GARDEN CITY — A day after announcing Democratic Sen. Lynn Rogers as her running mate on Thursday morning, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, visited Garden City on Friday for the first time since her campaign began in late December to champion Medicaid expansion and continued momentum against the failed Brownback tax policies that gutted funding for state agencies.
Kelly spoke to about 15 people at Traditions Soda and Sandwich Shop, detailing her move to Kansas from Denver 32 years ago. She said she came to the state for its “deep sense of community” and what was then a “great public school system.”
“My daughters both got a world-class education and have gone on to do well,” she said. “That’s exactly why I’m running for governor. I want every kid in the state of Kansas to have the same opportunities that my kids had when they were growing up.”
During her address, Kelly pilloried former governor Sam Brownback, sitting governor Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach and Colyer are mounting their own Republican gubernatorial runs and have established themselves in recent polls as the Republican frontrunners. Kelly and former Democratic state representative Josh Svaty are currently polling as the Democratic frontrunners.
Over the last eight years, Kelly said, Brownback and Colyer “have put all the things that Kansans hold dear at risk.”
“They have really decimated our state,” she said. “They have diminished our public school system to a point where I barely recognize it anymore. And they have actually damaged I think the very core fabric of our communities. We are in a crisis.”
The fiscal fallout of the Brownback tax cuts continues to test lawmakers in Topeka, even after income tax hikes in 2016 were designed to bring much needed revenue back into state coffers. Kelly implored attendees on Friday to elect a “strong, experienced leader” capable of pulling the state further out of its fiscal mess.
She cited her experience as the ranking Democrat in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the Public Health and Welfare Committee. She said her ability to reach across the aisle and build trusting relationships with Republican lawmakers would be key to move forward with “good public policy.”
Kelly called the Legislature’s electoral shakeup of 2012 the “Brownback massacre,” claiming that the shift brought more ideologues surrogating the Brownback agenda into the statehouse and unseated “some of the very best and brightest.”
Now, she says, things are reversing course after an influx of moderates in 2016, which helped to overturn the former governor’s veto of the income tax hikes but failed to override his veto of Medicaid expansion.
“That’s why it’s even more imperative at this critical juncture that we get a Democrat in the governor’s office so that we don’t have to get to 27 votes and 84 votes to get good legislation passed,” she said, referencing the necessary tallies in the Senate and House, respectively, to reach an override.
Kelly said her running mate, Rogers, also would bring necessary experience to the executive office, given his 16 1/2 years on the Wichita school board, his recent experiences as a senator following his election in 2016, and his extensive history doing business in the state’s agricultural industry as a banker.
Rogers noted that he grew up in Nebraska before moving to Wichita in 1985 to work in the farm credit system. He added that he considers himself one of the few urban senators who knows more about agriculture than some of the “agricultural senators, because I’ve spent 30 years in the ag world.”
He said Kobach represents a return and exacerbation of the Brownback era, while Colyer is someone who was “with Brownback from day one.”
Zach Worf, chair of the Finney County Democrats, noted the state’s poor fiscal status when he asked Kelly what it would take to build Kansas back up.
Kelly said she would appoint a blue ribbon commission to evaluate the state’s tax structure, which she called “out of whack.” She said the fact that Kansas has the highest sales tax on food in the nation is “wrong,” and she critically reviewed the state’s high property taxes.
She favored a “three-legged stool” approach to taxation that would put property, sales and income taxes on equal footing for revenue generation.
Kelly spoke most passionately about the need for Medicaid expansion. She called the Legislature’s failure to pass Medicaid expansion last year “the dumbest thing we have done in the entire time that I have been in the Legislature.”
“We left 2.5 billion on the table in Washington D.C. to be distributed to other states,” she said. “In the meantime, our rural hospitals are on the brink of closing if they haven’t already closed.”
She added that Kansas could begin to give coverage to the 150,000 residents without health insurance and create 5,000 to 7,000 jobs through Medicaid expansion. She noted that Louisiana expanded Medicaid last year and recognized $317 million in health care savings, and she promised to get Medicaid expansion passed next year.
One attendee, 14-year-old Aiden Gough, asked Kelly what her thoughts are on marijuana legalization, a topic gaining increasing traction in Topeka. Gough said he thinks cannabis sales could help the state’s economy.
She said she expects a conversation about legalization of medical cannabis to evolve next year in the statehouse, adding that the issue is widely supported by people throughout the state, but “we don’t always have people in the Legislature representing the will of the people.”
Kansas will slowly but surely move toward legalization of at least medical cannabis, she said, adding that sentencing guidelines for marijuana possession convictions should be reevaluated in the meantime.
“We are incarcerating people for mere possession of minor amounts of marijuana,” she said. “It’s stupid. It’s costing us a fortune. It’s not doing anything to help society, so I think that’s what we can do as we start the discussion on medical marijuana.”
When asked what the worst outcome of the election would be for Kansas, Kelly said electing Kobach or Colyer would bring nothing but disaster.
“Everybody knows Kris Kobach, but people have to remember that Jeff Colyer has been hand-in-glove with Sam Brownback for seven and a half years,” she said. “So he will take us in the same direction that Sam Brownback did, and he’ll U-turn us right back to disaster.”