In state of the state address, Laura Kelly warns Republicans away from conservative agenda
Gov. Laura Kelly warned Republican lawmakers in her state of the state speech Tuesday night, saying they should steer clear of the conservative agenda they have already signaled on taxes, education policy and other issues.
The speech was postponed from its traditional date during the first week of session after it was believed Kelly had tested positive for COVID-19, though her office eventually said it was a false positive. That meant a "happy birthday" serenade for Kelly on Tuesday, who at 73 is the oldest governor in Kansas history.
The delay also created the unusual situation where most all of Kelly's policy proposals have already been outlined, either in her budget blueprint presented to the Legislature or in a series of public events across the state, leaving little in the way of surprises.
More:Laura Kelly's budget boosts special education funding, state worker pay. Here's what to know.
The state of the state still included a reprise of Kelly's top priorities, including a suite of tax cuts, increases to special education funding and medical marijuana legalization.
But legislative leaders have already signaled they will largely pursue an agenda that will focus elsewhere, including a flat income tax for individuals and businesses, an expansion of the state's school choice offerings and increased requirements to obtain welfare benefits.
That didn't stop Kelly from repeating one of her now infamous mantras, urging lawmakers to forge a more moderate and bipartisan route.
"Long gone are the days of Kansas making headlines for failure and mismanagement," she said. "Now, because we worked together, Kansas is back on track. Kansas is on the road to prosperity. And the state of our state is strong."
More:Gov. Kelly calls for Kansas unity and civility. Can she meet Republicans in the middle?
'Middle of the road' speech to clash with conservative legislator
The speech hit on many of the themes espoused during Kelly's successful reelection campaign, as well as her inaugural address from earlier this month.
"Our friends in Washington could learn a thing or two from how we operate here in Kansas," Kelly said. "But we can’t get complacent. So, my message to you tonight is this: Continue to meet me in the middle."
But top Republicans have long said they don't see Kelly as middle of the road, and at least some Democrats want her to move further to the left.
In his response to Kelly's state of the state address, pre-recorded in advance of the original speech date, Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, acknowledged the November election results, saying, "Republicans learned a hard lesson about how houses divided inevitably fall."
But he also took aim squarely at Kelly's agenda, saying that, if she is a true moderate, she will back elements of the Republican platform.
"On many issues, the governor's party has her walking down the far-left lane, if not the ditch outside of that," Masterson said. "With how many times we heard her tell us she is in the middle, this session, we will give her ample opportunity to show she really meant it."
While voters re-elected Kelly in November, the Democratic governor starts her second term with Republican supermajorities intact in both the House and Senate.
The House, where every seat was up for election in 2022, is expected to be more conservative, potentially improving the chances of veto overrides.
"I don't think the House is going to come to the center," House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said last month. "I would say our body, if anything, moved a little bit further to the right. … The legislation you're going to see is probably a little bit more conservative."
More:Kansas should expect a more conservative Legislature, new House GOP leader says
Compromise possible on taxes — but Republicans want flat tax
Republicans have already signaled some desire to compromise on tax cuts — but also have made it clear that they reserve the right to pursue a more conservative vision on how to use a multi-billion dollar budget surplus.
Still, there is bipartisan interest in a proposal, touted by Kelly, that is aimed expanding the number of Kansans who don't have to pay state income tax on Social Security benefits.
And at least some conservatives have expressed an interest in a sales tax holiday for many items around the back-to-school season, though its fate remains uncertain in the Legislature.
Still, Kelly made a point of cautioning the Legislature against a more sweeping, "irresponsible" tax plan, though she did not detail what that might look like.
More:These tax cuts will be prioritized this legislative session as Kansas enjoys $2.3B surplus
"We have been there before," she said. "We know where it leads. And we can’t go back."
The line was a logical extension of Kelly's campaign, where she railed against the tax plan pursued by former Gov. Sam Brownback, which critics have argued was a disaster for the state's financial situation and resulted in cuts to public education and state services.
