by Mary Rupert
Wyandotte County has been a big beneficiary of economic development efforts in Kansas, according to Gov. Laura Kelly.
The state intensified economic development efforts in the past few years, moving up in state rankings for its efforts and recently receiving the Gold Shovel Award from Area Development magazine, she said on Tuesday. Only eight states received the award, and Kansas was the only small state that received this economic development award this year, she said.
“We set a record for new capital investment in 2020,” Gov. Kelly said. “We brought in over $2.5 billion in capital investment, more than ever before. And we are on target to beat that record in 2021.”
The award was a recognition of the work the Kansas Department of Commerce has done with the local communities, she added.
Gov. Kelly said they have closed the deal on about $6 billion of capital investment projects in Kansas since she took office in 2019. In addition, they have brought in about 26,000 jobs to the state, she said.
Wyandotte County has been a major beneficiary of the state’s economic development efforts and local efforts, she said.
Since 2019 they’ve closed on about 33 or so new projects with over 3,500 jobs associated with those in new capital investments, she said.
In the past year or two, despite the pandemic, Wyandotte County has seen some big projects announced, such as Urban Outfitters, an Amazon warehouse, the Turner Logistics Center and the redevelopment of the former Schlitterbahn water park into the planned Homefield complex. There have been many other smaller projects in Wyandotte County, and together they make a huge difference, Gov. Kelly said.
A lot of these and other projects here have had assistance from the state in various incentives. For example, parts of the Homefield amended project was going through state approval as recently as last week, according to Unified Government officials.
The governor said the return on investment is huge from all these projects.
“Kansas really does get a lot more back than we give,” she said. “It’s imperative that we make investments to grow our economy. You can’t do it any other way.”
After the tax experiment of the Brownback years, the Commerce Department was decimated, she said, with not enough staff to recruit and work with businesses. Gov. Kelly redirected resources in 2019, re-establishing programs such as the international trade commission and office of rural prosperity, focusing on more economic development.
“That investment pales in comparison to the return on the dollar,” Gov. Kelly said.
One of the governor’s goals in office was to expand Medicaid. That didn’t happen this year in the Kansas Legislature, as lawmakers adjourned without taking a vote on it. Expect to see it again next year.
“I will not give up. It is absolutely imperative that we expand Medicaid,” Gov. Kelly said.
In Missouri, residents voted to expand Medicaid, only to see a decision not to fund it from the legislature, and then a court case over it, according to news reports.
Kansas is now the only state in the Midwest that has not expanded Medicaid, she said.
“That is not only bad for our people and businesses, it makes it very difficult to recruit and retain medical professionals,” Gov. Kelly said.
If medical professionals are located anywhere near the border, many of them will go to one of the states that has expanded Medicaid, she said.
Medicaid expansion also is very helpful to rural hospitals, many of whom are close to closure and need the expansion to keep their doors open, she said.
“Not to mention that we’ve left over $5 billion in Kansas taxpayer money sent to Washington, D.C., and disbursed to 38 other states that have expanded Medicaid, rather than coming back to Kansas to take care of our people and grow our economy,” Gov. Kelly said.
The unemployment system in Kansas was swamped when the pandemic hit, with hundreds of thousands of people applying for benefits and some unable to get them.
Gov. Kelly said the computer system in place at the start of the pandemic dated back to 1977, the year that Elvis died, and while it could handle the usual 7,000 to 10,000 applicants, it was swamped by hundreds of thousands of applications in the pandemic.
The governor said the modernization process for that system had started with the Parkinson administration, but it was pulled by the Brownback administration, which stopped the project. When Kelly became governor, she started working toward modernization, and then the pandemic hit, she added.
“We had to stop working on modernization to respond to the surge in applications and just do patchwork,” she said.
Not only did the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits increase, but also a new federal program with some changes had to be added at the state level. Hundreds of people were brought in to work in the agency to respond to the claims.
Gov. Kelly said the state now has a modernization system in the works that is being fast-tracked and may be completed in a few years. Normally, it would take about four to five years to revamp the computer system, she said.
Gov. Kelly’s administration also passed the fourth comprehensive transportation plan. Instead of selecting all the projects and putting them in the pipeline for the next 10 years, they are putting them on a basis of just a few years. In the past, sometimes local community needs changed during the 10 years.
Local communities are able to leverage their dollars with the state’s dollars, and they’re able to get more projects in the pipeline, she said.
One of her goals when elected was to close the “Bank of KDOT” by fiscal year 2023, she said. “We are on track to do that,” Gov. Kelly said.
In the past, transfers to the highway fund were not being made by the state, and dollars intended for transportation projects were not always used for them, but were borrowed for other uses.
When she was in the Senate, they overturned the Brownback tax experiment, and then they changed that “Bank of KDOT” practice, she said.
“Since I’ve been governor, I’ve been able to put together three budgets that fund our schools, fund our roads and fund other vital state services,” she said.