WICHITA — Gov. Laura Kelly joined a couple of hundred loyalists Tuesday to feast on the new reality of Kansas politics.
Kelly, a Democrat in GOP-rich Kansas moving through her first legislative session as governor, prevailed upon the House and Senate to approve a $90 million raise in state aid to public education. Kansas’ chief executive vetoed the massive tax-cut legislation viewed as a top priority of Republicans. And, the governor is applying heat on Senate leadership to allow debate on the House-passed bill expanding Medicaid.
She is advocating for overhaul of the state prison system, repealing portions of a law limiting access to welfare programs and expressed no interest in signing legislation enabling 18-year-olds to carry concealed firearms.
None of these positions would have crossed Republican gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach’s lips if elected in November.
“It sure makes a difference to have a governor who believes in the same things we believe in,” said Wichita Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Democrat who joined Kelly for an installment of her “Kansan to Kansan” town hall tour.
Kelly said the future of at-risk children statewide depends on repealing provisions of a bill signed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback to drive down access to a cluster of welfare programs. She said restrictions on enrollment in child care, food stamp and cash assistance programs weakened fragile families and contributed to the record 7,700 Kansas children in foster care.
“We have got to reverse some horrible action we took in 2013,” she said. “We know there is a direct correlation between what we did as a Legislature, the restrictions we placed on folks, and the number of kids that are in the foster care system. We pulled the safety net out from underneath these already vulnerable families.”
Kelly said she learned challenges within the Kansas Department of Corrections were worse than anticipated. She said Roger Werholtz, the department’s secretary, took on the task of leading the agency but agreed to be a temporary appointment. In the search for a replacement to Werholtz, the governor said she would seek another visionary eager to properly staff prisons and transition the facilities to a rehabilitative footing.
“I want to move our prison system from all-punitive to much more therapeutic. This is not a soft-on-crime approach. This is just reality,” she said.
The governor said Kansas ought to engage in comprehensive sentencing reform because too many people were being thrown in jails and prisons, and too many were held long after a point in which it had any benefit.
Kelly, who has a voting record in the Kansas Senate in support of the Second Amendment, said time had come to develop commonsense gun policy in Kansas and work with a bipartisan group of legislators on reform. During the 2019 legislative session, the House advanced a bill lowering the age to carry concealed from 21 to 18.
“I don’t think lowering the age to 18 sets us on the right direction,” the governor said.
Kelly said she would never propose a state budget that didn’t fulfill the state’s commitment to public schools and wouldn’t allow the Legislature to again drive off a financial cliff as it did in 2012 with massive income tax cuts. The first-year governor vetoed a bill granting tax breaks to multinational corporations and wealthy people itemizing deductions on state tax returns. The measure also lowered the food sales tax and imposed a new internet sales tax.
On Medicaid expansion, Kelly said the House this session took a bold step by passing a bill capable of enrolling about 130,000 Kansans in the national health network under features of the Affordable Care Act. The Senate hasn’t taken up the bill, but a motion filed by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, would require a Senate vote May 1 on whether to force the bill out of a Senate committee.
“We’ve had a little issue in the Senate,” she said. “We have some obstructionists there who are not allowing that bill to come up for debate. I can tell you, should it come up for debate, it will pass. The people of Kansas want this.”
This article was originally published on The Topeka Capital-Journal website, here.
Paid for by The Senate Democrats Committee, Kerry Gooch, Treasurer.