Gov. Laura Kelly put a mirror to her first year as Kansas' top elected official Tuesday by lauding changes in the state's approach to education, child welfare and budgeting and by pointing to progress developing a more inclusive, bipartisan executive branch.
The Democratic governor acknowledged in the year-end assessment that the Republican-led Legislature declined to accept her plea to improve lower-income Kansans' access to health care through expansion of Medicaid. She said 2020 would bring renewed focus on Medicaid, her top legislative priority, as well as evolution of policy on economic development, transportation and corrections.
"When I took office in January," Kelly said, "I made a promise to the people of Kansas that I would do everything I could to rebuild our state and improve their quality of life. That promise has guided me over the course of the past year."
Kelly said her administration proposed a balanced budget to the 2019 Legislature that reduced debt and invested in key priorities, including public schools, highways and health care. In collaboration with the Legislature, the governor signed a bill increasing wages of state workers by 2.5%. The Kelly administration also contributed to reducing health insurance premiums for state employees by 6%.
She irritated the GOP-led House and Senate with vetoes of two tax-cut bills, and set the stage for a political confrontation on tax policy in 2020. The governor's vetoes resulted in higher taxes for individuals and businesses in Kansas, said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
The GOP president also criticized Kelly for appointing "ultra-liberal" Shawnee County District Court Judge Evelyn Wilson to the Kansas Supreme Court in a move certain to inflame tension about composition of the judicial branch.
"Wilson will fit right in with the most liberal state Supreme Court in the nation, where they just legalized abortion up to birth while throwing out the death sentences of convicted murders like the Carr brothers," Wagle said.
When Kelly took office in January, state boards and commissions to which the Kansas governor makes appointments were composed of 37% women and 63% men. The gender split on those boards and commissions now stands at 51% women and 49% men. The governor issued an executive order reinstating workplace protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender state employees.
In April, Kelly signed a bipartisan school-finance bill to remedy constitutional flaws in state funding of K-12 schools. She joined legislators who increased state aid to higher education on condition six state universities accepted a one-year freeze on tuition rates.
The 2019 Legislature declined to hand Kelly a political win by expanding KanCare, the state's Medicaid program, to add as many as 150,000 adults and children. The governor's task force plans to submit a report in January outlining fundamental elements of any expansion bill.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the state had forfeited $2 billion by stiff-arming Medicaid expansion for years. The 2020 Legislature is committed to consideration of Medicaid legislation.
"Doing so will help hospitals and providers keep their doors open, especially in rural parts of the state," said Hensley, an expansion advocate. "All of this can be accomplished without a tax increase."
In terms of the state's foster care system, the governor helped land state funding to hire dozens of social workers and signed a bill necessary to secure millions of dollars in federal aid to address mental health and substance abuse challenges contributing to a surge in the number of Kansas children in foster care.
Kelly responded to crowding in the state prisons by transferring hundreds of inmates to a private facility in Arizona. Wages of Kansas corrections workers were elevated 15% to enhance recruiting and retention of officers.
Meanwhile, the state reduced by $160 million the amount of money drained from highway projects at the Kansas Department of Transportation and began development of a new long-term transportation plan.
Kelly instructed the Kansas Department of Commerce to draft a new economic development strategy for the state. The agency re-established the Main Street program aimed at economic growth in rural communities, which was jettisoned in 2012.