As 2022 election looms, window for Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s agenda may be closing

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Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order last week establishing an oversight office for the state’s child welfare system.

That followed a letter last month to congressional leaders urging passage of a policy that would expand Medicaid. Kansas is one of 12 states that have yet to broaden eligibility. Both policies are goals she campaigned on in 2018 but that have since been stalled by Republican resistance.

With just over a year until Election Day, time is winding down for Kelly. As chief executive in a state that Donald Trump won by nearly 15 points, her name tops most lists of at-risk Democratic governors headed into the 2022 election.

It is likely one reason she is taking matters into her own hands, or looking to a Democratic Congress to deliver progress.

It’s unclear how willing the Kansas Legislature’s Republican supermajority will be to negotiate when lawmakers return to Topeka in January for the last session before Kelly faces voters. With the national GOP eyeing Kansas as its best chance to flip a governorship in 2022, Republican legislators are likely to be even less interested than usual in collaborating with Kelly.

“I’m guessing we’ll see more of the same in respect to the extremist end of the Legislature will continue to work very, very hard to deny the Governor anything that could be seen as a victory,” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat. “If there’s something she’s pushing they typically won’t embrace it.”

Republicans have said they’re willing to work with Kelly on issues they agree with, and have floated the possibility of bipartisan progress on legalizing medical marijuana. But many major initiatives, like Medicaid expansion, are likely off the table.

And they question the timing of some of the governor’s actions.

When Kelly announced plans last week to create the Child Advocate office through executive order, Republicans were quick to criticize her for maneuvering around the legislature. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who supported a plan to create an office overseen by the Attorney General, accused Kelly of playing political games ahead of the election.

“If in fact the governor was bent on having this with her signature alone, why didn’t she do this the day she was sworn in as governor?” Baumgardner asked. “Instead she waited until she’s already sent out her campaign letters asking for donations for her reelection.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, pointed to the advocate’s office as a place where GOP leadership may be able to work with Kelly. He said the office would ultimately need legislative approval for funding and authority.

“I firmly believe that good policy equates to good politics and the things that we agree on we’ll celebrate and pass and the things that we don’t I will continue to stand up for the Kansans that elected us,” Ryckman said.

“I believe there are plenty of things that Gov. Kelly has already done that the folks of Kansas don’t agree with,” he said. “It’s our job to continue to pass legislation that helps the state and block legislation that hurts the state.”

Senate President Ty Masterson acknowledged in a statement that electoral politics will inevitably influence the session. But he added that he would still strive for a good working relationship with the administration and not alter his policy principles for an election.

“We are going to work to pass legislation we think helps the people of Kansas, just as we did the past three sessions. If the governor signs that legislation, that’s great. If she doesn’t, we will work to override her veto, as we did repeatedly in May,” Masterson said.

Kelly’s allies say executive orders and other actions within state agencies are spaces where she can still advance some of her goals even if she faces an uncooperative Legislature. They also say Kelly’s accomplishments should be evaluated in the context of the opposition she’s faced.

“It’s really remarkable what she’s accomplished given the Republican supermajority she’s had to work with,” said Sen Ethan Corson, a Prairie Village Democrat.

The Kelly administration has touted advancements in social services and economic development through the Department of Commerce, bringing new jobs and businesses to Kansas despite an unprecedented pandemic.

Since taking office, Kelly has also announced major reforms to the state’s troubled child welfare system, voter registration and mental healthcare as part of settlements with organizations that sued or threatened to sue the administration.

In the Legislature, Kelly was able to secure bipartisan deals on education funding and transportation. Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for Kelly, said that work would continue.

“In her first three years in office, Governor Kelly has signed more bipartisan legislation than the last three Governors combined,” Oyster said. “Governor Kelly is focused on the same priorities in the 2022 session: expanding affordable health care for thousands of Kansans, reinvesting in our foundation, and continuing to grow our strong economy.”

The Sebelius model?

Next year will be the first time since 2006 that a Democratic governor in Kansas will run for re-election. With Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on the ballot, tensions with Republican lawmakers were high, said former Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

“The legislative session was contentious, meaning a lot of political posturing,” Hensley said.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Sebelius still achieved wins with tax cuts Republicans struggled to vote against. She vetoed a bill that would have required clinics to report information about women who have late term abortions. The veto survived an attempted override by lawmakers.

Her veto of another measure, allowing concealed carry in Kansas, was overriden.

She beat Republican State Senator Jim Barnett by 17 points.

Kelly, Beatty said, is likely to pursue the same strategy. Voters in both parties will want to see cooperation, leaving Republican lawmakers with a choice of appealing to those voters or hampering Kelly.

“A key voting block that both Schmidt and Kelly, you could argue, want in 2022 is moderate Republicans, especially in Johnson County,” Beatty said. “These are the types of voters who do want things to get done and so it becomes very very political.”

The Star’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this story.

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