Commerce Department lays out Kansas' new economic development strategy

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland smiles before making prepared remarks accepting the nomination for lieutenant governor by Gov. Laura Kelly in a news conference Monday at the Statehouse.

Gov. Laura Kelly, alongside two former governors and Secretary of Commerce David Toland, announced Thursday a new "framework for growth" for Kansas' economic development. 

"An effective strategy does more than focus on the here and now – we must plan for the future and set the stage for sustained growth and prosperity,” Kelly said. “The Framework for Growth is a bold plan to address current and future trends in our state, while we continue to promote job growth and new capital investment in communities of every size all across Kansas.”

The 37-page plan details a long-term shift in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and current economic issues. A slow rate of growth, automation's elimination of jobs and out-migration of educated youth are the main issues Kanas needs to tackle, said Toland.

What's the new strategy's focus?

The strategy would prioritize and focus economic development on advanced manufacturing, aerospace, distribution and transportation, agriculture and professional and technical services.

To do so, Kansas would focus on keeping in talent, the most important of "four pillars" the economic development plan relies on.

"It's about making sure that when our kids graduate... they have been aligned with opportunities that exist in Kansas," said Toland. "We want them to be able to make as much money in Kansas as they do if there were to go to St. Louis, for example."

The plan also focuses on promoting innovation, such as researching new technologies and retaining companies who do such. Toland said the state had neglected for too long trying to get tech companies and "knowledge jobs," and this plan would reengage with that space.

The plan acknowledges that different parts of the state will have different economic strengths that need to be focused on, such as that rural parts will need some bigger focus on broadband connectivity.

The administration hopes for more economic development incentives

In the end, to support all that, the Kelly administration hopes to get more economic development incentives on the policy end of things. While most of the plan won't need legislative approval and simply need a realignment of resources, the Department of Commerce's legislative priorities this session will be important for the strategy. 

One bill giving tax credits to startup investors, for instance, has already passed out of committee and seems to be supported by Republican lawmakers. Other incentives-related bills would focus on attracting headquarters, rural remote workers and small businesses.

"We've had a reasonable time so far," Toland said on discussions with Republican leaders on the department's bills.

The hope, though, is that this framework outlasts the Kelly administration and that succeeding governors will also carry out the strategy, just like how it happened with the previous economic development strategy before it ended with former Gov. Sam Brownback.

"This plan does not belong to one administration; it is the Kansas plan for growth. As former governors, John and I are proud to join with the current governor in making the case for this shared vision," said former Gov. Mike Hayden, who emphasized the need for bipartisan support.

'Too random for me': The new strategy already has criticism

But in a Kansas Senate Commerce Committee meeting, Republican legislators already found reasons to criticize the strategy.

"For me, it comes down to, do you prove to me that what you've done is effective for us to keep funneling funds in that direction," said Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson. "Just a bit of data here, a bit of data there, that's too random for me."

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, was skeptical of the department in general.

"The complaint I've heard about the Commerce Department and the Kelly administration.. is that we have been ghosted in western Kansas," he said. 

Additionally, Republicans and Kelly have starkly different views on how to help the state's economy. The GOP sees tax cuts as the solution, while the governor currently does not with a pandemic-affected state budget. 

When asked on that difference, Toland responded that it's more than tax policy that affects economic development, and that the plan focuses on the things both Republicans and Democrats can agree on.  

Ultimately, revamping things will cost money, which is tight right now due to the pandemic. But the strategy's goal is to be long-term and to provide a vision, Toland said.

This plan will be the state economy's "North Star," he said.