Views from Kansas: Will GOP work with Kelly?

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

In her first news conference as Kansas governor-elect, Laura Kelly, the longtime Democratic lawmaker moved briskly through the top items on her do-list: Restore LGBT protections for state employees, expand Medicaid to the uninsured and improve public schools.

But Kelly was also careful not to overpromise. In fact, in one brief statement, she said four different ways that repairing the damage done by deep tax cuts during Sam Brownback’s years as governor will be difficult and will not happen quickly.

Building a diverse bipartisan team, she said, “will take some time and a lot of hard work.” Backfilling the crater created under Brownback “will be a long, challenging process.” So as not to leave any doubt, she added that “the rebuilding process won’t be easy.” And, “we all know we have a very long, challenging road ahead of us.”

OK? OK. Kelly has reason to temper expectations, especially since Republican Senate President Susan Wagle has promised to oppose Kelly’s “very liberal” spending, and Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman has said there won’t be any new taxes to pay for the “free lunch” that “Laura Kelly promised folks on the campaign trail.”

But expected tax revenues for this fiscal year are up another $291 million just since the last forecast in April, according to numbers released on Friday. Claiming that the state can’t afford to do better is getting harder, and the health care and education platform that Kelly ran on is what Kansans voted for.

Her win wasn’t a squeaker, either; she bested Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach by five percentage points even with independent Greg Orman making it a three-way race.

Still, little of what she ran on can happen without the cooperation of the Republican lawmakers who control both the Kansas House and Senate and are as a group more conservative now.

The exception is the executive order barring employment discrimination against LGBT Kansans in state offices. She plans to have that drafted and ready to implement even before she takes office in January. And can this please be the last time any Kansas governor has to issue such an order?

It’s absurd as well as wrong that any Kansan should have to go back and forth between being protected from discrimination under Democratic governors like Kelly and Kathleen Sebelius, who signed such an order more than a decade ago, but then become vulnerable again during Republican administrations, as they were under Brownback and are under Gov. Jeff Colyer.

So how likely is it that GOP lawmakers will work with Kelly where she does need an assist, on a Medicaid expansion bill that would cover about 150,000 more uninsured Kansans, benefit rural hospitals and the Kansas economy, too?

Expansion passed last year but was vetoed by Brownback before he packed up for his new job in Washington.

GOP state Rep. Dan Hawkins, who has opposed the expansion and chairs the House’s health committee, now calls its passage “a foregone conclusion.”

Stephanie Clayton, a moderate House Republican from Johnson County, argues that it’s still going to be tough to push through — “Why would it be any easier now than it has been?” — but not impossible.

To accomplish that, in Clayton’s view, Kelly will have to “let Republicans think it’s their idea and let them drive it. That’s the way I get things done; just let some dude think it’s his idea.”

It’s restoring public schools that Clayton sees as almost a foregone conclusion, thanks to “a fair amount of Republicans, myself included, who think our constituents have been pretty clear” on that issue.

In overseeing a settlement in a long-running lawsuit, the Kansas Supreme Court has ordered the state to spend more than $500 million on its public schools, and that fight isn’t over.

Some in her party, Clayton said, will still “try to do a constitutional amendment” to keep the court from telling the state how much school spending is required. “But that’s not going to work because they don’t have the votes.”

Kelly, who also used the word “bipartisanship” repeatedly in her first news conference, promised that state will no longer “get by just doing the minimum.” Especially with revenues up, there’s no reason we should have to.

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star


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