Governor Delivers State of the State

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday used her annual State of the State address to propose eliminating the sales tax on food with a simple 13-word phrase, freezing college tuition rates, investing in law enforcement, and funding a state water plan abandoned by previous administrations.

She provided encouragement to health care workers and residents exhausted from a two-year battle with COVID-19, and promoted improvements made in the state’s economy, infrastructure and finances since she took office in 2019. She promised to support north-central Kansas farmers who suffered losses from wildfires last month.

The governor paid tribute to former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who died in December, and Buck O’Neill, who finally earned entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And she highlighted the 50-year bipartisan marriage of Lane County farmers Vance and Louise Ehmke.

Her speech coincides with another surge in virus cases that has placed unprecedented stress on medical providers. COVID has killed 7,114 Kansans since the start of the pandemic two years ago and ignited furious debates about the role government should place in keeping people safe.

Still, Kelly insisted, “we will get through this.”

“Needless to say, it has been an arduous couple of years for Kansas and the nation,” Kelly said. “We’ve lost loved ones, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. Unfortunately, we continue to lose too many Kansans to this virus. But we also saw, and we continue to see, the very best of Kansas rise up in every corner of our state.”

 Despite the economic damage caused by COVID-19, the Democratic governor and GOP-led Legislature have amassed the largest budget surplus in 40 years while fully funding schools, paying down state debts, adding $600 million to the Rainy Day Fund, and ending the practice of redirecting money intended for highway repairs.

Thanks to that stable financial footing, Kelly said, the state can afford to eliminate a 6.5% sales tax on food and still balance its budget.

“Here’s something we all know: Food in Kansas costs families way too much,” Kelly said. “And even as we sit here with a record surplus, Kansans continue to pay higher taxes on groceries than anyone in the country. It makes no sense.”

Republican Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who will try to unseat Kelly in this year’s governor’s race, and GOP members of the Legislature have signaled support for eliminating the food tax. The governor stressed the need to pass what she calls a “clean” bill, free of other tax changes.

If the Legislature passes a 13-word bill, she said, she will sign it the moment it hits her desk.

All it needs to say: “We hereby eliminate the state sales tax on food in Kansas, effective immediately.”

The governor offered a glimpse of her other budget priorities, which will be detailed in a legislative hearing Wednesday. They include a “total freeze” on college tuition.

“This pandemic has created so many strains, so many stressors, and so many challenges, we simply cannot let it derail the careers or the dreams of our young people,” Kelly said.

She called for “historic levels of funding for law enforcement.” That includes a pay raise for highway patrol officers, as well as investments in better equipment and training facilities. Programs to support mental health and children who run afoul of the law would be part of the equation.

Her budget restores funding for the State Water Plan for the first time in 15 years, providing a five-year blueprint to ensure a reliable water supply for Kansas communities and farmers.

She said agriculture remains the backbone of the state and praised farmers for another record year of exports, surpassing $4 billion for the second time.

Farmers such as the Ehmkes provide inspiration, Kelly said.

Louise is a Democrat from California, Vance a Republican from Kansas. The two met as students at Bethany College in Lindsborg. When they took over the family farm in the mid-1970s, they became the fourth generation of Ehmkes to operate it.

“You know, Louise and Vance are still out there each morning with their fellow farmers and ranchers, rain or shine, snow or sleet,” Kelly said. “That toughness, that grit, that sense of pride, so often passed from one generation to the next — that’s what makes Kansas farmers so special.”

Kelly renewed her call for Medicaid expansion, pointed to improvements in the foster care system, touted billions of dollars in economic investments across the state and urged lawmakers to avoid toxic politics.

Kelly lamented the loss of Dole, whom she described as “a passionate voice for Kansas” and an example of the “greatest generation.”

Kelly quoted Dole: “When it’s all over, it’s not about who you were, it’s about whether you made a difference.”

“These are words we should all keep close to our hearts,” she said.

Kelly recalled spending a day with O’Neil about 20 years ago at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, calling it “one of the great joys of my life.” O’Neil, an iconic player for the Kansas City Monarchs, died 15 years ago.

She described him as an eternal optimist who was known for saying: “Hold hands with the person next to you. That way, they can’t get away. And neither can you.”

“So,” the governor said, “let us all hold hands these next few months and not let go until we finally get things done.”

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Story from Sherman Smith / Kansas Reflector