By LESLIE EIKLEBERRY
How does the state build a stronger economy, stem the tide of younger people leaving the state, and generally improve the quality of life for Kansans?
Kansas Governor Laura Kelly believes it is through a strong economic development program, transportation improvements, and Medicaid expansion.
"We need very much to ensure that there are good jobs here, all across the State of Kansas, so that our youth can make their lives here and not feel that they need to move someplace else," Kelly said during an interview with Salina Post earlier this week.
"Even before the pandemic, when I first came into office, it was clear that we had to rebuild our Department of Commerce. It had been absolutely descimated the previous eight years," she said.
According to Kelly, the department had been gutted so that some of its funding could be used other places to fill holes in the budget created by former Governor Sam Brownback's tax experiment.
"We reversed that and we have reinvested heavily in our Department of Commerce," Kelly said. "We've re-established our international division and our domestic division. We've brought back the Main Street program, which is incredibly important to our rural communities, and we actually created an Office of Rural Prosperity to allow us to focus and partner with our smaller communities in ways to help them grow."
As of Tuesday, the Kelly Administration has secured more than $5.7 billion in new capital investment and created more than 25,000 jobs statewide, according to information from the governor's office.
"All during the pandemic, while we were dealing with the health issue, we were also busy recruiting companies large and small or helping companies here in the state, like Schwan's, to expand," Kelly said.
In August, Schwan's Company announced a 400,000-square-foot expansion of its pizza manufacturing facility at the Salina Airport Industrial Center, bringing with it 225 new full-time jobs by 2023. Kelly was among the dignitaries who spoke during the announcement event.
Additionally, Kelly noted the importance of digital connectivity.
"We set up the Office of Broadband Development because there's no way to recruit and retain good businesses or smart young people if we don't have a robust broadband internet accessibility," she said.
Transportation and closing the 'Bank of KDOT'
Kelly said her administration is changing the way the state deals with transportation issues, including selecting projects on a two-year cycle.
"We no longer decide on 10-years-worth of projects. We're going on a two-year cycle right now. We'll use a very robust process to determine what projects will be put in the pipeline first," she said.
Kelly noted that the previous 10-year comprehensive transportation program was not properly funded so that some of its funding could be swept back into the general fund to plug budget holes in other areas.
"So we've been able to balance our budget without sweeping all of those funds, in fact, in next year's budget, we will officially close what we call 'the Bank of KDOT,'" Kelly said. "We will ensure that all the funding that is supposed to be dedicated to transportation will be dedicated to transportation beginning next year."
Additionally, Julie Lorenz, Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) secretary, and other officials have conducted listening sessions all over the state, working with local business and economic development representatives to help determine what the state's transportation needs are. Transportation project proposals were then submitted and a process used to rank the projects.
"Some of the priority was to get to projects that had been promised a long time ago but had not been fulfilled in the previous transportation program, so a lot of those are now being worked on. But then others were put there and it was all based on metrics data (used to determine need and impact). I think we've got an excellent process and I think folks all around the state would tell you that, too. And I think what they really appreciate is the fact that we've been creative with the structure of the transportation program," Kelly said.
Additionally, the state now has a cost share program in which local governments, while using some of their own budget funds can apply to the state for grants to help complete their transportation projects. For instance, in late May, the state announced that multiple government entities in our area, including Saline County, the City of Ellsworth, Ellsworth County, Dickinson County, and the City of Miltonvale, were among the local governments receiving funds under the state's 2021 Cost Share Projects initiative.
"That's been very well received and made a huge difference in the number of projects we've been able to break ground on," Kelly said of the cost share program.
"If we had expanded Medicaid when we were originally eligible to do it, which I think was about seven years ago, we would have brought back to Kansas over $5 billion in taxpayer funding. The taxes that Kansans pay to the federal government would have come back into our state for us to use to provide health care for folks, but also to create a number of jobs and just grow our economy," she said.
According to Kelly, the most recent study that was done suggested that Medicaid expansion would result in approximately 13,000 new, good-paying jobs that would bring money into the state and help the state have a much healthier workforce, rather than cost the state additional money.
"So there are all sorts of reasons that we should have done it. There are even more reasons now why we should, including the $400 million or so that the federal government is holding out as a carrot for those states that have not expanded Medicaid. So if we were to do this right now, we would get another probably over $400 million over the next two years from the federal government," Kelly said.
"It's a no-brainer," she added. "Again the legislature just needs to let down their idological guard and put this in place. It's good for all Kansans."
A special place in the governor's heart for Salina
Kelly said that when she was in Salina May 24 to speak at the Salina Rotary meeting, she let the Rotarians know how fond she is of Salina.
"I actually lived in Salina when I first moved to Kansas and I grew to love and appreciate that community. It is very, very special. It has one of the most sophisticated populations I've ever lived around in terms of their interest in the arts and culture and education. They're incredibly creative and engaged," Kelly said. "I just think the world of the community and I will continue as governor to do everything I can to ensure that Salina and that area thrives."