TOPEKA — Former Govs. Mike Hayden and John Carlin threw their legacy of political insight Thursday behind the Kelly administration’s statewide economic development strategy — Kansas’ first fresh take on comprehensive expansion of job opportunities in more than 30 years.
Carlin was credited with developing an overarching economic plan for the state in 1986, while Hayden’s Republican administration assumed responsibility for implementing many ideas crafted by his Democratic predecessor. The thrust of those initiatives, anchored to the agricultural sector and supplemented with a push into biotechnology innovation, survived five governors. Elements of the state’s economic-development apparatus were dismantled by Gov. Sam Brownback, who was keen to turn the dial in Kansas by reducing or eliminating income taxes.
After elected in 2018, Gov. Laura Kelly made a priority of advancing a new economic masterplan. After engaging about 2,000 Kansans and following one year of work, the Kansas Department of Commerce began briefing leadership in the Kansas Legislature on the Framework for Growth. The governor’s program focuses on advanced manufacturing, aviation, transportation and logistics, agriculture and attracting business to the state.
“It’s time for us to build another common approach and lay out our goals to grow the state,” Hayden said. “This plan does not belong to one administration. It is the Kansas plan for growth. As former governors, John and I are proud to join with the current governor in making the case for this shared vision for our state’s future.”
Carlin, who also served as archivist of the United States, said he appreciated the value of looking at the big picture whenever moving government, especially in terms of the state’s economy. He said it was important Republicans and Democrats, despite differences of opinion on a host of policy issues, work together on broadening career opportunities for Kansans.
The Framework for Growth offered by Kelly is a good starting point on the path to economic renewal, he said.
“With everyone pulling in the same direction, you can accomplish some amazing things,” he said. “I have no doubt that, if the Framework for Growth is bought into and implemented, it can do great things here in Kansas.”
The Senate vibe
Sen. John Doll, a Republican from Garden City who represents a 10-county area in southwest Kansas, complained to Department of Commerce representative Bill Murphy about the balance of interests between urban and rural areas of the state.
During discussion of the Framework for Growth by members of the Senate Commerce Committee, Doll said the Kelly administration had “ghosted” western Kansas.
“The saying there — probably the saying in most places — is we raise our kids to move to Johnson county to work,” Doll said. “Looking through your presentation, which you’ve done a nice job on, every damn picture is from the city.”
Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Overland Park, said it was important for the state to make quality of life investments so teenagers who go away to college had a reason to come back to Kansas. Sen. Alicia Straub, a Republican from Ellinwood, said her teenagers held to a different perspective: They already love Kansas and want to stay.
“We’re not under the same overregulation and oppression as some people might feel in a larger metropolitan area,” Straub said. “So, that’s one of the best things about western Kansas is your freedom, and the wide open spaces.”
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Republican from Hutchinson, told Murphy the Department of Commerce needed to provide more data-driven evidence that economic development programs were effective.
“You guys are inherently charismatic, forward looking, energetic people, but I think you don’t tend to do that backroom work of validating all your efforts,” Steffen said. “I think that needs to be a key part because it’s good. For me, it comes down to do you prove to me that what you’ve done is effective for us to keep funneling funds in that direction. I think just a bit of data here, bit of data there — that’s too random for me. I need it on a spreadsheet. I need to be convinced.”
Steffen disagreed with Sen. Rob Olson, the Olathe Republican, who said it was important to offer tax dollars to new businesses. Those incentives need to be available regardless of whether the state gets a return on the investment,Olson said, to ease the risk for startups that are more likely to fail than succeed.
“I don’t prescribe to that thought process. I just flat don’t,” Steffen said. “No. 1, you’re doing this on a large enough scale that ultimately you can accumulate data that’s going to point you in the right direction. And, if we’re gambling, there are books on how to gamble more effectively. We can go buy one of those.”
David Toland, the lieutenant governor and the secretary at the Kansas Department of Commerce, said the Framework for Growth would invest in bridging the skills gap for in-demand occupations, attracting top talent to the state, increasing college graduation rates and retaining more of those degree recipients. He said there had to be an innovation component in business research and development and improvement in university assistance with commercialization of home-grown ideas. For example, he said, Kansas should be an innovator of drones in production agriculture.
He said the governor’s priorities included expansion of infrastructure that was “future proof,” including transportation networks and broadband connectivity. The state also needs to maintain a robust tax incentive system for businesses, Toland said, but significantly improve public transparency in regards to return on investment.
“At the end of the day, the Framework for Growth is about keeping our kids and families in Kansas,” Toland said. “For too long we’ve exported our greatest asset — our educated young people — at a loss, sending them to states where they can find better economic opportunities. That’s unacceptable.”
The Republican-controlled Legislature has focused much of its attention in terms of the economy on reforming tax policy. Kelly previously vetoed bills offering hundreds of millions of dollars in tax reductions. In the 2021 legislative session, the GOP majority is expected to send the governor more bills designed to substantially cut tax revenue to the state.
Kelly said the economic-development initiative was made more significant by COVID-19, which disrupted commercial activity and threw thousands out of work. She said that despite the pandemic the Department of Commerce reported a record $2.5 billion last year in new capital investment in the state. The governor said that accounted for expansion or retention of 13,000 jobs.
“Our economic development progress over the past two years has been significant, but an effective strategy does more than focus on the here and now. We must plan for the future and set the stage for sustained growth and prosperity,” she said.