Kansans an­tic­i­pate change with Kelly gov­er­nor­ship

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY H. ED­WARD FLENTJE

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 past eight years. In do­ing so, will she be able to keep spend­ing in line with tax rev­enue, 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 past 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.

H. Ed­ward Flentje is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Wi­chita State Uni­ver­sity and served with Kansas Gov­er­nors Ben­nett and Hay­den.

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