After a whirlwind transition, Gov.-elect Laura Kelly will be sworn in as the 48th governor of Kansas on Monday, and Kansans will have their first glimpse of how she grasps the key levers of governance.
Having assisted former Gov. Mike Hayden in his transition of 1986-87, I experienced first-hand how high political expectations and rigid time constraints confront a new administration.
Governors rise and fall on the quality of appointments they make to top positions, and Kelly has set a high bar for herself. She has stated her administration will be “diverse, dynamic, and highly skilled. People who know what they’re doing. Highly-skilled people will be our No. 1 choice. We need really top-notch managers.”
Remember that former Gov. Sam Brownback started off his administration with a cast of partisans and ideologues, many with limited competence. A budget director associated with Americans for Prosperity could not keep his numbers straight. A securities commissioner purged nonpartisan staffers and used his office as a political campaign. A social welfare agency head vowed to transform social services with religious fervor and lasted less than a year.
The short transition will challenge Kelly to assemble an administrative team that is not only skilled but also rises to her ideal of a bipartisan path forward.
Kelly brings a wealth of experience to the budget process, having served on the Senate Ways and Means Committee for 14 legislative sessions, most of those as the ranking minority member. She has reviewed the budgets proposed by four governors, two Democrats and two Republicans, but has never had to put together her own budget from scratch.
The new governor will want to address her top priorities, education and Medicaid expansion, but also begin to repair other state services that have been allowed to deteriorate over the last eight years. In doing so, will she be able to keep spending in line with tax revenues, not only for year one, but also for years two, three, and four?
Be assured that Republicans will be gaming Kelly on taxes. Their siren call will likely begin with “return the windfall.” Of course, estimating any “windfall” resulting from national tax reform of 2017 is guesswork at best, and to whom any windfall should be returned is completely unknown. Kelly should not hesitate to remind these gamers of her newly acquired veto pen and of her top priority for tax reform—phasing out the sales tax on food.
Kelly may be less well acquainted with borrowing, the third leg of state finance, and will be besieged by debt wizards and highway lobbyists who see more debt as the answer to any budget squeeze. Self-described “conservative” Republicans compiled an appalling record on borrowing over the last eight years, repeatedly pushing current obligations onto future generations and issuing historic levels of tax-supported debt dramatically out of line with surrounding states. They swept the proceeds of long-term highway debt to pay for a disastrous tax experiment instead of highway improvements. The governor should proceed with caution here.
Every new governor is easily diverted by the many dozens of meritorious and conflicting claims for state action of one kind or another. Kelly’s disciplined campaign demonstrated her ability to keep a focus on key issues, while attracting a broad political coalition. Maintaining that discipline will constantly test her governorship.
Kansans see their governor as the face of state government and should expect Kelly to chart new direction for the state. She is also challenged to depart from discredited practices in governance of the last eight years.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and served with former Kansas Governors Bennett and Hayden.