Kansas governor seeks tuition freeze, calls state healthier
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Laura Kelly called Tuesday for another freeze in tuition at Kansas colleges in a State of the State address that portrayed the state as booming economically and previewed what are likely to be major themes in her reelection campaign.
The Democratic governor didn’t provide details about her college tuition proposal in the annual address, saying only that it is part of the proposed state budget that her administration will outline Wednesday. Kelly already is pushing to eliminate the state’s sales tax on groceries and give a $250 rebate to every Kansas resident who filed a state income tax return last year.
Her proposals on taxes and college tuition come ahead of a tough reelection race with three-term state Attorney General Derek Schmidt as the presumed Republican nominee. Kelly will need support from moderate GOP and independent voters to win another four-year term in her Republican-leaning state, and she’s been making moves to appeal to them that include opposing federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates from Democratic President Joe Biden.
Kelly suggested that the state’s improved finances and the coronavirus pandemic warranted a tuition freeze at state colleges.
“This pandemic has created so many strains, so many stressors and so many challenges,” Kelly told lawmakers. “We cannot let it derail the careers or the dreams of our young people.”
Republicans saw Kelly’s 49-minute address as a pitch aimed at voters, not lawmakers.
“It was a campaign speech, but I don’t blame her,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. “I mean, if it was my election year, I’d be in campaign mode, too.”
The governor’s tuition proposal follows years of concerns about rising college costs — and efforts by both legislators and the state Board of Regents to contain them. The board, which oversees the state’s higher education system, last year froze fall tuition at the state’s six universities, except for Kansas State University. At some universities, tuition has been frozen three years.
Yet costs for students and their families are much higher than they were 15 years ago and now approach $5,600 a semester in tuition and academic fees at the University of Kansas for a full-time Kansas undergraduate — almost 82% more. At Kansas State, the same costs for a similar student have grown 80% and now top $5,200 a semester.
“In a sense, calling for tuition to remain flat isn’t anything new because the regents have been leading on that,” Schmidt said, adding that he hopes Kelly is seeking more funding for higher education and used a “sort of politically correct way” to signal it.
Much of Kelly’s address to a joint session of the GOP-controlled Legislature focused on the state’s financial recovery, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Kansas previously endured persistent budget shortfalls following a nationally notorious GOP experiment in cutting income taxes from 2012 into 2017.
With no tax cuts or huge surge in state spending this year, Kansas would be on track to end June 2023 with roughly $3.9 billion in cash reserves.
“Kansans want their government to focus on the day-to-day needs that most of us can agree on and not on the ideological issues or the culture wars that divide us,” Kelly said.
Schmidt and other Republicans argue that the good times are being fueled mostly by the billions of dollars in pandemic relief funds sent to the states by the federal government. Schmidt on Sunday proposed dedicating $1 billion to shoring up the state pension system for teachers and government workers — an idea top Republican lawmakers have endorsed.
Meanwhile, Kelly tried to project a bipartisan image, invoking the late Kansas political icon Bob Dole, a former U.S. Senate majority leader and the 1996 Republican presidential nominee who died last month at the age of 98. Her speech also included a passing, positive reference to former President Donald Trump.
“We can put allegiance to Kansans ahead of allegiance to political party,” Kelly said. “We can be as good and as decent as the people who sent us here.”
But Schmidt said Kelly “talked a lot about baseball and apple pie” and other Republicans worried that the governor is promoting greater government spending that will erase the states cash reserves quickly.
“This is, ‘Let’s throw out all the red meat we can; hopefully it will stick out there, and people will love me,’” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.
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