Masterson has said he expects legislators may well take a more restrained approach to tax cuts than Kelly has outlined but left open the door for a deal.
"I believe we can work with her to implement these ideas alongside structural reform that is key to keeping Kansas competitive," he said in his response. "Republicans want to make taxes lower, flatter, and simpler. So when we send a bill to the governor's desk that does all that, I am hopeful she will meet us in the middle and sign it."
But the Kansas Chamber and top Republican lawmakers have said they are interested in a flat 5% income tax for businesses and individuals alike, with legislation introduced last week to do just that.
The plan would not raise taxes on any one group, as the lowest earners would see their tax rate fall to 0%. The exact hit to state revenues is uncertain, but critics have decried the idea as overly beneficial to the rich.
Kelly told reporters this week that she was studying the idea, but when a reporter suggested that indicated she was open to the idea, she quickly shot back, "I didn't say that."
School choice battle set to rage in Kansas, despite Kelly warning
Education policy is another area where Kelly and Republicans are likely to cross swords.
Her address comes hours after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a major school choice expansion into law, which allows parents to access public, per-pupil dollars and use it towards tuition at a private school, among other services. Kansas legislators are set to consider a similar policy.
"We believe we are going to put our imprint on it," Hawkins told reporters after the speech. "We will do a lot of work this year (on education policy)."
While Kelly did not explicitly speak to vouchers in her speech, she told reporters on Monday that she is "firmly opposed to school vouchers."
The governor has instead focused on increasing support for special education, with a goal of eventually raising funding levels to meet a statutory requirement that the state must cover 92% of all costs above and beyond what is spent on an average pupil.
"The special education funding gap doesn’t just impact students with special needs," Kelly said. "It impacts every student, because schools end up diverting funds away from other areas to provide these services."
But Republicans have been skeptical, if not outright dismissive, of the idea, instead arguing the school funding law needs to be changed to better account for monies districts are already receiving that go towards special education.
'We must see each other as partners, not as foes'
Kelly's speech noticeably did not directly broach a number of high-profile social issues that Republicans are expected to take aim at again this year, including a ban on transgender athletes in women's and girls' sports and legislation on the teaching of race or gender identity in schools.
She did say, however, that the classroom is not a place for politics.
"I will oppose any efforts that are designed to turn parents against teachers, to turn communities against their schools, to turn young people away from the teaching profession," Kelly said. "I will resist politicians who want to score political points at the expense of our students and our families. Our students should not be used as political pawns. Not ever."
Nor did she mention abortion, despite the high-profile defeat of a constitutional amendment last August that would have eroded state-level abortion protections.
The speech came hours after abortion opponents flooded the Statehouse as part of the annual March for Life, underscoring an agenda that will come in conflict with Kelly's avowed support of abortion rights.
Instead, Kelly emphasized legalization of medical marijuana, a major investment in water policy amid a shrinking water supply in western Kansas and legalize fentanyl test strips to help minimize drug overdose deaths. All of those ideas have some measure of bipartisan support but are not guaranteed to gain traction in the Legislature.
More:Kansas is running out of water. Is this the year lawmakers find a solution?
In her speech, Kelly cited the case of a Hays man, Greg Betz, who in December had his hospital room raided by law enforcement for using marijuana to cope with pain from his terminal cancer.
But Masterson said, "I'm not going to be, like, shamed" into legalizing cannabis.
"The conversation is still open," he said. "It is wide open. ... There will be bills and we will have hearings."
Kansas, Kelly said, has solved difficult problems in its past, pointing to the state's early ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and Kansan Dwight Eisenhower's leadership during World War II.
"We must see each other as partners, not as foes, to build on all we’ve accomplished in the last four years," she said in closing her speech. "Together, we will make Kansas the very best place in America to raise a family."
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Laura Kelly warns of Kansas GOP conservative agenda on taxes, schools