Gov. Kelly mourns Kansas COVID-19 losses and uses state-of-the-state address to ask for civility

Gov. Laura Kelly usually gives her state-of-the-state speech in the Capitol building directly to legislators, but this year, because of the risk of COVID-19, she taped it in a Topeka television studio. (Photo by Stephen Koranda, Kansas News Service)

The governor’s state-of-the-state speech called for bipartisanship, cooperation in fighting the pandemic and, less realistically, expansion of Medicaid.

by Stephen Koranda, Kansas News Service

Topeka, Kansas — Gov. Laura Kelly continued to push for vigilance in the fight against the coronavirus and tried to combat skepticism of the vaccine as she laid out her goals on Tuesday for 2021.

The Democratic governor used her state-of-the-state speech to push for Medicaid expansion — a greater longshot than ever — and asked lawmakers for civility as she prepares for a legislative session where she faces an even more conservative Republican majority in the Kansas Statehouse.

Kelly mourned the more than 3,000 Kansans who have died of COVID-19. She urged people to continue to take precautions and get the vaccine.

“We are not out of the woods here. Not by a long shot. Our hospitals are strained and this virus continues to kill our loved ones and our neighbors,” she said. “But we will get through this crisis, with the vaccines.”

The governor’s speech normally happens in the packed Kansas House chamber. This year, because of the pandemic, it was the governor speaking to a camera in a Topeka TV studio.

Initial reports had shown Kansas lagging other states in vaccination rates. Kelly said that was because of delayed reporting and she pointed out that more recent reports have shown significant improvement.

Kelly said about 85,000 Kansans had been vaccinated so far. The state is still in the initial phase focused on people such as frontline health care workers. But she said the state needs help from Washington with the rollout.

“Much of our ability to distribute the vaccine is dependent on the federal government getting the vaccine to us,” she said.

She pointed to another challenge in fighting COVID-19: skepticism about the vaccine.

“Internet conspiracy theories. Complete nonsense,” Kelly said. “Make no mistake, the science behind the vaccines is solid.”

The governor argued that the pandemic also highlighted the need to expand Medicaid to more people. Her attempts to expand the program to cover more than 150,000 low-income Kansans have failed in the past and expansion seems unlikely this year with an even more conservative Legislature following the 2020 election.

“I’ll continue to push, over and over again, for what 38 states across the country have done — to expand Medicaid,” she said.

After the violence at the U.S. Capitol last week, the governor called for bipartisanship, asking lawmakers to work across the aisle and set an example for Kansans to follow.

“We’re being tested like never before,” Kelly said. “This year, working together isn’t simply something I want — it’s something we owe to the people of Kansas.”

Kelly walked a tight line regarding the riot, calling the events “sedition,” but not naming President Donald Trump specifically or blaming him, as some other politicians have.

The new Republican president of the Senate, Ty Masterson, struck a similar tone in his response, saying he hopes “we will be able to find common ground on issues where we can agree, and that we can have spirited, yet respectful, debate on the rest.”

But the two speeches showed contrasting visions for Kansas and hinted at the areas where Kelly and Republicans like Masterson will likely clash.

Masterson said Republicans will also pursue tax changes in response to the federal 2017 tax cuts.

“Kansas taxpayers should also be allowed the opportunity to take advantage of the federal tax cuts, and we must work to enact meaningful property tax reform,” he said.

That could put Republicans on a collision course with Kelly, who said in her speech that she’s opposed to tax cuts right now.

Republican leaders and Kelly have clashed over the state’s response to the pandemic, especially decisions that closed many non-essential businesses earlier this year. Masterson wants to reduce the chance of that happening again.

“The state should always be on the side of keeping businesses open, not letting unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats define who is essential,” he said.

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to
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Kansas Gov. Kelly says her highway plan restores the state’s roads without a tax hike

by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service

Topeka, Kansas — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s transportation plan isn’t as bold as those that came before it.

Since the 1990s, Kansas has spent tens of billions of dollars on three successive 10-year programs. Each required a tax increase and launched with a commitment to complete a long list of new building projects.

But Kelly, a Democrat who won election on a promise to restore the state’s finances, isn’t proposing a bunch of new projects. And she isn’t seeking a tax increase to help pay for her plan.

