Kansas lawmakers, officials march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., call for unity

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. March around the statehouse elicited talk of unity and self-reflection to weather hard times, like the pandemic. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — In anticipation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Kansas lawmakers, civil rights advocates and other government officials spoke Thursday of unity among Kansans as a key to weathering challenging times and making positive progress as a state.

Gov. Laura Kelly pointed to the acts of selflessness and teamwork displayed over the COVID-19 pandemic, from front-line health care workers to teachers to spiritual leaders, to show how the principles King held remain prevalent in Kansas today. She said the state’s elected leaders must not only heed that same call to service but work to set an example for all others.

“We can all do more to make our communities better. We can all do more to make each other better,” Kelly said. “We can truly make a difference when we take Dr. King’s lead and choose to stand together in solidarity, mutual respect and commitment to making the world a better place.”

State legislators, members of the governor’s cabinet, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and members of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission were among those who joined Kelly in the annual march around the statehouse to honor King.

Following the march, Kelly proclaimed Jan. 17, 2022, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Kansas. (King was born on Jan. 15, but the day is observed as a holiday on the third Monday in January because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.)

Last year, the march took place online to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Stacey Knoell, executive director of the African American Affairs Commission, said King’s words and efforts still ring loud and true today, making the effort to continue his legacy paramount. While toned down or better hidden, many of the same issues of the 1960s remain, she said.

“Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Well today we’re living through a time that certainly rhymes with the turbulence of the 1960s,” Knoell said. “We’re still fighting voter suppression; we’re still fighting for fair redistricting and we’re still fighting for human rights and dignity.”

The greatest gift provided by King was hope, Knoell said, adding that hope remains inside of all who heed his words and follow his example.

Beryl New, chair of the African American Affairs Commission, asked Kansans to look inside themselves and ask questions of their thoughts, opinions and actions. Self-reflection will open a path to creating a better Kansas, she said.

“When we do all of these, Kansas, America, the world will be closer to the vision of the dream that Dr. King had when he looked forward to the day, all God’s children, Black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, can join hands and sing the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last,’ ” New said.

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Kansas has billions of dollars in surplus. Here are 9 ways the governor wants to spend it

by Stephen Koranda, KCUR and Kansas News Service

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly unveiled a budget that proposes cutting the food sales tax, freezing tuition and sending $250 payments to Kansas taxpayers.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration laid out a plan Wednesday to cut taxes while spending more on education, law enforcement and mental health services as state lawmakers consider what to do with a surplus that could top $3 billion.

The details came as her administration revealed the budget plan hinted at in her State of the State address Tuesday night.

“There’s a host of investments,” Budget Director Adam Proffitt told lawmakers. “There’s debt paid down. There are savings accounts. There’s investing in core programs.”

There’s likely to be conflict between the Democratic governor and Republicans who are interested in less spending and broader cuts in taxes — issues likely to play out in Kelly’s reelection campaign.

Before Proffitt even presented the plan, the chairman of the Senate’s budget committee said lawmakers should be cautious about spending too much of the money in reserve.

“These dollars could disappear really, really quick,” Republican Sen. Rick Billinger said. “We appreciate all the input and the ideas on how to get rid of all this money, but we cannot afford reckless spending.”

Kelly’s spending plan is the blueprint lawmakers will start with as they craft a state budget. They’ll ultimately write the budget and send it to Kelly’s desk for her consideration.

Here are some of Kelly’s spending priorities her budget director outlined:

• Eliminate the 6.5% state sales tax rate on food. Local sales taxes could remain in place. Those local levies are part of the reason sales taxes top 10% total in some parts of Kansas. Eliminating the state sales tax on groceries would cost about $450 million in state revenue during the first year.

• Add $70 million more spending on higher education with the goal of restoring universities to pre-pandemic levels of funding and freezing tuition rates. The decision whether or not to increase tuition would ultimately be made by the Kansas Board of Regents.

• Direct income tax rebates of $250 per individual and $500 per couple filing jointly. That would amount to approximately $460 million.

• Pay down $586 million in state debt. That includes a $172 million bond for the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility in Manhattan and $254 million for the state employee pension plan. In total, Kelly’s administration says paying off the debts early would save Kansas $250 million in the long term.

• End the practice of diverting money from the Kansas Department of Transportation highway fund, which has been used in recent years to prop up the state’s overall budget. Those transfers are often referred to as “the bank of KDOT.”

• Continue the state’s K-12 funding plan that ended a years-long lawsuit over education spending.

• Spend $20 million on moderate-income housing in response to a report that found middle-income families in Kansas have few housing options. The administration did not have specific details on spending the money, as it would be handled by the Department of Commerce.

• Increase by more than $30 million spending for mental health services and suicide prevention. That would come as suicides have been rising in Kansas.

