Gov. Laura Kelly launching second term poised to balance centrist philosophy of governing

House, Senate Republicans remain potent force with two-thirds majorities

By: - January 8, 2023 1:08 pm
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who won reelection in November, begins a second term as governor Monday with the inauguration ceremony on steps of the Capitol and opening inside the building of the 2023 legislative session with Republicans holding two-thirds majorities in the House an Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who won reelection in November, begins a second term as governor Monday with the inauguration ceremony on steps of the Capitol and opening inside the building of the 2023 legislative session with Republicans holding two-thirds majorities in the House an Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly enters a second term in office Monday committed to a centrist philosophy of governing capable of irritating Republicans and at times frustrating Democrats.

“I have always been middle of the road,” the Democratic governor said. “One, because that’s how I think and I recognize you have to govern from the middle. Look at the dysfunction in Congress, and that’s because you don’t have people who are trying to work towards the middle. I can’t see any reason I would want to change.”

Kelly, who prepared for the job as governor by serving 14 years in the Kansas Senate, will be working at least the next two years with GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate. Republicans are poised to again advance legislation on abortion, education, taxation, election security, transgender athletes and other topics that she could undermine with her veto power. The state has a budget surplus of about $2 billion and the scrum to spend it will be intense. Also, legislators interested in running for governor in 2026 will be laying foundations of their campaigns.

Kelly’s reelection as a Democrat in an otherwise red state over Republican nominee Derek Schmidt was a surprise to some but not to her.

“The last four years as governor, just being who I am and approaching things the way I do, working collaboratively whenever possible, resulted in incredible success,” Kelly said. “I didn’t do all that alone. I did a lot of that across party lines.”

Kelly will be sworn into office and deliver an inaugural speech at noon Monday on south steps of the Capitol, weather permitting. Kelly and Lt. Gov. David Toland take the oath of office with reelected Republicans Scott Schwab, secretary of state, and Vicki Schmidt, insurance commissioner. Newcomers will be Kris Kobach, a Republican elected attorney general, and Steven Johnson, a Republican elected treasurer.

The 2023 Legislature convenes at 2 p.m. Monday. The House elections in 2022 added one Democrat to the 125-member body. The Senate wasn’t on the ballot, but retirements and resignations bring three new faces to that 40-member chamber. Republicans possess two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and that partisan contingent could be deployed for veto overrides of the governor.

House Speaker-elect Dan Hawkins of Wichita said Republicans in the House intend to work closely with Senate GOP colleagues led by President Ty Masterson, also of Wichita.

“We believe in the people of Kansas to make the best decision on how to spend their money — not the state,” Hawkins said. “We’re going to work with Laura where we can. We will certainly fight for our position where she doesn’t agree with us. There probably are some places where we can work very well and there’s going to be places where we vehemently disagree.”


Taxes, taxes, taxes

Kelly said she would present the Legislature with a proposal to speed elimination of the state sales tax on groceries. In 2022, the Legislature and governor agreed to a three-year phase out of the 6.5% tax. The law Kelly signed dropped the rate to 4% on Jan. 1 and would eliminate it by 2025. The governor said she would renew her recommendation the grocery sales tax be ended no later than July 1.

The governor also proposed the state not tax Social Security unless annual income exceeded $100,000, which would be an increase from the current limit of $75,000. She suggested the Legislature adopt a back-to-school sales tax holiday for educational expenditures.

The House and Senate are likely to recommend an array of income tax reforms, including transition to a single-rate individual income tax. Conservative legislators and lobbyists want Kansas to slash corporate and individual income taxes.

In the Senate, a bill has been introduced by Republican Michael Fagg of El Dorado that would provide a sales tax exemption for construction at the state’s schools for deaf and blind students. Another Senate bill would lower the penalty for late payment of property taxes.

House Democrats introduced a measure exempting diapers and feminine products from the state’s sales tax. GOP members in the House want to pass an income tax break for members of the military. Another House idea: tax electricity acquired at charging stations for electric vehicles.

Kelly said she would renew her appeal for expansion of eligibility for Medicaid to better serve lower-income Kansans in a program in which the federal government pays 90% of the cost. Likewise, she vowed to push again for legalization of medical marijuana — an idea approved by the House, but not the Senate.


Abortion politics

Some members of the Legislature have expressed eagerness to take up abortion legislation despite overwhelming rejection in August of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have erased a woman’s right to abortion affirmed by the Kansas Supreme Court. The amendment, placed on statewide ballots by two-thirds majority votes of the House and Senate, was defeated by more than 170,000 votes. Critics argued it could lead to an outright ban on abortion in Kansas.

The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life and other supporters of the Value Them Both constitutional amendment urged legislative leaders to approve a “born alive” law that would extend legal protection to an infant amid a failed attempt at induced abortion.

“They certainly would like to see the born alive bill attempted,” said Hawkins, the incoming House speaker. “To say that there’s not going to be other abortion bills is wrong. Everybody is free to bring whatever they want when it comes to bills.”

A bill introduced in the Senate would prohibit doctors from prescribing medications through telemedicine that would be used for an abortion. The Legislature could end up debating a 15-week ban on abortion. Kansas law highly regulates abortion, including a ban after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

“There is a policy decision there,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican. “I think the voting public was pretty plain about how they felt about the Value Them Both amendment. As we move forward, if there are efforts to not respect that vote, then I think there is a political price to pay for that.”


Transgender youth

The Legislature will take up bills on K-12 spending, including the funding shortfall for special education programs in local school districts. Voucher-like tax incentives for private school attendance will be on the agenda along with vaccination exemptions for students and an education bill of rights granting parents greater authority in state law to challenge classroom curriculum and library materials.

Legislators are expected to take up a bill aimed at transgender students that would require individuals to participate in athletics according to the gender at birth.

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, filed a bill limiting authority of local public health officers and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to impose mandates related to infectious diseases. A group of House Republicans offered a measure that would prohibit COVID-19 vaccination requirements for children attending school or a day care.

Steffen and Sen. Mike Thompson are listed as sponsors of a bill that would criminalize work of physicians who prescribe hormone replacement therapy or engage in gender reassignment surgeries for anyone under age 21. A comparable bill was debated in the House in 2021.

“The bill goes against every major American Medical Association’s standards of care for trans youth,” said Stephanie Byers, a transgender woman and former member of the House. “It bans any affirmative care for anyone under 21 and makes it a felony for physicians to follow their ethics and provide such care.”

Other bills introduced prior to launch of the 2023 session: restriction social media companies that “permit” censorship, declare silvisaurus condrayi the state’s official fossil, raise salaries of legislators, outline an approach to impeach district court judges and justices of the Kansas Supreme Court, create a traffic citation for driving while fatigued.

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.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.