The Star endorses the one clear choice for Kansas governor

Kansas voters face a dramatic contrast in their choices for governor this year. But in an election that’s as consequential as any in decades, Democrat Laura Kelly offers the most promising path forward.

Kansas is looking at a long haul as the state struggles to emerge from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s misguided tax policies that set us back at least a generation. But Kelly has laid out an agenda to repair much of the damage with a practical, yet determined plan to restore Kansas’ promise.

Kelly, a four-term state senator representing a Topeka district that stretches into the countryside, pledges to expand Medicaid, boost spending on public schools to satisfy a state Supreme Court order and bolster support for child protective services.

She would get back to the business of completing highway projects, and she promises to cut the state’s punitive 6.5 percent sales tax on groceries — long a blemish on the Kansas landscape.

A pragmatist respected by members of both parties, Kelly understands that undoing the damage from the Brownback era won’t be accomplished in a single year or even a full term. But she represents a desperately needed start on the long road back.

The election of Republican Kris Kobach would be an inexplicable step backwards and a bitter rerun of the Brownback years that proved so devastating to state services, not to mention Kansas’ reputation. Kobach improbably seeks to do two things at once: cut taxes and halt the ongoing raids of the state highway fund. That tactic that has been used to balance the state budget and has cost the highway fund billions of dollars.

Kobach, who declined The Star editorial board’s invitation for an endorsement interview, would pay for his plan by slowing the hiring of new state workers to replace those who retire. But make no mistake: Such a financial two-step promises to devastate agencies that would face more cuts to vital programs and shortages of essential employees.

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Without question, a Kobach administration would be the third term of Sam Brownback — an unthinkable prospect after the state virtually ran Brownback out of the Capitol on a rail.

It’s no exaggeration to say a Kobach governorship would give Kansas a distinctly Trumpian flavor. The Republican secretary of state has borrowed liberally from the president’s playbook, sowing division and using dubious claims to fan unfounded fears.

Independent Greg Orman remains a confounding conundrum. He’s marvelously articulate when explaining his vision for Kansas to become the intermodal capital of the country, the need for greater governmental transparency, his openness to considering year-round public schools and his ideas for improving Medicaid through direct primary care.

As an independent, he faced a high bar in this campaign to lay out a fresh vision for the state. He eventually passed that test.

But we are left with uncertainty: Is Orman the right candidate for Kansas today? Is an experiment with an unaffiliated chief executive too risky? While Orman has brought new ideas to this race, questions about the feasibility of his plans and his ability to execute them remain.

Kansas simply faces too many challenges that require immediate action to gamble on a political outsider and a new style of leadership. Orman, a successful entrepreneur who has never held elective office, would face a steep learning curve as he navigated the state bureaucracy, while Kelly would be ready to take the reins on day one.

No Republican or Democratic lawmaker would have a natural alliance with Gov. Greg Orman. Neither party would necessarily have a vested interest in his success. Orman would need time to forge relationships and build a governing coalition — time that Kansas doesn’t have to waste in the aftermath of the Brownback experiment.

Polls suggest that in a two-way race between Kelly and Kobach, Kelly gains several points. Orman appears to be drawing more votes from Democrats than Republicans, potentially boosting Kobach’s prospects — a dynamic that is deeply concerning and all the more reason to back Kelly.

The way forward is with an experienced and accomplished leader such as Kelly. In a political world full of hot air and angry voices, Kelly offers a dramatic break and a welcome respite with her quiet, thoughtful demeanor. But make no mistake, with years of experience working with members of both parties, she knows how to get things done in the Legislature.

That she has been endorsed by so many leading Republicans, including former Gov. Bill Graves, underscores her bipartisan appeal.

Kelly wisely notes that finalizing some of her plans to move the state forward will have to wait until she gets a clearer sense of how state and federal tax-law revisions impact revenue. Only then will she move ahead with rethinking health care for the state’s poorest citizens, highways, social services and re-establishing the Kansas Arts Commission that Brownback eliminated.

Again, major changes won’t happen overnight. “It will take years,” she said.

Laura Kelly is the clear choice to put us back on the path to a better Kansas.

A note to our readers

The Kansas City Star continues to invest in local journalism with its candidate endorsements.

Members of The Star’s editorial board spent dozens of hours interviewing and reporting on candidates for office in Missouri and Kansas to provide informed analysis of the people who want to represent you. Learn more about the endorsement process here.

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