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In virtual State of the State address, Gov. Laura Kelly outlines familiar themes

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly gives a virtual 2021 State of the State address Tuesday.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Gov. Laura Kelly's 2021 State of the State address Tuesday was radically different in a key way — it took place not in the Kansas House chamber, which is the de rigueur setting for the governor's annual address to legislators and Kansans, but rather was given virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In most other respects, however, the governor's address was a continuation of key themes that she has espoused in recent months and that will likely continue to be staples of her reelection bid next year.

"In the weeks and months to come, we need to get every Kansan vaccinated," Kelly said in the speech. "We need to get our economy moving. And we need to get all our kids back into the classroom. We need to do it in a way that keeps our budget balanced and with the sense of urgency and focus that Kansans deserve. We cannot let political fights slow us down."

The governor emphasized the work the state had made in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and defended the state's work to roll out the vaccine after stiff criticism from Republicans that shots weren't getting where they needed to go quickly enough.

She promoted her administration's economic development successes and outlined areas of investment for future growth, including sticking to the state's transportation spending blueprint, and vowed a policy framework to keep young residents living and working in Kansas.

And the governor again pushed for expanding the state's Medicaid program, despite a virtually nonexistent chance of movement on that in the Legislature this session.

But Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, presented a very different vision, saying in his formal response to the address that his caucus would instead focus on empowering individual Kansans.

That would include, he said, a legislative agenda aimed at boosting local control, aggressive tax and regulatory reform and passing a controversial constitutional amendment that could allow lawmakers more control over restricting abortion.

"Kansas Republicans believe the policies we enact in Topeka must first and foremost protect our constitutional liberties and always trust Kansans to know what is best for themselves and their families," he said in his address.

Despite the inescapable reality of the nove coronavirus, Kelly expressed optimism that the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine would mean the beginning of the end of the pandemic in Kansas, although she acknowledged there was a long way to go before reaching that point.

"After months of struggle and sacrifice, an end to this national nightmare is finally in sight," she said.

She noted that the state was on track to begin Phase 2 of vaccinations, which would target Kansans age 65 and older, as well as essential workers, by the end of the month.

Her words come as legislators and stakeholders alike have expressed frustration over the vaccine rollout.

Kelly acknowledged in her speech that the state was initially toward the back of the pack in the number of doses administered, which has been chalked up to lags in data entry.

But data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the state has caught up, rising to 29th in the country in vaccines administered per 100,000 residents. It still trails three of its four neighbors in the number of vaccine doses in arms, however.

Kansas would continue to push toward robust vaccine distribution, Kelly said, but she noted that the federal government needs to ensure there is adequate supply to go around.

"Much of our ability to distribute the vaccine is dependent on the federal government getting the vaccine to us," she said.

Kelly is expected to heavily emphasize economic development issues in her 2022 reelection bid and she made repeated mention of her administration's efforts to grow the state's economy.

That began with admission of a weak spot: struggles at the Kansas Department of Labor to cope with an unprecedented demand for unemployment benefits that led to long wait times for frustrated residents.

The woes were compounded by an attempt to claw back $7 million in benefit payments mistakenly doled out to 4,500 accounts, overdrafting many of the accounts in the process. The fallout resulted in the resignation of Labor Secretary Delia Garcia, with officials still searching for a permanent choice to lead the agency.

Kelly emphasized, however, that the agency has largely eliminated a backlog of claimants, although some residents still say they are unable to access their benefits.

"The fact is, the volume of benefit applications absolutely overwhelmed our unemployment system," she said. "I want you to know we've fixed many of the immediate problems and more Kansas have received unemployment benefits since the pandemic started 10 months ago, than in the eight previous years combined." 

She also said her budget request would include $37.5 million to go to upgrading the aging technology used at KDOL, which agency staff claim is woefully out of date.

The governor spent most of her energy, however, on billions of dollars in private-sector investment that her office says have flowed into Kansas since taking office. She also emphasized a beefed-up focus on rural broadband and the state's farmers and food supply.

She repeatedly mentioned tax cuts initiated by former Gov. Sam Brownback, arguing her administration is still pulling the state out of the tailspin created by his policies with respect to budgeting and economic development. 

"We're just a few years removed from the Brownback tax experiment, and it seems as though some of my colleagues in the Legislature have already forgotten just how devasting that experiment was to our economy, our schools and our future," she said.

But Republicans see things differently.

Lawmakers already have proposed legislation, which Kelly vetoed in 2019, to provide income tax relief for those affected by 2017 federal legislation. 

And Masterson underscored the need to pursue broader reforms, including reducing the tax burden on seniors and demanding more transparency for potential property tax hikes — both legislative priorities that Kelly has rejected in the past but which the more conservative Legislature will pursue in the coming days.

"Kansas currently ranks in the bottom five states in the overall state and local tax burden on families and this has to change," Masterson said.

Masterson also lashed out at Kelly's "regime of unconstitutional mandates and edicts,” referencing her orders closing businesses and requiring masks during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the policy gap between parties, Kelly said she was optimistic that a sense of bipartisanship would rule the day, making direct reference to the "violence and sedition" that roiled the U.S. Capitol last week.

She called on Kansas lawmakers "to be better than what we see in Washington" and invoked former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a longtime friend of Kelly's who retired earlier this year after 30 years in Washington.

"The decisions we make, and the example we set, in the coming weeks and months will have a lasting impact on their lives and on our beloved state of Kansas," she said.