Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly laid out an ambitious agenda during her campaign: expand Medicaid, fully fund schools and rebuild state government.
“When I said on the campaign trail that I’m running to be the education governor, I meant it,” Kelly, a Democrat, told a raucous victory party Tuesday night.
But those promises will collide with a Legislature that is even more conservative and more Republican than it was before the election. It’s a recipe for gridlock or, potentially, compromise.
Republicans on Wednesday expressed fears that Kelly will propose significant new spending they view as unaffordable. Still, others said that on some issues, such as Medicaid expansion, Kelly likely will prevail.
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Republicans lawmakers will act as a check on Kelly, said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.
“She’ll be very liberal when it comes to spending,” Wagle predicted.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said Kelly ran on no new taxes and his chamber will hold her to that.
“I’ve always been told there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But that’s exactly what Laura Kelly promised folks on the campaign trail,” Ryckman said in a statement.
Kelly soundly defeated Republican Kris Kobach 48 percent to 43 percent. In her victory speech, she promised bipartisan outreach to Republicans. She also reiterated her support for Medicaid expansion and robust school funding.
Those two goals could require significant new spending.
Expanding Medicaid could allow upwards of 150,000 more Kansans to enroll in the state-run federal program that provides health care to people with low incomes or disabilities. The federal government would pick up 90 percent of the cost, but the remaining 10 percent still would likely cost Kansas tens of millions of dollars more every year. In 2016, the Kansas Health Institute projected annual state costs would start at about $68 million.
Kelly also wants to tie future increases in school funding to inflation, a move sought by the Kansas Supreme Court. Attorneys in an ongoing lawsuit over funding have contended the change could cost the state $50 million to $100 million more a year.
On the campaign trail, Kelly said she has intimate knowledge of the state budget after years of serving as a state senator from Topeka.
“I can tell you the budget at this point is stable enough and moving toward greater stability that we will be able to fund education and restore some of the funding to programs like foster care without raising taxes,” Kelly said during an Oct. 30 debate.
Kansas’ budget situation has improved dramatically since lawmakers raised taxes in 2017, largely repealing former Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 income tax cuts. Since the start of July, the state has collected $105 million more in tax revenue than initially projected.
Rep. Jim Gartner, a Topeka Democrat, said lawmakers will have to prioritize and perhaps move incrementally.
For example, both Democrats and Republicans support lowering the state sales tax on food (Kansas taxes food at the same rate as other goods). Gartner said lawmakers can’t afford to take the rate to zero, but can afford to make some reductions.
“If the revenue continues to come at the present rate … I think we can do all those things and still have a healthy ending balance,” Gartner said.
The Kansas Center for Economic Growth, which was critical of Brownback’s income tax policy, said lawmakers in the upcoming session should explore ways to raise revenue to support the restoration of state services.
“Before the tax experiment, Kansas had a long history of responsible budgeting and public investments,” center director Emily Fetsch said. “We look forward to restoring that tradition.”
Kelly will encounter Republicans in both the House and Senate who are skeptical that she can deliver on her proposals without tax increases.
In total, Democrats lost one seat in the House. Come January, they will have 39 out of 125 seats. But while Republicans didn’t make significant inroads, the caucus is becoming more conservative after key moderate Republicans were ousted by Democrats.
Only one Senate seat was up for election this year, and Republicans retained control of it. The party will continue to hold 30 of the chamber’s 40 seats.
“I think with it being a little bit more conservative House, I think that we will certainly be resistant to some of the things that Laura Kelly wants to do,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican. He emphasized that her proposals need to be fiscally sound.
On Medicaid expansion, however, Hawkins appeared to concede defeat. Hawkins chairs the House’s health committee and has been a staunch opponent of expansion.
“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that now that will probably go through,” he said.
The Legislature approved expansion in 2017. It passed the Senate 25-14 and the House 81-44.
Brownback vetoed the bill, and supporters couldn’t summon the 84 votes needed in the House to override his veto.
April Holman, director of the pro-expansion Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, said supporters of expansion have likely lost a few votes, but the group is confident it still has “well over a majority” to pass a bill. Lawmakers need 63 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate to approve legislation.
“I don’t think that will even be close as long as we have a governor who is supportive and will sign the legislation,” Holman said.
The upcoming session will be challenging, though. Supporters are regrouping and discussing how to get expansion through the legislative process in 2019, she said.
Many Republicans, including some legislative leaders, remain opposed or deeply skeptical of expansion.
“There would have to be a path for Kansans to be able to afford it,” Wagle said.
While opponents of expansion raise concerns over added state spending, supporters say the additional federal funding flowing into the state would outweigh added costs.
Regardless of policy differences, Kelly has said she wants to set a new tone in state government. On Tuesday night, she said partisanship was put above everything else and that it “tore our state apart.”
On Wednesday, Kelly met with Gov. Jeff Colyer at the Statehouse to discuss the transition. In a statement released by Colyer’s office, Kelly promised to listen to both Republican and Democratic leaders and to Kansans.
“This is the beginning of a new era of cooperation in Kansas,” Kelly said.
Kelly will become the 48th governor of Kansas on Jan. 14. Colyer’s office said he is committed to a smooth transition and to ensuring the Kelly administration has everything needed to govern successfully.
Even before Kelly’s victory Tuesday night, change was already underway. Several Colyer staff members have moved out of the governor’s suite of offices in the Capitol and are now working out of the lieutenant governor’s office.