Opinion

In rare bipartisan achievement, Kansas leaders dream big to land $4B Panasonic megaproject

July 14, 2022 3:33 am
Gov. Laura Kelly announces Wednesday in downtown Topeka that Panasonic will build a $4 billion vehicle battery plant in De Soto. The megaproject is expected to employ 4,000 workers with an average wage of $30. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly announces Wednesday in downtown Topeka that Panasonic will build a $4 billion vehicle battery plant in De Soto. The megaproject is expected to employ 4,000 workers with an average wage of $30. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sometimes, all you need is a dream, a little luck and a billion dollars.

Such was the case with the Panasonic battery plant “megaproject” that Kansas leaders announced Wednesday. Lt. Gov. and Commerce secretary Dave Toland, along with Gov. Laura Kelly and assorted legislative leaders — not to mention U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran in Washington, D.C. — all played a role in wooing the Japanese manufacturer to the Sunflower State.

The numbers are stunning all around. The facility itself will cost $4 billion dollars and employ 4,000 workers. The state provided an $829.2 million incentive package, tailored for Panasonic’s needs.

It’s difficult to imagine a bigger coup for Kelly, who has centered her reelection campaign on economic development efforts.

Yet we should also hand out kudos to the Republicans throughout Kansas who helped make the deal happen. They could have stepped in the way, or attempted to delay the process until someone in their party held the corner office.

Instead, they stepped up to help.

“When you have an economic package, as we have before us right now, you’re going to have to integrate all partners,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, after the State Finance Council met Wednesday to put the final touches on the deal. “And it’s going to have to be the state government, federal government, local governments, school boards — I mean, you’re gonna have to incorporate everybody.”

Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, addresses reporters after a meeting of the State Finance Council on Wednesday in Topeka. Lawmakers approved a secret deal, announced later Wednesday, to land Panasonic's vehicle battery plant. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, addresses reporters after a meeting of the State Finance Council on Wednesday in Topeka. Lawmakers approved a secret deal, announced later Wednesday, to land Panasonic’s vehicle battery plant. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

A passage from Kansas Reflector senior reporter Tim Carpenter’s account of the long road to Wednesday’s announcement stuck out for me. Read this and then compare what was going on behind the scenes to the rhetoric that some of the participants used in public:

After meeting with Panasonic representatives, “Kelly administration officials began shaping legislation on economic incentives that would need to be adopted by the 2022 Legislature, the sooner the better,” Carpenter wrote.

“The governor’s staff shared all they knew about the Panasonic business opportunity with House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Ty Masterson, including the economic scope of the project and the need for Kansas to revamp its incentive programs. The governor moved incentive reform to the top of her priority list, and legislative leaders swiftly advanced the complex bill.”

That’s what we should all expect from our state government.

So if Kelly, Ryckman, Masterson and Moran can unite behind the scenes like this, why on earth can’t they join forces more publicly and collegially? Would it really harm their images so much to be seen working with someone from the opposition party?

– Clay Wirestone

An opportunity arises that’s potentially good for the state. The governor asks what it will take. She brings along legislative leaders. They get the deal done, understanding that it will be good for everyone, even the political rivals.

So if Kelly, Ryckman, Masterson and Moran can unite behind the scenes like this, why on earth can’t they join forces more publicly and collegially? Would it really harm their images so much to be seen working with someone from the opposition party? Have our brains been so atrophied by partisan news media that we can’t see the obvious benefits?

Regardless, they did the right thing when presented the opportunity. They cleared the bar — the low, low bar.

Gov. Laura Kelly tells reporters "this is a huge day for the state of Kansas" after announcing the state's deal with Panasonic to build a $4 billion vehicle battery plant in De Soto. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly tells reporters “this is a huge day for the state of Kansas” after announcing the state’s deal with Panasonic to build a $4 billion vehicle battery plant in De Soto. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Taking a wider view, I see two big lessons.

First, we should still be careful with companies making big promises. Kansas expended tremendous capital, both financially and politically, on this deal. While we now have an official announcement behind us, officials will need to carefully track how taxpayers’ money is used in years to come.

Because the incentive package includes funds for training and relocating workers, we should ensure that state residents get a crack at new job opportunities. Because it also includes payroll incentives — the state is paying 10% of salaries for the plant’s first five years — we should make sure that jobs don’t mysteriously disappear once that time is up. Basic accountability measures like these may be easy to forget amid the excitement, but they keep everyone honest.

As former President Ronald Reagan used to say: “Trust, but verify.”

Second, Kansas shouldn’t be afraid to dream big. With a project like this one and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas has begun to transform into an economic powerhouse of the plains.

“To see my colleagues read in The Wall Street Journal, or see in the national news that Kansas was selected, it highlights for me that the places in this country that have been thought to be the most desirable have become a lot less so than Kansas,” Moran said at a Wednesday news conference in Topeka. “And we’ve been found.”

We can do this. We don’t have to follow a path of doom and desolation. We can instead chart a bright and optimistic course into the future, one that attracts businesses and talent from across the United States. That will require collaboration among political leaders and putting the state’s wellbeing before that of any individual.

This deal shows it can be done. And with only a billion or so of taxpayer funds, to boot.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

MORE FROM AUTHOR