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New Gov. Sees Need to Rebuild Kansas   01/17 06:06

   TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- New Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly told Kansas legislators 
Wednesday that the state faces an emergency in its child welfare system and is 
"completely unprepared" for the next national economic downturn.

   Kelly outlined an agenda for the Republican-dominated Legislature that 
includes increased spending on public schools and expanding the state's 
Medicaid health coverage for the needy. Yet she also told lawmakers that she 
will honor her pledge to balance the budget without raising taxes.

   Her first State of the State address , two days after taking office, sets up 
a clash with top Republicans. She did not mention their top priority --- income 
tax relief --- and appeared to try to dampen enthusiasm for it by declaring the 
state's recovery "fragile" and saying, "We must be cautious."

   But Kelly's tough tone was the most notable element of her address to a 
joint session of the House and Senate. Governors have routinely declared in 
their addresses that the state is sound or strong. Kelly described it as 
"improving" and declared, "I was elected to rebuild our state."

   "It won't be easy. We all know we have a very, long, challenging road ahead 
of us," Kelly said near the end of her 37-minute address. "These past eight 
years have been a hardship, no doubt about it."

   The address continued the scathing criticism of her Republican predecessors 
that marked her successful campaign for governor last year. Former conservative 
GOP Gov. Sam Brownback successfully pushed Republican lawmakers to slash income 
taxes in 2012 and 2013 as an economic stimulus --- and persistent budget 
problems followed.

   Kelly was a veteran state senator from Topeka and was a key player in a 
bipartisan effort in 2017 to reverse most of the Brownback tax cuts. She told 
legislators Wednesday evening that the tax cuts resulted in a "self-inflicted 
budget catastrophe" and, along with the Great Recession, "a "decade of crisis" 
in state government.

   "Another recession will soon be upon us. It's not a question of 'if.' It's a 
question of 'when' and 'how bad,'" Kelly said. "Kansas finds itself now 
completely unprepared. We have no margin for error."

   Top Republicans shrugged off her slashing assessment of the past eight years 
and noted that Kansas expects to finish its budget year on June 30 with about 
$900 million in cash reserves, equal to 12.6 percent of the spending with 
general tax revenues.

   But the same projections from legislative researchers also show that even 
without the new spending proposed by Kelly, those reserves dwindle and 
disappear within three years.  In the official GOP response , prepared before 
the governor's speech, Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita 
Republican, argued that the Democratic governor is setting a course to 
"squander our recovery" with excessive spending.

   "She just whipped out the credit card," Wagle said after the address.

   Kelly reserved some of her toughest remarks for the foster care system for 
abused and neglected children and the state Department for Children and 
Families. She said the department had been "decimated by ideology and 
mismanagement."

   The governor said her budget proposals, to be outlined for legislators 
Thursday, will include millions of dollars more for programs aimed at helping 
troubled families and for the department to hire additional social workers. She 
read the names of three children who died in recent years in abusive homes 
despite reports about them to the state.

   "These were our children, in our communities," she said. "And I refuse to 
forget them."

   But House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican, 
said former GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer's administration, which followed Brownback's, 
deserves some credit for improvements at the department in the past year.

   Kelly made a pledge to increase spending on public schools a key part of her 
campaign. Legislators last year enacted a law to phase in a $548 million 
increase in education funding over five years to meet a Kansas Supreme Court 
mandate in an ongoing lawsuit. But the court said it wasn't enough because it 
didn't account for years of inflation.

   While the governor promised "we're going to properly fund our schools" and 
pushed lawmakers to act quickly, she and her staff did not provide a figure. 
The State Board of Education has proposed phasing in another $364 million 
increase over four years.

   Top Republicans are resisting the idea.

   "We also know that there's a lot of other needs across the state," said 
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Kansas City-area Republican who 
joked in a toast at Kelly's inaugural ball Monday night that to fund schools, 
Kelly would "have Mexico pay for it."

   GOP leaders also oppose Medicaid expansion , arguing that it is potentially 
costly even if the federal government promises to pick up most of the expense. 
Kelly argued that it would help both needy families and rural hospitals, but 
even though she devoted nearly six minutes of her address to her pitch, 
Republican leaders were unmoved.

   Top Republicans want to adjust state income laws to prevent some Kansas 
residents from paying more to the state because of federal tax changes at the 
end of 2017 championed by President Donald Trump. The Senate tax committee 
could vote on a plan as early as Thursday.

   Wagle said in the GOP response that the "windfall" belongs to taxpayers, 
"not government." But House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, 
said uncertainty about the windfall's size makes it "way too early" to consider 
tax legislation.


(KA)

 
 
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