Here are six quick takeaways from Gov. Laura Kelly’s fourth state of the state address during her first term as she heads into a reelection campaign later this year.
Unlike last year when Kelly made her state of the state address virtually, the House chamber was full again Tuesday night as lawmakers listened to the governor sound themes of togetherness and reconciliation.
She reflected on the lives of the late Bob Dole and ballplayer Buck O’Neil in emphasizing the need for optimism, compromise and making a difference.
Here’s a few observations and quick take-aways from the governor’s state of the state. Here’s the text from the speech. And here’s the Republican response.
Food sales taxes
No real surprise here, but the governor renewed her call for offering a $250 tax rebate to Kansans while ending the state sales tax on food.
While the governor is now coming out as a tax cutter in an election year, her ideas don’t appear to be warmly received by a Republican-controlled Legislature.
On the food sale taxes, the governor wants a “clean bill” that focuses only on that issue. “Send me a clean, bipartisan bill, that eliminates the state sales tax on food by Kansas Day, Jan. 29. I’ll sign it the moment it hits my desk,” Kelly told lawmakers.
“This is a commonsense policy on which Democrats and Republicans can completely agree.
“The only obstacle that could block this legislation is the same type of toxic political gamesthat have poisoned Washington, D.C, where denying a political opponent a win has become more important than getting things done for the people they represent.”
But not so fast. Senate President Ty Masterson said in a recent interview that he didn’t foresee a “clean” bill winding its way through the Legislature. It’s quite possible that a bill cutting the sales tax may get through the Legislature, the question is what other tax proposals might be part of the proposal that goes to the governor.
“She wants it exactly her way, but I struggle to see a tax bill make it all the way through the process and be exactly what she had envisioned. We’ll see. I’m a little cautious in saying it’s a done deal.”
The rebate is a different question, Masterson said. “I’m definitely more interested in doing something more substantial, long term versus buy votes in an election year. It’s kind of transparent what you’re seeing there.”
Higher education tuition freeze
The governor announced that her budget will call for freeze on college tuition increases.
“You heard that right. No tuition increases whatsoever. This virus took something from our students. And we are going to give them something back. Again, it’s a huge win for our young people and for all working Kansans. These are the types of things we can do when our state’s economy is growing the way it is.”
Tuition per semester has increased at each of the state’s universities over the last five years. It was up 10.6% at the University of Kansas from 2016 to 2021, 10.1% during the same time frame at Kansas State, 12.5% at Wichita State, 13.2% at Emporia State, 14.1% at Pittsburg State and 16% at Fort Hays State.
Governor’s not-so-secret weapon
When Kelly extends a thank you to Lt. Gov. David Toland, it’s likely just more than political platitudes. She did just that during her state of the state speech and their relationship is pivotal going forward into reelection season.
“For the past three years, Lt. Gov. Toland has worked tirelessly as the secretary of the Department of Commerce. He has spearheaded efforts to help small businesses weather the pandemic. I’m fortunate to have him by my side, as we continue to put his economic development expertise to good use for Kansans and Kansas communities.”
With a dynamic personality, Toland is popular in the business community for building up a Commerce Department that is credited for setting a new record of investment in the state. As evidence of the kind of support he enjoys from economic development professionals, more than 40 chambers of commerce and economic development organizations supported his confirmation for secretary of commerce back in 2019.
He’s seen as energetic and hungry. He attends project announcements all over the state and is likely the governor’s best ambassador for economic development – and an asset to her reelection campaign.
He’s also had a hand in her fundraising, which may have something to do with why she raised $2 million during 2021 for her reelection campaign.
At one point, there had been chatter that Kelly would not seek reelection and Toland would run for governor instead. That ain’t happening, but it doesn’t mean Toland’s not a player.
The governor will present her budget to lawmakers on Wednesday, but she gave some hints about what it will include. Kelly said she plans to fully fund the state’s water plan for the first time in 15 years.
“The water plan is a five-year blueprint for action that will ensure that we have a reliable, quality water supply to support not only the needs of Kansas communities, but a thriving farming economy,” Kelly said.
She said her budget will contain “historic levels” of funding for law enforcement for better equipment, and better training facilities.
She also plans to seek a pay increase for the Highway Patrol and more funding for evidence-based juvenile delinquency programs.
The Good Shepherd
This is a message that seemed to be intended more for an audience outside the Capitol than the one inside the House chamber, and it’s one that will likely be a more common theme in the coming months.
She took time to note that the state is in better fiscal health now than it was under her predecessor, although she didn’t mention former Gov. Sam Brownback by name.
She pointed out that the state has its largest budget surplus in 40 years while balancing the budget and fully funding schools.
“Whereas, just a few years ago, Kansas was making headlines for its budget mismanagement – I believe Kansas is now the most fiscally responsible state in the nation.
“We’ve paid down state debts. And we’re adding $600 million dollars to the state’s Rainy- Day fund, the most money that’s ever been put in there.
“We’ve created more than 30,000 new jobs. That’s 30,000 – even during a pandemic. Our unemployment rate has been below 4% for over a year. And in 2021 alone, the private sector invested nearly $3.8 billion dollars in new facilities and equipment.
The economic development message is again is an example of how the lieutenant governor is figuring into a message you will hear again as we move deeper into election season.
Trying to blunt any idea that she’s not willing to work with Republicans, Kelly preached the message of togetherness during her state of the state address.
“We can turn down the temperature. We can be civil and compromise. We can be role models for our children,” she said.
“We can put allegiance to Kansans ahead of allegiance to political party. We can be as good and as decent as the people who sent us here.”
She called on the memories of Dole and O’Neil in asking for a cooperative spirit in the Legislature.
“Sen. Dole once told us: ‘In politics, honorable compromise is no sin. It is what protects
us from absolutism and intolerance.'”
“Sen. Dole also said: ‘When it’s all over, it’s not about who you were, it’s about whether
you made a difference.'”
“These are words we should all keep close to our hearts. Whether you made a difference.”
Then she turned to the late Buck O’Neil, a driving force behind the creation of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City who was just voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Buck was an eternal optimist, even toward the end of a life that had had so many
hardships,” Kelly said.
“One of Buck’s more delightful sayings was: ‘Hold hands with the person next to you. That way, they can’t get away. And neither can you.'”
“So, let us all hold hands these next few months. And not let go until we finally get things done.”