Instead, she’s pledging to stop taking money from the Kansas Department of Transportation — and asking lawmakers to do the same — so that the agency can rebuild roads and bridges suffering from years of lax maintenance. She’s also promising to complete all but one of the 21 projects abandoned during a budget crisis that followed tax cuts passed under Republican Sam Brownback when he was governor.

Half of the $10 billion Kelly proposes spending over the next 10 years is earmarked for maintenance work.

“We must close the ‘Bank of KDOT’ and make sure that funding for transportation is spent on transportation,” Kelly said last when announcing the program.

That means no more raids on the pool of money earmarked for transportation.

Those raids were commonplace during the Brownback administration. With tax revenues plummeting, Brownback and lawmakers diverted about $2 billion to plug gaping holes in the state budget.

Kelly has slowed the transfers and pledged to end them by 2023.

Limited money for big projects

Breaking with precedent, Kelly isn’t committing to a set list of highway projects. Instead, said KDOT Secretary Julie Lorenz, a handful of projects will be selected every two years based on what the agency concludes are the most urgent needs.

Doing that, she said, will give the agency the flexibility it needs to respond to emerging issues and “make good investments that stand the test of time.”

At the moment, Lorenz said, nothing is more urgent than expanding a section of U.S. 69 that cuts through the Johnson County community of Overland Park. It’s the busiest stretch of four-lane highway in the state. More than 80,000 daily commuters regularly transform it into a virtual parking lot during the morning and evening rush hours.

“In terms of congestion on a four-lane highway, it’s the worst in the state,” Lorenz said. “It gets a grade of ‘F’ today and it gets worse in the future if we don’t do something about it.”

Engineering a solution isn’t a problem, finding a way to pay for it is, said Carl Gerlach, the mayor of Overland Park.

Adding express lanes that motorists would have to pay to use is likely the only way to get the proposed $300 million project done quickly, he said.

“If we don’t do something unique and different like tolling, we may have to wait ten, 13, 14 years before we get U.S. 69 expanded,” Gerlach said. “Can we do that? I don’t think so.”

The express lanes would likely be built in between the existing northbound and southbound lanes. Drivers would use electronic gadgets like those that automatically record their tolls on the Kansas Turnpike.

Express lanes have a mixed record. Still, research done by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles found that toll lanes can be a cost-effective way to reduce traffic congestion. They’re more effective than simply adding more “free” lanes to existing roads or expanding mass transit.

“Pricing reduces congestion,” ITS researchers said in a recent report. “Nothing else does.”

Under Kansas law, you can’t charge tolls on existing highways. Just new ones.

To add express lanes on U.S. 69, state and local officials would have to produce a study that they would both ease congestion and partially pay for themselves.

Lorenz thinks the project can be finished more quickly by putting it on a regulatory and logistical fast-track. So, she wants to start construction while engineers are still working on the design, rather than waiting until all the blueprints get drafted and approved.

KDOT used that process for the first time on a massive interchange in Johnson County finished in 2017. It connects Interstates 35 and 435 with Kansas 10.

“We shaved a year off that schedule and we got 12 percent more project … for the dollars,” she said.

Using the faster process to deliver the U.S. 69 project, Lorenz said, would save more than money.

“For every year that we delay in building your project, folks sit in traffic five million hours,” she said.

Balancing urban and rural needs

While many of the state’s most pressing transportation needs are in urban and suburban centers, Lorenz said there’s also money in the plan for road projects in rural Kansas. But, she said, not enough to satisfy the desire for four-lane highways everywhere local officials are clamoring for them.

Southwest Kansas is a case in point. Residents there say heavy truck traffic to massive meatpacking facilities in Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal have made existing roads unsafe.

“If you travel on Highway 83, you … would not believe all the trucks,” said Beth Tedrow, a Garden City Community College trustee, at a meeting with state lawmakers from the region just prior to the state of the 2020 legislative session.

Officials in the region can make a case for a four-lane highway, Lorenz said, but the state simply doesn’t have the money to build one unless communities in the region can cover a substantial portion of the cost.

“So, I’m working hard to sell passing lanes,” Lorenz said.

In addition to being cheaper to build and maintain, she said, passing lanes “provide an enormous safety benefit.”

A recent KDOT study that evaluated the effectiveness of the passing lanes along a section of U.S. 400 in southeast Kansas showed they reduced crashes by 32 percent.

If a community that wants a four-lane is willing to accept passing lanes as an intermediate step, that increases the chances for state funding, Lorenz said.

“We will give them bonus points, if you will, additional consideration,” she said.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
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