Gov. Laura Kelly spoke with the Informer on May 25 for a 15-minute interview over the phone. Topics discussed included transportation and walkability, wages, economic development and more.
The Informer’s questions and Kelly’s responses have been transcribed below in full.
Q: Derby has recently addressed potential plans to bring e-scooters into the city. Does your administration have any plans in the future to further address or regulate micromobility options like e-scooters and bike rental services?
A: No, we have not had any conversations like that. My guess is that if there would be any regulation at all that it would emanate from your city councils, [and] your county commissions.
Q: What is your perspective on these types of micromobility options? Do you think these are adequate ways to address transportation and mobility?
A: Well, I think there are segments of the population for whom this might address transportation issues, but I think there are a whole lot of others that it really doesn’t. My guess is as we go forward, that communities will be looking for a myriad of transportation options to meet the needs of their total population.
Q: What could the state do to better support transportation and walkability infrastructure in cities like Derby? What can cities do to help themselves?
A: We just passed the fourth comprehensive transportation plan last year, the IKE program. While it’s the fourth comprehensive plan, it’s very different than the three previous ones. One: we’re looking at bringing projects online every two years instead of going that entire 10 years before we let any new projects into the pipeline.
I think that really allows us to address needs more relatively and quickly than did the 10-year process. The other part that it includes is a cost-share program, which really allows us to leverage a whole lot more dollars to put towards transportation. And we’re defining transportation differently than, I think, it’s traditionally been thought of. In that it’s not just roads and bridges, but it’s also broadband, it’s also trails, sidewalks – the kinds of things that allow for mobility beyond just cars and trucks.
Q: Do you think the state should continue the STAR bond program beyond its current sunset date to support economic development and tourism in Derby and elsewhere in the state? Why or why not?
A: We just signed into law a number of economic development incentive modifications that, again, have really modernized our incentive programs that will allow us to target and attract industry that’s relevant to Kansas. We are the center of the United States. We are an ideal transportation hub for distribution and whatnot, and we’ve seen that.
You’ve got the Amazon facility right there in Park City not far from you. We were able to attract Urban Outfitters to the Kansas City area. A huge Walmart distribution center will open soon right here in Topeka. So we’ve redesigned the incentives to capitalize on Kansas’ real strengths, and it’s making a difference.
STAR bonds were included in that bill, so there have been some modifications to the STAR bonds program and an extension of that program. Have there been some hiccups along the way? Absolutely. Are there some things that were done that probably shouldn’t have been done? Yes. But with the amendments made to the STAR bonds program in the legislation I just signed, we addressed those issues. So the good parts of the STAR bonds program will survive into the future.
Q: Across the country we’ve seen a rise in mental health crises due to the pandemic. What is the state doing to provide in-patient services to south central Kansas specifically? Are there any plans to expand mental health services beyond just Osawatomie?
A: I think it wasn’t long ago that I toured the children’s psychiatric center that opened in Wichita recently. That’s the kind of thing that we are trying to do regionally across the state, is provide more in-patient psychiatric beds closer to home, closer to work, closer to school, so that folks who need in-patient treatment can get it close to home so that discharge is more likely to be successful.
I think in the budget this year there was some money put aside for regionalization of mental health services. We do have in-patient services available in Osawatomie and also Larned – really our two state psychiatric facilities. We are looking to bring more beds online, particularly in the Osawatomie hospital. We’re actually a little off target in terms of the timeframe for that, and that was due completely to the pandemic and the need to space patients out.
But now that we’re looking towards coming out of the pandemic, that project will get back online, and we should be able to have more beds there. But our focus, really, as we go forward is not to increase significantly our in-patient beds in Larned and Osawatomie but rather access to in-patient beds on a more regional, community-based level.
Q: There’s recently been a push in the legislature to end extra unemployment benefits that the federal government has provided throughout the pandemic. What considerations went into your administration’s decision to continue with additional unemployment benefits from the federal government for now?
A: Well, we have not terminated them yet. We’re in ongoing discussions with our business community, our chamber of commerce, and some other business leaders to really look at what we need to do to address the workforce shortage. Because this workforce shortage is nothing new. I mean, it’s taken a different look with the pandemic and the unemployment incentives, but this is a longstanding problem in Kansas and one that we’ve actually been working on since the day we took office.
We’ve been working very closely. We created the council on education, and from that, we focused heavily on workforce training programs, partnering with our community colleges, our tech schools, and our businesses to ensure that we’ve got the training necessary and that we’re reaching down into our high schools, and maybe even earlier, to attract kids into those high-need careers.
The other issue that we know is particularly poignant – it was before and has been exacerbated by the pandemic – is access to affordable child care. The conversations that we are having with our business community are centering around a lot of the issues that are impacting the workforce right now. And we will include with that the conversation about the continuation of the unemployment incentives from the federal government.
Q: In this discussion, something that gets brought up is wages and that perhaps the reason there is a “worker shortage” is because people are able to get more through unemployment than current wages. Do you think the minimum wage in Kansas should be raised and, if so, by how much?
A: Wages will certainly be a part of the conversation that we have, along with child care and workforce development. Wages will be one of those things that will be discussed because quite honestly there’s no way around it at this point.
I mentioned the Walmart distribution center that’s opening up here in Topeka soon. They have not set their minimum wage there – their lowest wage for folks working the floors – but the HR person working there told me it will be no less than $15.50 an hour. Along with that, they will include full benefits, and a dollar-a-day program that will allow employees to go to college. If they pay a dollar a day, Walmart’s going to pick up the rest of the tuition.
With that kind of competition, it’s absolutely essential that our other industries discuss their starting wages. It’s the way the free market works.