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Kansas Governor Laura Kelly Tells Lawmakers to Freeze College Tuition and End the Sales Tax on Food

The rotunda of the Kansas State Capitol Building in Topeka, Kansas (Photo by Julie Denesha, Kansas News Service)

TOPEKA, Kansas — Governor Laura Kelly challenged Republicans who control the state Legislature to freeze tuition at the state’s public colleges and to give her a bill that ends the sales tax on groceries by month’s end.

In a State of the State address Tuesday evening to lawmakers filled with boasts laying out talking points for her re-election campaign, the Democrat also called for civility and cooperation with the Republican leaders who’ve stymied much of her agenda the last three years.

She said politics has become too toxic.

“The people in this chamber didn't cause this problem,” she told lawmakers. “Much bigger forces are at play. But the people in this chamber can be part of the solution.”

Kelly laid out a series of spending proposals, which are made possible because the state’s reserves could grow to $3 billion by the end of the budget year.

She promised money to the state’s withering water plan and an end to transfers from the Kansas highway fund that’s been used to help pay for general state operations for years.

The governor also promised more money for law enforcement and raises for members of the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Kelly lauded Kansans for weathering the pandemic and tough economic times even as she touted robust revenues for state government and a surge in employment — news that falls in line with national trends.

”It has been an arduous couple of years for Kansas and the nation,” the governor said. “We’ve lost loved ones, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. … But we also saw, and we continue to see, the very best of Kansas rise up in every corner of our state.”

In the Republican response, House Speaker Ron Rykman took an aggressive tone and criticized Kelly for rejecting earlier attempts to dump the sales tax on groceries.

“The governor says she wants to reduce the sales tax on food,” he said. “But, she vetoed the plan to do just that.”

In fact, the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature have differed on the specifics of a plan.

In 2019, she vetoed a bill that included a 1 percentage point cut to the sales tax on groceries because it came with additional tax cuts. Kelly argued at the time that the state couldn’t afford the lost revenue without dramatic cuts to state services.

On Tuesday, She called on lawmakers to pass a bill saying simply: “We hereby eliminate the state sales tax on food in Kansas, effective immediately.” She vowed to sign it “the moment it hits my desk.”

More details of the governor’s plan should come clear this week when she reveals the specifics of her proposed budget.

On Tuesday, she repeated proposals she’d begun to air in recent weeks and added some more:

  • The elimination of the state sales tax on groceries, which would reduce what Kansans pay at the cash register, but also reduce state tax collections by about $450 million per year. 
  • A one-time income tax rebate of $250 to single filers, $500 for married couples.
  • More state spending on mental health services.
  • She called for Medicaid expansion, a priority since her election and a move Republicans in control of the Legislature are nearly certain to block again this year.
  • An end to transfers from the state highway fund to general state spending.
  • A tuition freeze at state universities. Some school leaders have already discussed asking the Kansas Board of Regents to increase tuition to balance the books on campus.

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Scott Canon is managing editor of the Kansas News Service. Stephen Koranda is the news editor for the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @Stephen_Koranda. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, 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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