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Rural Kansas gets spotlight in State of the State address

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly highlighted rural concerns in her Jan. 10 speech.

Jennifer M. Latzke

January 16, 2024

6 Min Read
Topeka Kansas State Capitol Building
STATE OF THE STATE: Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly gave the annual State of the State address Jan. 10. Brook Morris/Getty Images

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said the state is in a position to dream big and focus on preserving rural Kansas communities and helping them advance into the future.

Kelly gave her annual State of the State address Jan. 10 to the Kansas State Legislature. In her prepared remarks, she said that for a second year, Kansas has attracted more business investment per capita than any other state. And the state has passed $1 billion of tax cuts for families, veterans, homeowners, farmers and ranchers.

“By listening to Kansans, by prioritizing fiscal responsibility and steady governance, we’ve built a solid foundation for our state,” she said in her remarks. “Now we’re positioned to look ahead to the future.”

That future, she said, lies in the 1 million Kansans, a third of the state’s population, who live in communities with fewer than 40 people per square mile.

“That’s not to say our more urban centers aren’t important — of course they are,” she said in her remarks. “But in so many ways, they depend upon our rural areas. They depend upon the crops grown in western Kansas, the energy produced in central Kansas, tourism on hunting grounds in southeast Kansas. When rural Kansans are doing well, all Kansans do well.”

She laid out five challenges facing rural communities and challenged legislators to work with her cabinet to address those in the coming year:

1. Health care. Kelly spoke about the danger of rural hospitals shutting their doors, citing the recent closure of Herington Hospital in October, and the ripple effect that has on communities. She said that 59 of 102 rural hospitals are in jeopardy of closing, leading to increased costs to patients, health care worker layoffs and even the stoppage of services.

She brought up Medicaid expansion and the bill she proposed in December, the Cutting Health Care Costs for All Kansans Act.

“For those of you worried that Medicaid expansion will allow ‘able-bodied adults’ to scam the system — the bill includes a work requirement with common-sense exemptions for veterans, caregivers, students and people with medical conditions,” she said. “For those concerned that county jails have been shouldering the cost for medical care for inmates, this ensures that they can instead put that money toward public safety. And, for those concerned about cost, it’s revenue-neutral. It comes at no additional cost to taxpayers.”

Kelly challenged lawmakers to give the bill a hearing by Kansas Day on Jan. 29.

2. Rural public schools. Kelly spoke about her pledge to fix the state’s public school system. According to her prepared remarks, 90% of Kansas kids attend public schools, and in rural areas, that number is closer to 100%. She addressed the recent push from some in the Legislature to create a voucher system for education.

“I will continue to reject vouchers and any attempt to send public education dollars to private schools,” she said. “Vouchers will crush our rural schools, plain and simple.”

She gave the example of USD 225 Fowler, which according to the governor, if she had not line-item-vetoed the school funding bill last year, the district’s budget would have been cut by 25% and would likely have closed.

Kelly said her proposed budget would fully fund Kansas schools and put the state on track to fully fund special education.

3. Early childhood. The governor also discussed the state’s child care shortage, which hits rural areas the hardest in the state.

“We’ve begun to chip away at the need,” Kelly said. “Between May of 2022 and August of 2023, we’ve added more than 6,800 child care slots across the state.” Tax credits have also helped businesses provide child care for their employees.

Kelly’s task force last year was charged with streamlining the regulatory hurdles to child care providers and families seeking care. She proposes a bill to create the Office of Early Childhood, which would be a single agency to help providers, families and businesses.

4. Taxes. The governor said it’s time to cut taxes in a “fiscally responsible and targeted way” and declared that the proposed flat tax would “do little to nothing for working, middle-class Kansans.” On Jan. 8, the governor introduced a bipartisan plan to eliminate the grocery tax on food in 2024, and not in 2025.

Kelly said the plan would also eliminate state taxes on Social Security. And it would raise the residential statewide property tax exemption from $42,000 to $100,000. “For 370,000 Kansas families, it would wipe out all or almost all of their state property tax bill,” she said.

The proposal would also create a back-to-school sales tax holiday, increase the standard deduction for state taxes, and help parents pay for child care, the governor said.

5. Water. Water quality and quantity is an issue that has short- and long-term consequences if the state doesn’t get it right, Kelly said. An existential issue for rural Kansas is an existential issue for the entire state, she added.

The state has fully funded the State Water Plan for two years now, and it has invested an historic $35 million in each of the next five years to deal with water, she said.

Her proposed budget will also fully fund the water plan and include more funding for rural towns to update their water systems, provide resources for the K-State Kansas Water Institute, and provide resources to help farmers and ranchers implement water-saving practices.

Kelly finished by saying that parts of rural Kansas are now growing eight times faster than the national average, and the state has a duty to step up for rural Kansas.

“Step up. This must be a priority. When rural Kansas is strong, then Kansas is strong,” she said. “Rural Kansas is not only the economic engine of our state, it’s our heart, our core.”

Read the governor’s full remarks here: 2024-State-of-the-State-English.pdf. Or you can watch the governor’s address from Smoky Hills PBS on YouTube here: 2024 Kansas State of the State Address.

Hawkins delivers Republican response

Dan Hawkins, speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, delivered the Republican response to Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s State of the State address online Jan. 10.

Hawkins took issue with Kelly’s proposal to expand Medicaid and creating a new state agency to handle child care regulations.

“She wants billions and new state and federal spending to increase welfare for able-bodied working-age people in the form of Medicaid expansion,” Hawkins said. “She proposed creating a big new state agency to put government smack dab in the middle of child care, after vetoing a reform bill just last year that would have cut government red tape and given parents more child care options.”

Hawkins said Republicans favor higher medical reimbursement rates, support for community mental health centers, and eliminating the waiting lists for the intellectually and developmentally disabled who are waiting for care. They propose doing so through charitable health care clinics, rather than through expanding Medicare.

Hawkins also said that Republicans will be “vigilant in combating the danger posed by Communist China, cracking down on their espionage conducted by drones in Kansas, and safeguarding our farmland from foreign Communist ownership.”

You can watch Hawkins’ full remarks here: youtube.com/watch?v=LG7j-wUJAl8&t=2s.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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