Local legislators expressed optimism ahead of the upcoming legislative session under Gov.-elect Laura Kelly.
When Kelly, a Democrat, takes office Monday, it will end of eight years of Republican rule in the governor’s office with Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, who finished the last year of Brownback’s term.
Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, said she believes Kelly will be “matter-of-fact and pragmatic” when it comes to doing what the state needs to get better.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty significant change in attitude about what our job is in Topeka and what is the government’s role,” she said.
Rep. Tom Phillips, R-Manhattan, said he senses that Kelly’s focus will be on management of government programs and addressing some deficiencies that have occurred in recent years.
“It’s going to be a balancing act between trying to accomplish those priorities without raising taxes,” he said.
Phillips said he’s receptive to Kelly’s ideas on handling the foster care system, prisons and restoring highway funding. However, he said there will be challenges for Kelly.
“The legislative House has gotten more conservative over the last few years,” he said. “She’ll run into some pushback from some of her agenda items.”
Phillips said the ability to get things done will depend on Kelly and Senate president Susan Wagle identifying compromises to which they can agree.
“Ultimately, (the Senate) is the body that will determine the success of Gov. Kelly’s agenda items,” he said.
Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, said Kelly is “very steady and laid back” when it comes to working toward bipartisanship.
He said he’s interested to see how Republicans adjust to new leadership, but he doesn’t expect a contentious session.
“We’re in an era in our country where people are playing highly-partisan political games,” he said. “I don’t think that’s (Kelly’s) style. I’ve never seen her do that.”
Carlin said Kelly has shown herself to be someone who is open to ideas from all sides. She also said Kelly’s administration provides clearer paths for legislation favored by the Democratic leadership.
“We, the Democrats, have a real advantage with (Kelly) in the leadership role in that we don’t have to worry about being veto proof so much anymore,” she said. “Getting 84 votes was a significant factor in the last few years of office.”
Carlin mentioned Medicaid expansion as an example of a bill that couldn’t override former Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto. By comparison, Kelly made the expansion one of her priorities as governor.
“That threat of veto tempered everything we did over the last few years,” Carlin said. “If I were a Republican looking in, I might see that differently, but I don’t look for her to threaten vetoes.”
The legislators also have their priorities for the upcoming session.
All three legislators said they want to settle the school finance lawsuit this session by reaching the appropriate funding level.
The Gannon v. Kansas lawsuit, which challenged the equitability and adequacy of state funding, was initially filed in 2010, and resolution of the case is still ongoing.
“It’s time for us to resolve that legal challenge and ensure that we can bring that to a close, so we don’t have to continually fight that issue with the (Kansas) Supreme Court,” Phillips said.
In addition to K-12 funding, Phillips said the state must invest in higher education on all levels, whether it’s technical, community or a four-year college.
“If we fail to adequately invest in our higher education system, we will continue to fall behind in terms of preparing our young people to succeed in this marketplace that requires so many skills,” he said.
Carlin said she’ll watch where the money goes as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Based on the current situation, Carlin said she wouldn’t want to cut taxes again. In 2017, the state legislature reversed the 2012 income tax cuts signed into law by Brownback after years of revenue falling short of projections.
Carlin said the legislature enters this session with Republican leadership potentially eyeing another tax cut.
“We have one side wanting to maintain, try to grow and rebuild to satisfy the needs of our state and constituents, and the other side only looking at the money that certain people could get back in a tax cut,” she said.
In the Senate, Hawk is taking over Kelly’s position as the ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“I’m excited about having a chance to take Laura Kelly’s place in that leadership role, and I think I’ll be very busy,” he said.
Hawk said efforts to build state agencies back up will be important after they were depleted under Brownback.
“Employees were not given raises, and they were not appreciated, and we lost a lot of good leadership,” he said.
Hawk said he’s also interested in passing a transportation plan after he served on a task force. He said the legislature also needs to push for reliable funding for the plan.
“I think that needs to be addressed and funded for the next 10 years,” he said.