Gov. Laura Kelly summoned the Republican-dominated Legislature on Wednesday to collaborate on writing a new chapter of Kansas state government embodied by budget stability and targeted investment in children, health care and the economy.
Kelly, a Democrat elected after eight years of gubernatorial control by Republicans Jeff Colyer and Sam Brownback, said solutions to government's challenges were often found by people united by the political spectrum’s center of gravity.
"Regardless of our state’s partisan breakdown, our crowning achievements have always been won on the middle ground," Kelly said. "While the time for finger-pointing is over, we’re not off the hook for the long-term consequences of past policy decisions."
Kelly said she would honor a campaign promise to balance the budget without raising taxes. She said Kansas should invest in public schools, enroll thousands in Medicaid to benefit fragile families and struggling hospitals, and address breakdowns in the foster care system. Kansas lawmakers are obligated to deal with crumbling roads and bridges, mental health, higher education and public safety, she said.
Kelly, who served 14 years in the Kansas Senate, said the 2017 Legislature forged a historic act of partisanship to repeal reckless income tax cuts signed into law in 2012. The tax cuts led to years of revenue shortfalls as the supply-side strategy failed to deliver promised economic renewal. Frustrated legislators, many untrusting of one another, found courage to vote for a fix, the governor said.
"In the end, it came down to a fundamental question," Kelly said. "We had to ask: What is Kansas worth? This was not just a matter of dollars and cents. It forced us to re-examine some of our most deeply held convictions."
The Legislature entered the current session with a projected treasury balance of $900 million.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the 2019 Legislature shouldn't fall into a trap of new budget problems. "We are just now digging out of the hole of the past decade. It’s time to put down the shovel, not deepen the hole," the Wichita senator said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said the current projected ending balance was a contrast to budgets in the Brownback era. He said the state had made big commitments to education and had to be careful to limit obligations that must be continued for many years.
"I think part of the words she said was now's not the time to point fingers. So, we're going to listen to that part of it and not dwell on the other issues," he said.
During the speech, Kelly said her administration would bring life to state agencies undermined by ideological mismanagement. She said her staff would include Democrats and Republicans, men and women, seasoned veterans and fresh faces.
"We will start a new chapter," Kelly said. "We must always remember that the people who sent us here expect compromise and results."
She anchored her commitment to public education by celebrating Ulysses High School student Braxton Moral, who will earn a Harvard University degree at age 16. She said his extraordinary academic achievement displayed the ability of children to "reach their potential and overcome any obstacle no matter where they come from."
Kelly has endorsed expenditure of about $90 million annually to finance an inflation index for state aid to K-12 schools. House and Senate Republicans have questioned the validity of assertions that $360 million over four years for inflation was warranted to end a lawsuit in the hands of the Kansas Supreme Court. However, the new governor said voters spoke clearly in November.
"Kansans flocked to the polls in record numbers last year to send a message about this specifically," she said. "We’re going to properly fund our schools this year. And next year. And the year after that."
In terms of the rural economy, Kelly said, the state would address shortcomings in roads, broadband, housing and jobs with an "interconnected strategic plan for rural economic development that leverages our communities’ unique assets."
Kelly said her administration would seek expansion of Medicaid, the $3 billion program known as KanCare. She said a bipartisan working group would be appointed next week and pledged it would deliver a proposal to the Legislature by the end of January.
She said the foster care system required emergency action because of "incompetence and lack of transparency." She said the number of children under control of the Kansas Department for Children and Families increased 45 percent since 2011. She read names of dead children — Evan Brewer, Jayla Haag, Mekhi Boone — who slipped through DCF’s grasp.
"A moral crisis in Kansas that troubles me every day," Kelly said. "In the last few years, nothing has made me more angry than the callous disregard some agency leaders demonstrated towards our vulnerable children and their families."
Kelly, sounding like a Republican, said the Legislature ought to be "cautious, conservative and fiscally responsible" when working through the budget. She said a national recession could be around the corner.
Thoughtful public policy, she said, necessitated compromise.
"No one person — not even the governor — can act alone to achieve consensus," Kelly said. "I’ll promise you this: I will do everything in my power to set the right tone. I will listen every day to leaders from both parties and to the people of this state. We’ll take the best ideas no matter where they come from and we'll work together."
Watch the full speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3MqOv9coak&feature=youtu.be