Kelly shares optimistic words, but dark undercurrents flow through Kansas Statehouse

January 25, 2023 3:33 am

Gov. Laura Kelly approaches the House chamber for her State of the State speech on Jan. 24, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Laura Kelly knows what works for the majority of Kansans.

She’s down to earth, plainspoken, and a temperamental and political moderate. Two successive tall Republican men have run against the diminutive Democrat, and each has paid a price for underestimating her political savvy.

So perhaps we should pay attention to what the governor said Tuesday night at her delayed State of the State address. No other statewide politician has a better sense of what Kansans want or how to deliver it to them. Her internal thermometer has been exquisitely calibrated to match the temperature of ordinary Kansans.

Following such speeches can be tough for veteran journalists. You don’t watch for the news value. The chance that Kelly would drop a major announcement was about the same that she would reveal a hitherto unknown propensity for breakdancing.

You watch, for want of a better phrase, to feel the vibe.

“Our friends in Washington could learn a thing or two from how we operate here in Kansas,” she told the assembled legislators, touting recent bipartisan achievements. “But we can’t get complacent. So my message to you tonight is this: Continue to meet me in the middle.”

She stuck to that campaign message and won. Now she’s sticking to it as her second term begins. Unfortunately, Republican leaders have their own calamitous agenda in mind.


The Kansas Highway Patrol Honor Guard stands outside the House chamber before Gov. Laura Kelly’s State of the State speech Jan. 24, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Major points

For those who have followed along with the governor’s public pronouncements since her reelection, the speech served as a refresher course.

Kelly called for several tax cuts, including the immediate end to the sales tax on food and a tax holiday for school supplies. But while Republicans have suggested they’re open to much more, the chief executive drew a line in the sand.

“I will stand against any irresponsible tax proposals that erode that foundation,” Kelly said. “We have been there before. We know where it leads. And we can’t go back. Not to debt. Crumbling roads. An overwhelmed foster care system. And perhaps most devastating of all, underfunded schools. We cannot go back to the days where financial irresponsibility here in Topeka robbed our Kansas students of opportunity.”

When I wrote about Kelly’s speech last year, I compared her to an aging pop diva strutting her stuff in a greatest hits show. You might know the songs, but her performance brought familiar standards back to striking new life. Unfortunately, not every old favorite stands the test of time. Just ask Elton John about his deep hatred of “Crocodile Rock.”

In this case, Kelly made the case once again for Medicaid expansion, but few think the proposal has legs.

“To date, we have left $6 billion dollars in Washington, D.C. — squandering our own taxpayer dollars,” Kelly said. “And we have forfeited 23,000 jobs for Kansans. There is an obvious way to stop the bleeding: Expand Medicaid. The argument for expansion is simple — and should be one on which we all agree. Regardless of political party, we all want our rural communities to be hubs of commerce and economic activity.”

Yes, we should all be able to agree. At one point, Republicans did too. Sadly, the brainworms of pedantic partisanship have eaten away too much grey matter in the heads of GOP leadership.

The governor didn’t stop with these two issues, of course. She also touted legalizing medical marijuana, improving mental health care and expanding early childhood education. She notably didn’t call for introducing critical race theory into kindergarten classes or mandate every city hold a drag show. Although that second proposal might be worth a shot.


Kansas Sens. Rick Kloos and Mike Thompson laugh after an anti-abortion bill is introduced.
Kansas Sens. Rick Kloos and Mike Thompson laugh after an anti-abortion bill is introduced in the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs. (Screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel

Murky undercurrents

The sad truth is, as Kelly made a speech appealing to the widest swath of Kansans, legislative Republicans were busy catering to the narrowest special interests.

You don’t have to look any further than Senate Bill 65, which Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro wrote about Monday. Even though state voters resoundingly supported abortion rights in August, this bill would allow for local bans. And if you think that sounds bizarre and anti-democratic, you’re definitely not the only one.

“SB65 would stipulate that as long as the abortion regulations are as strict or stricter than state law, cities and counties have the right of regulation within the boundaries of the area,” Mipro wrote. “The bill would overrule statewide protections, upholding the ‘more stringent local regulation.’ If passed, SB65 would take effect immediately.”

She observed that when the bill made its debut in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee last week, committee chairman Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, and Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Topeka, chuckled with other committee members.

“Any objections?” Thompson asked jovially. “Seeing none, that bill is introduced. Yes, that bill is introduced.”

It’s easy to imagine why these men laughed.

They imagined they were being playfully naughty by introducing a bill to restrict women’s health care under the noses of Kansans who voted resoundingly against such laws. They imagined they were pulling something over on outspoken advocates and a female governor. Even as Kansans expect bipartisanship and respect of individual rights, these leaders chose a different and darker direction.

Kelly’s address didn’t mention abortion. The governor didn’t go out of her way to pick fights.

From the look of things, they will arrive soon enough.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.