OVERLAND PARK — Gov. Laura Kelly peppered the first town hall of her administration Saturday with unfavorable critiques of Republican legislative leaders who advanced a bill slashing tax revenue, opposed Medicaid expansion and engaged in political theatrics to erode support for a Cabinet nominee.
Kelly chose the moderate-voter stronghold of Johnson County to share with a friendly crowd of 400 people her insights and those of five House Democrats on major issues and political undercurrents of the 2019 legislative session. Republican lawmakers were invited to participate, Kelly said, but none accepted.
The governor declined during and after the forum at Johnson County Community College to declare whether she would veto Senate Bill 22, a move her Democratic allies in the House and Senate expect to occur in a matter of days.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, championed the bill because it promised $500 million in tax relief over three years by protecting Kansas families and thwarting "new barriers that suffocate job creation." The bill favored multinational corporations in Kansas eager to avoid state taxes when repatriating foreign income. The bill would enable wealthy individual Kansans to itemize deductions on state taxes and claim the new higher standard deduction on federal taxes.
The bill on the governor's desk also lowered the state's sales tax on food by 1 percentage point and broadened application of a state sales tax on internet transactions.
Kelly said the tax legislation was a flashback to the "self-inflicted" budget crisis spawned in 2012 when Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill eliminating state income taxes on 330,000 business owners and aggressively dropped personal income tax rates. Brownback's cornerstone tax policy compressed state revenue by $700 million in the first year of implementation and ended up starving state agencies and the economy, she said.
"We did this in 2012. We've been through this," said Kelly, who added the Brownback tax program was largely repealed two years ago.
Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat on the town-hall panel, said a two-thirds majority didn't exist in the GOP-led House to override Kelly if she were to nix Senate Bill 22. She said representatives had confided to her they voted for the bill on the assumption Kelly would deploy her veto power for the first time.
On Thursday, the Kansas House voted 69-54 to expand eligibility for Medicaid in Kansas. GOP House leadership failed to block action on procedural grounds and fell short in the final vote. Republicans leading the Senate have vowed to derail the bid to broaden enrollment in Medicaid by an estimated 130,000 people at an annual cost of $50 million.
Kelly, who accused the Brownback administration of a take-no-prisoners style of governing, said she sought to embrace the goal of most Kansans and a majority of legislators to improve accessibility of health care under Medicaid provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
"There are clearly some Washington-style politics going on in Topeka right now," she said. "There are remnants still there, particularly demonstrated in our leadership in both the House and the Senate. I want you to know underneath it all that there is some collaboration going on. Medicaid expansion was a perfect example. That was a bipartisan effort."
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, has been a staunch critic of Medicaid expansion. Hawkins has chided Kelly for "selling false hope to rural Kansans" by asserting that infusion of state and federal Medicaid dollars would help medical facilities struggling to stay open.
However, Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, said during the town hall that months of low-key discussions among Republicans and Democrats in the House resulted in adoption of the Medicaid bill. A comparable effort will be necessary to move the legislation in the Senate, he said.
"We need that same bipartisan bravery to really come through for us," Parker said.
Kelly said Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee behaved badly during confirmation hearings for David Toland, acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce. Bitter questioning of Toland about his economic development work in Allen County and his social media posts unfolded, with Toland's wife and children sitting in the front row of a committee room.
The committee voted 6-5 on Thursday against confirmation of Toland, but the Kelly administration has focused on securing confirmation with a simple majority in the 40-member Senate. The Senate contains 28 Republicans, 11 Democrats and one independent.
"I believe it was inappropriate and completely unnecessary and just political theater," Kelly said. "Trust me, it was strictly partisan. I'm confident that when his confirmation comes up on the Senate floor, he will be confirmed."