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Governor Gives State of the State Address

Governor Laura Kelly told fellow Kansas residents Tuesday night that her usual yearly call for bipartisanship is not enough in light of last week’s mob violence in Washington and said the state’s leaders “must commit ourselves to set an example.”

Kelly focused much of the annual State of the State address on the COVID-19 pandemic and avoided outlining broad new initiatives outside of promising to push again for expansion of the state’s Medicaid health coverage. But the Democratic governor turned near the end of her speech to the failed insurrection last week by extremist supporters of President Donald Trump, who stormed the U.S. Capitol to prevent Congress for certifying Trump’s election loss.

Her comments came a day after the FBI warned of potential armed protests in Washington and many states by Trump loyalists ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20. Trump carried Kansas by a wide margin in last year’s election, and Kelly avoided mentioning the outgoing president by name as she decried “the violence, destruction and sedition” in Washington.

“This isn’t like any other moment,” Kelly said in her 20-minute address. “We’re being tested like never before.”

She added: “We must commit ourselves to set an example, in how we conduct ourselves, in the things we say to each other, what we post on social media, in what we tell people back home in our communities.”

Kansas Capitol Police Lt. Eric Hatcher said Tuesday that the agency had received the information about the possibility of armed protests in states, but nothing specific about Kansas. State Senate President Ty Masterson said before Kelly’s speech that he’s “not overly concerned.”

“Kansas had a great election in regards to some of the unrest,” Masterson, an Andover Republican, said, noting a protest last week at the Statehouse last week by 200 Trump supporters was peaceful.

Kelly’s speech did not mention a top priority for Republican leaders in the GOP controlled Legislature, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution that she opposes as a strong supporter of abortion rights. And she also cast doubt on another key GOP priority, income tax cuts, suggesting proposals Republicans are pursuing would be a version of a “disastrous tax experiment” that was followed by big budget shortfalls under former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who left office in 2018.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted Kelly to deliver her speech virtually, on her Facebook page and public television stations, rather than sticking with a decades-old tradition of giving it in the House chamber during a joint session of the Legislature.

Kelly said her proposed budget, due to be released Wednesday, would include $37.5 million to “upgrade old IT systems that have been neglected for decades.” The governor has blamed problems with getting unemployment benefits to Kansans left jobless by the pandemic and its aftermath on aging computer systems at the troubled state Department of Labor.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, noted those ongoing Department of Labor problems and said, “Kansans are tired of excuses and ready for action.”

While Kelly said the state will get through the pandemic with vaccines, she touched on her often-repeated messages urging people to wear masks, social distance and avoid large gatherings.

“We are not out of the woods here,” Kelly said. “Not by a long shot.”

The Legislature’s top Democratic leaders, Sen. Dinah Sykes, of Lenexa, and Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita, both praised Kelly for putting “public health over politics.”

However, Kelly did not touch on what could become an acrimonious debate this year over managing the state’s response to the pandemic.

After Kelly issued a statewide stay-at-home order and an order shutting down in-person classes in K-12 schools, Republicans forced her to accept giving counties control over restrictions on businesses and imposing mask mandates. She has said lawmakers need to rethink that approach, but top Republicans still endorse it.

“Kansas Republicans believe the polices we enact in Topeka must first and foremost protect our constitutional liberties and always trust Kansans to know what is best for themselves and their families,” Masterson said in a response to Kelly’s address videotaped in the Senate chamber.

Masterson also said Republicans want to ensure that “a culture of life can flourish,” calling the proposed state constitutional amendment on abortion “essential.” It would overturn a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision calling access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the Kansas Constitution, casting a cloud over already enacted restrictions.

As for taxes, Masterson said: “We trust Kansans and should let them keep more of their hard-earned money.”

Kelly was elected in 2018 promising to expand Medicaid to tens of thousands of people in line with the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act championed by former Democratic President Barack Obama. Her Republican predecessors had opposed expansion.

Other GOP leaders still do, and last year’s elections not only preserved Republican supermajorities in both chambers but made them more conservative. That’s made passage of Medicaid expansion even less likely.

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