pit communities against their schools, and displace young people from the teaching profession.”
State Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area Republican who chairs a House committee on K-12 spending, said she was working on a plan for education savings accounts for parents, using US dollars taxes. Masterson said the GOP “will focus on students, not legacy systems.”
“We want high-quality classical education that focuses on academic excellence, preparing our children for successful futures, not the sexualized sexual agenda we see permeating the system today,” Masterson said.
Kelly’s speech came just hours after hundreds of abortion opponents and parochial school students gathered outside the Statehouse to mark Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court canceled last year. But Kansas’ anti-abortion groups suffered a decisive political defeat in August when a statewide vote strongly affirmed the protection of abortion rights under the Kansas constitution.
Kelly applauded the August vote but did not mention abortion in the State address. GOP lawmakers expect to push for millions of dollars in new funding for abortion-pregnancy counseling centers.
House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, opened his remarks at the anti-abortion rally with “Good Afternoon, Warriors of God!” and promised: “We will continue to fight.”
Every year Kelly has been in office, she has called on lawmakers to expand Medicaid as encouraged by the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010 championed by former President Barack Obama. Republicans who strongly oppose the move have held enough key leadership posts to block the expansion, even as voters in other Republican-leaning states have embraced it, including Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Kelly has also pushed lawmakers to legalize marijuana for medical uses. While the House approved a plan in 2021, she never had a single Senate committee vote. Kelly’s legalization call this year inspired the most enthusiastic response from Democrats in his speech.
“Every day, thousands of Kansans are forced to choose between breaking the law and living pain free,” Kelly said. “It’s an unbearable and absolutely useless choice.”
Masterson said after the speech that the Senate will consider medical marijuana proposals this year.
But he added, “I won’t be ashamed to do it because of a bad example.”