by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service
Think of Laura Kelly as the fix-it governor.
As in she needs to fix what, by most accounts, is a state government in desperate need of repair.
For the first year or two of her administration, her biggest job will be restoring the capacity of state agencies crippled by budget cuts and the exodus of employees with the skills and institutional knowledge needed to keep the trains running on time.
Or, more to the point, balance the state budget, adequately fund schools and ensure that foster kids are placed in safe and stable homes.
She may want to start with high-profile initiatives to reduce the sales tax on food, restore the budget cuts suffered by universities and reboot the multi-billion-dollar highway-building program that former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback abandoned because of self-inflicted money problems.
Reality demands a more cautious approach. Kelly must closely monitor spending while triaging needs and addressing the most urgent problems. Ensuring the safety of foster children in the custody of the Department for Children and Families is likely at the top of that list.
Expectations for a new road program run high, but Kelly needs to first give new secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation Julie Lorenz time to rebuild the agency so that it can do the basics — plow snow and mend potholes without borrowing money from the bond market.
At the Kansas Department of Commerce, incoming Secretary David Toland must rebuild the rudderless agency’s presence in the eco-devo world. It’s one that’s been systematically diminished by understaffed programs and the closing of most of the state’s trade offices around the world.
Some might argue that restoring a basic level of competency to Kansas government sets a low bar for Kelly. But given the work that needs to be done, it seems a fair measuring stick.
Let’s remember, Kelly was a reluctant candidate. Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, among others, had to talk her into running. Perhaps that was because as a longtime member of the Senate’s budget-writing committee, she had a notion of how difficult the job would be.
Still, after some coercion and a lot of contemplation — done during long walks along the wooded bluffs overlooking the Kansas River and Cedar Crest, the governor’s residence — Kelly concluded she could handle the job.
Then she got elected. Sitting through her first budget briefings, she said, it became apparent that the “devastation” was “even worse than I thought.”
Regardless, it’s now Kelly’s job to fix things.
Our first indication of how she plans to do that comes this week when she lays out her budget priorities in a speech to a joint session of the Legislature.
We should all be paying attention.
Jim McLean is the chief political reporter for the Kansas News Service. He’s covered politics and state government for more than 35 years. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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