Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly warned the Republican-controlled legislature in her stateside address Tuesday night that she would oppose “irresponsible tax proposals” and educational measures that pit “parents against teachers,” even as the Democratic governor seeks GOP support for her agenda.
Kelly called for the immediate elimination of the state’s food sales tax, the creation of a back-to-school sales tax exemption, and the provision of tax breaks for some retirees. Kelly also wants Kansas to fully fund special education after the state went more than a decade without meeting mandated funding levels.
The governor stressed in the first weeks of her second term that she wants to work across the aisle, including the possibility of a compromise to legalize medical marijuana in Kansas, one of only three states with no public marijuana or THC programs . She also made it clear that action needs to be taken to address dwindling water supplies in western Kansas, saying politicians have been “kicking the can along the way” for decades.
But Kelly’s annual State of the State address also signaled that she’s ready to deploy her veto pen at the start of a second term.
Warning that the classroom is not a “place for politics,” the governor said she would oppose efforts “designed to pit parents against teachers … to pit communities against their schools … to alienate young people from the teaching profession,” according to a prepared copy of the speech.
Republicans, both in Kansas and in states across the country, have pursued legislation to ban critical race theory — a college-level academic concept that examines the role of institutions in perpetuating racism — and “divisive concepts” in classrooms. K-12. A Missouri bill, for example, would ban the teaching of any form of “race or gender scapegoating.”
“I will resist politicians who want to score political points at the expense of our students and our families. Our students should not be used as political pawns. Never,” Kelly said.
GOP lawmakers also called for a ban on transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports, a proposal Kelly vetoed twice. Republicans have also vowed to propose a “parental bill of rights” that aims to give parents more control over the curriculum, but have yet to publish it.
A Florida version of the “parental bill” became known as the “don’t say gay bill” for prohibiting classroom instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation. Previous versions of the legislation in Kansas were not as broad.
“We want a 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,” Senate Speaker Ty Masterson said, a Republican from Andover, in a response to the pre-recorded speech two weeks ago.
“The sad reality is that his party,” Masterson said, referring to Kelly, “remains indebted to the public union leadership, which fears and resists parents who have any form of school choice, wanting only a blank check.” to their system”.
Kelly’s top education priority this year centers on significantly increasing the amount of aid the state provides to schools to educate children with special needs. Because Kansas enjoys a historic budget surplus of nearly $2 billion, Kelly has proposed an additional $72 million each year for special education to bring the state into compliance in five years.
The funding amount has the potential to impact the type of services and education received by more than 90,000 Kansas students. Nearly one in five students in the state receives special education services, which include students with both developmental and physical disabilities as well as those enrolled in gifted programs, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.
“The special education funding shortfall isn’t just impacting students with special needs,” Kelly said. “It impacts all students, because schools end up diverting funds from other areas to provide these services.”
Kelly introduced Danny Robeson, a fifth grader in the Shawnee Mission School District who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and vision problems.
Kelly said Danny’s mother, Laura, often volunteers at his school and has suffered the consequences of underfunding, including times she had to keep him home from school because there weren’t enough staff for him to learn in safety.
Some Republicans are against passing the additional special education dollars or want to attach important constraints.
“We will spend a lot of time looking for alternatives to address the issues that already exist in the statute,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta. “The statute has flaws. So rather than adding money to a flawed bylaw, let’s fix the bylaw and then tackle the funding and make sure it’s fair for everyone.”
Medical Marijuana Inquiry
The governor was originally scheduled to address a joint session of the legislature two days after her second inauguration, but was postponed after she tested positive for COVID-19.
Kelly’s office later said that he did not actually have the virus but had a false positive. Further tests came back negative, the governor’s office said. Tuesday was Kelly’s 73rd birthday, and after lawmakers sang “Happy Birthday,” she joked that the delay “was so I’d hear you sing happy birthday to me.”
The speech, delivered to a room packed with lawmakers, state officials and special guests, was somewhat disappointing. Typically, the State of the State offers the governor the opportunity to offer a preview of his agenda before the release of a budget proposal detailing exactly how the governor wants to fund those goals.
But with Kelly’s budget already released two weeks ago, Republicans have been skeptical of some of his goals. Few issues will test Kelly’s ability to negotiate with Republicans as much as medical marijuana.
Legalization has stalled since the House passed a bill to legalize the drug in 2021. Masterson has repeatedly said it’s not a priority in the Senate and he wants to see more research before he’s comfortable moving forward. .
Kansas is surrounded on three sides by states that have legalized drugs, including Missouri whose voters just approved a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational use.
Kelly referred to a case in Hays, when police raided the hospital room of a terminally ill patient using marijuana products to ease his pain.
“We all know it was ridiculous,” Kelly said. “It’s not the police’s fault – the police were just enforcing the law. This means that the law itself is ridiculous.”
As for taxes, Kelly and the Republican leadership are fairly close on tax policy this year with a shared goal of reducing income taxes on Social Security. Republicans, however, have introduced legislation that goes one step further, eliminating income tax on Social Security and reducing it on other retirement benefits.
Republicans have indicated a willingness to negotiate with Kelly on the immediate elimination of the state food sales tax. Lawmakers approved, and Kelly signed on to, a phased repeal this spring that will ultimately cost the state about $400 million in revenue annually.
Some lawmakers want to explore a flat tax that would almost certainly get a veto from Kelly. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce introduced legislation in both chambers that would establish a flat income tax at 2.25%. The bill includes a mechanism that could gradually bring the state’s income tax to zero if the state collects more tax revenue than expected.
Kelly didn’t respond directly to any specific proposals Tuesday night, but he vowed to oppose ideas that erode the state’s “fiscal foundation.” Kansas experienced years of budget shortfalls until lawmakers largely reversed former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 income tax cuts in 2017.
“We’ve been there before. We know where it leads. And we can’t go back,” Kelly said.
“Don’t go into debt. Dilapidated streets. An overwhelmed foster care system. And perhaps most devastating of all, underfunded schools,” he said. “We cannot go back to the days when financial irresponsibility here in Topeka deprived our Kansas students of opportunities.”
Kelly wants to act on the water
Kelly will once again have to work with an outright Republican legislature to deliver on his agenda. Republicans in the House and Senate this year showed a greater level of cooperation between houses than in previous years.
It seems likely that Republicans will again oppose Kelly’s call for Medicaid expansion. The Democratic governor has pushed the expansion, which would provide health care coverage to an estimated 100,000 more residents or more, each year in office.
“Now I know, I sound like a broken record, but that’s only because we have a broken healthcare system,” Kelly said.
Kelly also called for action on another longstanding issue: the state’s water supply.
Some estimates indicate that parts of western Kansas could go without water in 10 years as the Ogallala Aquifer is depleted. While there is bipartisan recognition of the issue, little has been done in the Legislature to address it.
“Waiting for some miracle to happen is not an option. We have to do something,” Kelly said. “Everything we’ve achieved in the last four years is being jeopardized by inaction.”