Gov. Laura Kelly enters the reelection year of 2022 with confidence she met campaign promises to stabilize the budget, invest in education and highways. Unfinished business, she said, includes Medicaid expansion and tax reform. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Under normal circumstances, Democrat Laura Kelly’s summary of her term as governor would end with discussion of stabilizing the state budget, adopting a bipartisan transportation program, improving state aid to K-12 public education, reforming the troubled foster care system and moving the ball on economic development.
The past 21 months have been anything but ordinary as the dark menace of COVID-19 that descended in March 2020 has claimed lives of nearly 7,000, seriously sickened 16,800 and infected more than half a million Kansans. The pandemic exposed rifts between Kansans who eagerly rolled up a sleeve to receive vaccinations and those adamantly opposed to government prescribed shots. It created political division and litigation on wearing masks, closure of businesses, social distancing, mass gatherings and use of billions in federal relief dollars funneled to Kansas.
Kelly, who faces reelection in November 2022, said the role of a governor in these times was to juggle day-to-day decisions regarding COVID-19, for which she garnered praise and condemnation, and remain vigilant with fundamentals of running state government.
“There’s no doubt that COVID has really consumed a lot of focus, a lot of energy,” Kelly said in a Kansas Reflector interview. “Not just on the administration’s part, but the entire state. Every single citizen in the state of Kansas has been really impacted by this in some way, shape or form. Some people financially. Some people, obviously, health-wise. And, certainly, psychologically. It’s been a grueling time.”
Kelly said she concentrated on realistic state budgeting that left a cushion for the unexpected and on sustaining financial support of public schools. She supported implementation of a new long-term highway and infrastructure program, and worked to make good on highway plans defunded during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback. She sought businesses development and pressed for job growth in rural areas of the state.
“I do that because I want to be able to fund our schools, our roads, foster care system and other essential services. The only way to do that without raising taxes is to expand your base. So that’s why we have been so aggressive in recruiting and retaining companies,” Kelly said.
The governor has failed to convince the Republican-led Legislature to expand eligibility for Medicaid health services to lower-income Kansans. She also endorsed legalization of medical marijuana, which passed the Kansas House but wasn’t voted on by the Kansas Senate.
In advance of the 2022 legislative session beginning in January, Kelly proposed elimination of the state’s 6.5% sales tax on groceries at cost of more than $450 million to $500 million annually. She also recommended a one-time $250 tax rebate for 1.2 million Kansans that would cost the treasury $445 million.
“Despite this year’s successes, we know there’s more work to do to grow our economy and support our families,” Kelly said. “Next year, we must axe the food tax to provide tax relief to every Kansas family, continue to fully fund our public schools, and pass Medicaid expansion to keep our people healthy and workforce strong. My administration will continue championing policies that move Kansas forward.”
Kelly said she wasn’t keen to impose artificial prohibitions on tax reform legislation that would tie the hands of government officials.
“It does not work. You don’t need something like that. You just need to approach budgeting revenues in a fiscally responsible way. Not an ideological point of view,” she said.
Kelly, who won her first election for Kansas Senate by less than 100 votes in 2004, defeated Republican candidate Kris Kobach in the 2018 campaign for governor. In that contest, she secured 47.8% of the vote. Kobach pulled in 43.3%. Three other candidates shared 9%. She declared in 2020 her intention to seek reelection as governor. She could face Republican Derek Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, in November 2022.
The governor said she wasn’t going to take a different approach to the job as she transitioned to an election year.
“I understand in an election year, generally, what happens in the Legislature has a little bit different flavor,” Kelly said. “We’re fully prepared for that. I will deal with it just like I have for the last, what, 18 years. I really don’t bear an ideological cross. I’m really here for good policy and to do what’s right for Kansas and for Kansans. I will just continue operating exactly that way.”
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