Governor asks Kansans to ‘rise together’ to meet challenges of pandemic, sedition

Gov. Laura Kelly delivered a prerecorded State of the State speech Tuesday, a break from tradition made necessary by COVID-19 precautions. (File photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly told Kansans in her State of the State address Tuesday they are being tested like never before — by months of losses from a deadly pandemic and the threat of violent sedition made evident by the siege of the U.S. Capitol.

She urged Kansans to “lock arms,” treat each other with dignity, and listen to public health experts.

“Let us always remember that our children and grandchildren are watching,” Kelly said. “These days, they’re watching extra closely. The decisions we make and the example we set in the coming weeks and months will have a lasting impact on their lives, and on our beloved state of Kansas. This is a time like none other we’ve seen. Let’s rise together to meet this moment.”

Breaking from tradition, Kelly delivered her third State of the State address as a prerecorded speech through social media and public TV broadcasts rather than in a live appearance before the Legislature. The change was made to avoid the risk posed by COVID-19.

The Democratic governor outlined her administration’s efforts to vaccinate Kansans from COVID-19 and rebuild the state’s economy, and she warned against Republicans who would prefer tax cuts to investments in core services.

She lamented the staggering losses from a pandemic that has killed more than 3,200 Kansans, closed classrooms, eliminated jobs and forced businesses to close. The end is in sight, she said, with the arrival of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. So far, 84,555 Kansans have been vaccinated, she said.

The first phase of the vaccine rollout, earmarked for health care workers and nursing home residents, should be completed this month. Next up: Seniors, prisoners, teachers, child care providers, and workers at meatpacking plants and grocery stores.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccines,” Kelly said. “Internet conspiracy theories. Complete nonsense. Make no mistake, the science behind the vaccines is solid. And these vaccines are how we keep ourselves and our fellow Kansans healthy and, ultimately, how we defeat this virus and move forward with our lives.”

She plans to continue her push for Medicaid expansion, which would provide health insurance to 165,000 low-income Kansas adults and their children, bolster the finances of rural hospitals, and inject billions into the economy. Republican leaders have rebuffed efforts in the past to expand Medicaid, and conservative gains in the 2020 elections make it more unlikely to gain traction this year.

“If we’ve learned anything these past 10 months, it’s that every Kansan deserves health care they can afford, good health care facilities near their homes, and for our rural neighbors and friends, more access to telehealth services,” Kelly said.

She outlined economic priorities focused on job creation, broadband, infrastructure, agriculture and helping small businesses.

Her initiatives include resurrection of a program to assist with redevelopment of rural downtowns, and recruitment of businesses that offer high-paying jobs. She said she was the first Democratic governor to endorse a new trade agreement brokered by President Donald Trump’s administration between the United States, Mexico and Canada because it will help Kansas agriculture.

She created the Office of Broadband Development though executive order to address the growing dependency business small and large have on e-commerce, the need to work from home during the pandemic, and remote learning for public schools. The broadband office will administer $50 million in grants to support local investments.

“Access to high-speed internet will be a game-changer for these communities,” Kelly said. “It’s a tool to recruit new businesses and keep existing ones from leaving.”

She said her administration has balanced the state budget and avoided raising taxes while restoring funding to public schools and investing in a 10-year highway plan. The state is projected to emerge from the pandemic with a $600 million ending balance.

She contrasted her record with former Gov. Sam Brownback’s “disastrous tax experiment” and warned against plans for “Brownback 2.0 tax cuts.”

“We must remain vigilant,” Kelly said. “We’re just a few years removed from the Brownback tax experiment, and it seems as though some of my colleagues in the Legislature have already forgotten just how devastating that experiment was to our economy, our schools and our future.”