Gov. Kelly to outline agenda for skeptical lawmakers during State of the State tonight

photo by: John Hanna/AP

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during a news conference at the YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment Day Center about her proposals for cutting taxes, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Topeka.

Updated at 3:10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023

TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is preparing to outline what she is likely to call a middle-of-the-road agenda for a Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature that already expects to ditch much of what she’ll propose in favor of more conservative ideas on taxes and education.

Kelly was scheduled to give the annual State of the State address Tuesday evening to a joint session of the state House and Senate. She previously outlined several proposals for cutting taxes that include eliminating the state’s 4% sales tax on groceries by April 1.

Other proposals, including expansion of the state’s Medicaid coverage for the needy and elderly, previously have been blocked by GOP lawmakers.

Kelly’s address was scheduled hours after hundreds of abortion opponents and parochial school students rallied outside the Statehouse to mark last Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned last year. But Kansas anti-abortion groups suffered a decisive political loss in August, when a statewide vote strongly affirmed protection for abortion rights under the Kansas Constitution.

Kelly applauded the August vote but hasn’t emphasized abortion as an issue. GOP lawmakers expect to push for millions of dollars in new funding for anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers.

House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, opened his remarks at the anti-abortion rally with, “Good afternoon, God’s warriors!” and promised, “We will continue to fight.”

Top Republican legislators have outlined their own agenda, which features ideas in vogue in other GOP-led states. They include allowing parents to claim tax dollars previously earmarked for public schools to cover private or home schooling costs. Iowa’s GOP-controlled Legislature approved such a plan early Tuesday.

GOP legislators in Kansas also have talked about pursuing restrictions on how public schools discuss gender and sexuality, like what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Kelly and Republican leaders also differ strongly on tax cuts.

Kelly had been scheduled to give the State of the State on Jan. 11 but tested positive for COVID-19 the day before, only to learn later it was a false positive. Her office went ahead with releasing her proposed $24.1 billion state budget for the 2024 fiscal year beginning July 1.

Kelly narrowly won reelection in November and opened her second term earlier this month by saying in her inaugural address that it’s best to govern Kansas from “where the left and right come together.” She has repeatedly touched on that theme in major speeches.

But the Democratic governor also has previously vetoed GOP proposals on education and banning transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s K-12, club and college sports. Earlier this month, she dismissed the idea of restricting what schools teach about gender and sexuality.

State Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area Republican chairing a House committee on K-12 spending, said she is working on a plan for education savings accounts for parents, using tax dollars.

“Kansas has historically not led on choice issues, but I think that we’ve progressed enough in society that we can give education freedom to parents,” Williams said.

Asked Monday about the possibility she’ll embrace an aggressive conservative school choice or “voucher” program, she said, “That’s not going to happen.”

The governor also was cold Monday to a tax-cutting proposal from Republicans and the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce. It would switch Kansas to a “flat” income tax with a single rate each for individuals and corporations, rather than three for individuals and two for corporations.

Kelly had a news conference at a central Topeka center for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and human trafficking to promote her own tax-cutting plans.

“It’s got to be responsible,” Kelly said of a tax plan. When a reporter suggested Monday that Kelly sounded open to a flat income tax, she shot back, “I didn’t say that.”

Kelly and lawmakers are eager to cut taxes because the Legislature opened its annual 90-day session earlier this month with projections showing Kansas on track to end June 2024 with $4.2 billion in surplus cash.

That’s even after the state last year enacted a law phasing out the sales tax on groceries over three years. It dropped from 6.5% to 4% on Jan. 1 and is set to go to 2% in 2024 and zero in 2025.

Top Republicans have resisted Kelly’s plan to eliminate the entire tax this spring, seeing their “flat” income tax as a higher priority.

Each year Kelly has been in office, she has called on legislators to expand Medicaid as encouraged by the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act championed by former President Barack Obama. Republicans who strongly oppose the move have held enough key leadership jobs to block expansion, even as voters in other Republican-leaning states have embraced it, including Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Kelly also has pushed legislators to legalize marijuana for medical uses. While the House approved a plan in 2021, it never had even a committee vote in the Senate.


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