“We will not be raising taxes.”
That was Sen. Laura Kelly’s answer to questions posed by social media users on how she will pay for her plans for education, transportation, broadband and other initiatives if she is elected Kansas governor in November.
A Democrat, she was elected to the state Senate in 2004, to the 18th district, representing parts of Wabaunsee and Shawnee counties. She has served on the Senate Ways and Means and Commerce committees, and joint committees on children’s issues, economic development, health policy oversight and others.
Kelly said it will take some time to see what the implications are from the Legislature’s 2017 rollback of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, but increased revenue has put the state in good standing to fulfill education funding.
“We need to wait until the dust settles to figure out where we are, but we’ve experienced now 15 straight months of revenue overestimates in economic growth, so in terms of the school finance plan, we’ve got the money in the bank to deal with the court order to provide for inflation,” she said.
“Then we just need to stay on track and to put back into place the kinds of things that build the economy in Kansas. Funding our schools is the first start, and the right start to that. Schools have always been the biggest economic driver we’ve had in the state of Kansas,” she said.
We continued our interview about education and housing as economic development factors and what the big-name Republican endorsements she has received means for the election.
Her answers are presented here, edited for clarity. Hear Kellys’ answers to questions from social media users at HDNews.net or on the Hays Daily YouTube channel.
You mentioned education drives our economic development. You are probably familiar with the Kansas Department of Education’s Redesign Project and the Mercury 7, which includes one of our area districts, Stockton. Is this the direction education in our state should take?
One of the things we've done over the past few years has really expanded our career and tech ed programs so that we're now down into the high schools so that kids are able to come out with a certificate in a trade or even up to a year's worth of college credit. So we've gone there.
I think where we need to focus now is probably build on that, but we also need to look at a way we create our technical education process so that it can be very responsive to business needs, which change regularly now. We're no longer a stagnant economy that just sort of moseys along. It's constantly changing, the needs for our employers constantly change.
One of the things that we've done in Topeka for instance, Washburn University has now affiliated with what was called Valley Technical School and it's become Washburn Tech. By virtue of that affiliation, Washburn Tech has grown exponentially. More kids there, more kids getting skills that lead them into very good-paying jobs. But we're also able to be much more responsive to our employers. Goodyear can come to Washburn Tech and say ‘I need this training’ and Washburn Tech is able to sort of turn on a dime and provide the kind of training they need. We just set up a similar affiliation with Wichita State and their tech school so that they will have Wichita State Tech, so we expect to see the same results there. I think we need to look at that model. It's working. Is there a way to expand that across the state?
In your rural prosperity plan, you talk about tax credits to develop upper floor housing in downtown areas and encouraging colleges to develop student housing in those areas. That's great for a town like Hays where we have a university and a young demographic that might desire that type of living. But in smaller towns, Smith Center, Sharon Springs, people want homes. In Norton County, for example, a friend tells me rural development first-time home buyer grants that became available in March have already been depleted. What do you do for those people in rural towns who want the house with the picket fence and the residential street where their kids can ride their bikes?
Housing is absolutely essential for economic development. I can remember when Amazon moved to Coffeyville, built a huge distribution center in Coffeyville. They had a big problem with housing. They were having to bus people up from Tulsa to work at Amazon. A lot of the reason was there was not enough housing.
Pittsburg, similar to Hays, has done a phenomenal job with their Block22, where they've taken abandoned buildings downtown and created them into student housing and the bottom floor is a workspace environment where you can have some high-tech things going on. I think its phenomenal … I think we ought to look at doing that wherever we can.
In terms of the single-family home in communities that don't have a community college or a state university, we've got to find another way to work with that community to build the housing that they need. Don't have all the answers yet. That's where we're going to have to bring some folks around, see what kind of resources we have. I know we have within our Kansas housing development some grants right now for rural housing. We probably need to look at how those are being spent, whether they're working, whether we need to enhance that and do that when the opportunity prevails.
This week you got an endorsement from another prominent Republican, former U.S. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, and you've gotten several endorsements from other Republicans including former Gov. Bill Graves. What do you think that says about the state of politics in Kansas?
I think Kansans are ready to go back to the common-sense moderate leadership that they've flourished under for so many years. I think that it also speaks to the fact that I have been a very bipartisan legislator from day one. When I went into the legislature as a Democrat — and I was a math major when I went to college, so I can count — the most Democrats I've ever had in my caucus was 10, but there have never been 21 moderate Republicans either. We both needed to work together if we were going to pass good public policy. I've been doing that for 14 years, I continue to have those relationships. I think it’s evidenced by the number of moderate Republicans, quite prominent, all of whom know me in some way, shape or form, who are saying I'm the right leader for now in the state of Kansas. I appreciate that and I believe it’s true, that right now in Kansas we don't need another experiment. We don't necessarily need a fresh face. What we need is a strong, experienced, competent leader who has the relationships across the aisle in both chambers to go into the governor’s office on day one and start to work to keep us on the path to recovery
Paul Davis also received numerous Republican endorsements in his 2014 run for governor, but he lost. What's different between now and then?
One, I think some of the prominence of my endorsements and the message that it sends all across the state. I think obviously Bill Graves and Nancy Kassebaum had statewide recognition and appeal. They're both very popular folks. I think their endorsement of me sends a huge message. I think the fact Sheila Frahm, former lieutenant governor, former U.S. senator, has endorsed me speaks volumes and should send a message to folks in western Kansas in particular that I'm good. I'm OK. Go ahead. Feel safe. She'll take care, and she'll pay attention to rural Kansas. I think that's part of it.
I also think this is a very different time. In 2014, I don't think the implications of the Brownback tax experiment were quite as clear, so there wasn't the recognition that a change needed to be made. Now it's very clear and people want our schools funded, they want our infrastructure funded. They have suffered, in particular, rural Kansas has suffered because of the lack of investment in those two entities, and I would also suggest in Medicaid expansion where we have really put rural hospitals in peril. I think people just get it and they understand that we have got to stay on the path to recovery. Should they elect my opponent, we'd take a quick u-turn and go off the cliff even faster than we did before.
Polls are showing you're about dead even with Kris Kobach, and Greg Orman at around 9 percent. One opinion piece suggested this could come down to who is more anti-Kobach, you or Greg Orman. Do you feel that way?
I think it's been clear through the polling, but also through the lack of reception of the message. The idea that Republicans and Democrats don't work together in Kansas — now you talk about Washington, D.C, I'll give you that, everybody seems divided into their partisan camps — but in Kansas, it's never been that way. The only way we have gotten things done in Kansas is for moderate Republicans and Democrats to work together. There have actually been times when Democrats worked with conservative Republicans to get some things done. So it's a matter of we've always had to do it. That doesn't ring true in the state of Kansas. I think people understand that. They feel like it's risky to perhaps take any vote that might be seen as a vote for Kobach, that Kansans are not interested in what he has to offer.
If there's one thing you want the people of Kansas to know about you, what would it be?
That I care. That I work hard. That I am a no-nonsense problem solver who will just put her nose to the grindstone and work with others to restore our state to its greatness.