Gov. Kelly opposes amendment on abortion, but won’t make it focus of reelection campaign; she also gives an update on $4B eco devo project

photo by: John Hanna/Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during an event at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Whether she is saying it loudly or not, count Kansas Gov Laura Kelly as a ‘no’ vote on the upcoming constitutional amendment that would remove abortion as a constitutionally protected right in Kansas. Just don’t expect her to talk a lot about it on the campaign trail.

“I will vote against that constitutional amendment,” Kelly said in an interview with the Journal-World on Wednesday.

A ‘no’ vote leaves unchanged the state’s constitution, which the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled protects a woman’s right to an abortion.

The comments from Kelly — a Democrat seeking reelection in a heavily Republican state — come after she has faced criticism that she hasn’t been vocal enough in campaigning against the amendment in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe v Wade.

Kelly last month released a statement following the reversal of Roe that said a “woman’s reproductive healthcare decisions should be between her and her physician.” But her statement didn’t mention the upcoming Kansas constitutional amendment, let alone urge people to vote against it. Many pro-choice supporters have viewed the amendment — which is on the Aug. 2 statewide primary ballot — as the most important initiative since Roe’s reversal to ensure women can continue to seek an abortion in Kansas.

On Wednesday, Kelly said if anyone was confused about her position on abortion, they shouldn’t be. When the Journal-World asked her whether she believes a right to abortion should be in the Kansas Constitution going forward, she said: “I believe that the constitution protects the rights and freedoms of all Kansans, and that should include women, and that should include women’s reproductive health issues.”

After confirming that she intends to vote against the amendment, she said her record shows that she’s been a supporter of abortion rights, dating back to her days as a member of the Kansas Legislature.

“I think people are very well aware of where I stand on issues like women’s rights or LGBTQ rights,” Kelly said. “I’m pretty eclectic about believing that there are human rights, and I consider women’s reproductive health to be a human right.

“And I don’t think I need to be out there saying that over and over again because I have spent nearly 20 years here in the capital defending those rights.”

Kelly, as governor, did oppose the constitutional amendment when the Legislature voted to put the measure on the ballot, but the bill prevailed in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

While the abortion issue has quickly become the issue many Democrats across the country are campaigning on, Kelly said she didn’t plan to make the upcoming abortion vote in Kansas the centerpiece of her gubernatorial campaign.

“I will focus my campaign on issues that I think are of real concern to Kansans, and many of them (are) the same as when I first ran,” Kelly said. “Make sure we are funding our schools, funding our roads, growing our economy, bringing jobs into the state. That will be the focus because that has been the focus of my administration.”

Kelly is expected to face Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who applauded the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe. Both Kelly and Schmidt face opposition in the August primary, but both are heavily favored to advance to the general election.

On other topics, Kelly said in Wednesday’s interview with the Journal-World:

• She believes Kansas is still the front-runner to win a huge $4 billion, 4,000-job economic development project. The Kansas Legislature in February approved special legislation that would provide large state financial incentives for the project, which was never identified as part of the legislative debate.

However, multiple reports have stated that the project is for a Panasonic manufacturing plant that would produce batteries for Tesla and other electric vehicles. Reports further speculate the project would be located on a portion of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition plant along Kansas Highway 10 at De Soto. That’s less than 10 miles east of the Douglas County line.

Leaders had expected an announcement on the project in the spring. Kansas reportedly is competing against Oklahoma for the project. As an announcement never materialized in the spring, there had been concern the project perhaps wasn’t moving forward or that Kansas no longer was being considered for it. On Wednesday, Kelly said that’s not the case.

“I think we are very much still in the running,” Kelly said. “I think we will find out very soon for sure.”

Kelly didn’t confirm any of the speculation that the project is a Panasonic battery plant. State officials have signed nondisclosure agreements as they compete to land the project. But Kelly said the project stands to be special for the state.

“It will be absolutely transformative for the entire state of Kansas,” Kelly said. “Right off the bat and then for years to come. It will be a game changer.”

Kelly said that since the state approved the special incentive package — known as the Attracting Powerful Economic Expansion Act — the state’s Department of Commerce has fielded at least 12 calls from companies wanting to discuss $1 billion-plus economic development projects that could take advantage of similar incentives being offered to this project.

“We haven’t had to go seek them out,” she said. “They’ve been coming to us.”

• She is ready to consider additional regulations on firearms in Kansas. The U.S. Supreme Court last month struck down some provisions of a New York law that spelled out when the state government could reject a permit for a resident in New York to carry a handgun. Most of those regulations didn’t apply in Kansas, which does not require residents to have a permit to carry a handgun.

But Kelly said there are regulations that the state, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, could and should consider.

“I think things like red-flag laws need to be implemented,” Kelly said. “I think background checks are a good idea. I think there are some gun-sense policies that we could take a look at here in the state of Kansas. It is clear we’ve got to do something.”

Kelly said that ever since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 people she has believed Kansas gun laws need to be revisited “to make sure that guns aren’t getting into the hands of people who are really not emotionally equipped to handle them properly.”

• She said an increase in state operation funds for the University of Kansas and other state universities is intended to be permanent. While the universities have received some one-time, federal pandemic-related dollars, the schools also received increases in their state operating budgets that were the largest in recent memory.

“The money we provided this year was meant to be ongoing,” Kelly said, “just like K-12 education funding and funding for other critical services. We did not use one-time money or money that we anticipate not being there next year or 10 years from now.”

However, Kelly said universities likely would have to make significant changes as they face pressures from declining enrollments and other trends that are depressing the number of students seeking to attend a university. She said she’s been supportive of the strategy of some schools — Wichita State is an example — that have given residents of select states in-state tuition rates to come to the university.

Those strategies have become more common, but also come with the caveat that out-of-state families are in some ways getting a better deal than in-state families, since those out-of-state families generally are not paying Kansas taxes that fund the state’s higher education system.

“Granted, those kids who are coming in from other states, their parents may not be paying Kansas taxpayer dollars, but by their coming into our state universities, they are allowing us to keep Kansas parents’ tax burden low or even,” Kelly said.


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