She urged Kansans to “lock arms,” treat each other with dignity, and listen to public health experts.
“Let us always remember that our children and grandchildren are watching,” Kelly said. “These days, they’re watching extra closely. The decisions we make and the example we set in the coming weeks and months will have a lasting impact on their lives, and on our beloved state of Kansas. This is a time like none other we’ve seen. Let’s rise together to meet this moment.”
Breaking from tradition, Kelly delivered her third State of the State address as a prerecorded speech through social media and public TV broadcasts rather than in a live appearance before the Legislature. The change was made to avoid the risk posed by COVID-19.
The Democratic governor outlined her administration’s efforts to vaccinate Kansans from COVID-19 and rebuild the state’s economy, and she warned against Republicans who would prefer tax cuts to investments in core services.
She lamented the staggering losses from a pandemic that has killed more than 3,200 Kansans, closed classrooms, eliminated jobs and forced businesses to close. The end is in sight, she said, with the arrival of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. So far, 84,555 Kansans have been vaccinated, she said.
The first phase of the vaccine rollout, earmarked for health care workers and nursing home residents, should be completed this month. Next up: Seniors, prisoners, teachers, child care providers, and workers at meatpacking plants and grocery stores.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccines,” Kelly said. “Internet conspiracy theories. Complete nonsense. Make no mistake, the science behind the vaccines is solid. And these vaccines are how we keep ourselves and our fellow Kansans healthy and, ultimately, how we defeat this virus and move forward with our lives.”
She plans to continue her push for Medicaid expansion, which would provide health insurance to 165,000 low-income Kansas adults and their children, bolster the finances of rural hospitals, and inject billions into the economy. Republican leaders have rebuffed efforts in the past to expand Medicaid, and conservative gains in the 2020 elections make it more unlikely to gain traction this year.
“If we’ve learned anything these past 10 months, it’s that every Kansan deserves health care they can afford, good health care facilities near their homes, and for our rural neighbors and friends, more access to telehealth services,” Kelly said.
She outlined economic priorities focused on job creation, broadband, infrastructure, agriculture and helping small businesses.
Her initiatives include resurrection of a program to assist with redevelopment of rural downtowns, and recruitment of businesses that offer high-paying jobs. She said she was the first Democratic governor to endorse a new trade agreement brokered by President Donald Trump’s administration between the United States, Mexico and Canada because it will help Kansas agriculture.
She created the Office of Broadband Development though executive order to address the growing dependency business small and large have on e-commerce, the need to work from home during the pandemic, and remote learning for public schools. The broadband office will administer $50 million in grants to support local investments.
“Access to high-speed internet will be a game-changer for these communities,” Kelly said. “It’s a tool to recruit new businesses and keep existing ones from leaving.”
She said her administration has balanced the state budget and avoided raising taxes while restoring funding to public schools and investing in a 10-year highway plan. The state is projected to emerge from the pandemic with a $600 million ending balance.
She contrasted her record with former Gov. Sam Brownback’s “disastrous tax experiment” and warned against plans for “Brownback 2.0 tax cuts.”
“We must remain vigilant,” Kelly said. “We’re just a few years removed from the Brownback tax experiment, and it seems as though some of my colleagues in the Legislature have already forgotten just how devastating that experiment was to our economy, our schools and our future.”
Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, said this year feels like Y2K because computers aren’t working and things have been cancelled. Kelly’s live-streamed speech meant none of the normal pomp and circumstance during a State of the State address.
Alley said Kelly mentioned economic successes, but he is concerned about small business in this area that are hurting, and said he gets about 10-12 calls a week from people struggling to get unemployment. He also mentioned the problem of unemployment fraud.
Senate leadership priorities include transparency in property tax valuation, income tax reform, a “Value Them Both” constitutional amendment and maintaining local control.
“Those are the people that should be making local rules for their area,” Alley said. “We want to make sure that power remains where it’s at.”
The amendment would overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision in 2019 that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution.
Rep. Bill Rhiley, R-Wellington, said that other than negative comments about the previous administration, “I think this was the best media presentation she has had. The Governor is beginning her campaign for reelection, and so she needed to begin the political stories.”
Rhiley said many Kansans still are not getting unemployment benefits and scammers have received millions in fraudulent claims. Rhiley also criticized the foster care system and said the Department of Children and Families has not shown a plan to reduce children in the system by 50 percent.
He lamented the social costs of the pandemic.
“Working at home is a blessing to some, but not working and being at home and feeling the stress of not being able to provide, and feel the self-esteem building of having a job, is causing mental break downs of families,” he said.
Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, said Kansans had suffered greatly in the past year and that the vaccine rollout is lagging. Blex said he gets a lot of calls asking where and when people can get vaccinated. There is a lot of confusing information, he said, and KDHE is not providing timely information about vaccine distribution.
Blex also said Kansans continue to suffer from the unemployment “meltdown.”
“I believe our Governor has to assume some responsibility on these issues,” Blex said. “We have some difficult challenges facing Kansas this coming year. We simply need to fix the priorities and still live within our means.”
CourierTraveler Publisher David A. Seaton contributed to this report.