• Expand Medicaid in Kansas, which would provide health care coverage for around 150,000 low-income Kansans. This has been opposed by Republican lawmakers in recent years and appears likely to stall again.

Stephen Koranda is the news editor for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @Stephen_Koranda or email him at stephenkoranda (at) kcur (dot) org.
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 ksnewsservice.org.
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Kansas governor asks for simple food tax relief, resilience in State of the State speech

Gov. Laura Kelly plans to freeze college tuition, spend heavily on law enforcement, fund state water plan

by Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday used her annual State of the State address to propose eliminating the sales tax on food with a simple 13-word phrase, freezing college tuition rates, investing in law enforcement, and funding a state water plan abandoned by previous administrations.

She provided encouragement to health care workers and residents exhausted from a two-year battle with COVID-19, and promoted improvements made in the state’s economy, infrastructure and finances since she took office in 2019. She promised to support north-central Kansas farmers who suffered losses from wildfires last month.

The governor paid tribute to former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who died in December, and Buck O’Neill, who finally earned entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And she highlighted the 50-year bipartisan marriage of Lane County farmers Vance and Louise Ehmke.

Her speech coincides with another surge in virus cases that has placed unprecedented stress on medical providers. COVID has killed 7,114 Kansans since the start of the pandemic two years ago and ignited furious debates about the role government should place in keeping people safe.

Still, Kelly insisted, “we will get through this.”

“Needless to say, it has been an arduous couple of years for Kansas and the nation,” Kelly said. “We’ve lost loved ones, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. Unfortunately, we continue to lose too many Kansans to this virus. But we also saw, and we continue to see, the very best of Kansas rise up in every corner of our state.”

Despite the economic damage caused by COVID-19, the Democratic governor and GOP-led Legislature have amassed the largest budget surplus in 40 years while fully funding schools, paying down state debts, adding $600 million to the Rainy Day Fund, and ending the practice of redirecting money intended for highway repairs.

Thanks to that stable financial footing, Kelly said, the state can afford to eliminate a 6.5% sales tax on food and still balance its budget.

“Here’s something we all know: Food in Kansas costs families way too much,” Kelly said. “And even as we sit here with a record surplus, Kansans continue to pay higher taxes on groceries than anyone in the country. It makes no sense.”

Republican Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who will try to unseat Kelly in this year’s governor’s race, and GOP members of the Legislature have signaled support for eliminating the food tax. The governor stressed the need to pass what she calls a “clean” bill, free of other tax changes.

If the Legislature passes a 13-word bill, she said, she will sign it the moment it hits her desk.

All it needs to say: “We hereby eliminate the state sales tax on food in Kansas, effective immediately.”

The governor offered a glimpse of her other budget priorities, which will be detailed in a legislative hearing Wednesday. They include a “total freeze” on college tuition.

“This pandemic has created so many strains, so many stressors, and so many challenges, we simply cannot let it derail the careers or the dreams of our young people,” Kelly said.

She called for “historic levels of funding for law enforcement.” That includes a pay raise for highway patrol officers, as well as investments in better equipment and training facilities. Programs to support mental health and children who run afoul of the law would be part of the equation.

Her budget restores funding for the State Water Plan for the first time in 15 years, providing a five-year blueprint to ensure a reliable water supply for Kansas communities and farmers.

She said agriculture remains the backbone of the state and praised farmers for another record year of exports, surpassing $4 billion for the second time.

Farmers such as the Ehmkes provide inspiration, Kelly said.

Louise is a Democrat from California, Vance a Republican from Kansas. The two met as students at Bethany College in Lindsborg. When they took over the family farm in the mid-1970s, they became the fourth generation of Ehmkes to operate it.

“You know, Louise and Vance are still out there each morning with their fellow farmers and ranchers, rain or shine, snow or sleet,” Kelly said. “That toughness, that grit, that sense of pride, so often passed from one generation to the next — that’s what makes Kansas farmers so special.”

Kelly renewed her call for Medicaid expansion, pointed to improvements in the foster care system, touted billions of dollars in economic investments across the state and urged lawmakers to avoid toxic politics.

Kelly lamented the loss of Dole, whom she described as “a passionate voice for Kansas” and an example of the “greatest generation.”

Kelly quoted Dole: “When it’s all over, it’s not about who you were, it’s about whether you made a difference.”

“These are words we should all keep close to our hearts,” she said.

Kelly recalled spending a day with O’Neil about 20 years ago at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, calling it “one of the great joys of my life.” O’Neil, an iconic player for the Kansas City Monarchs, died 15 years ago.

She described him as an eternal optimist who was known for saying: “Hold hands with the person next to you. That way, they can’t get away. And neither can you.”

“So,” the governor said, “let us all hold hands these next few months and not let go until we finally get things done.”

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