Gov. Kathleen Sebelius proposed tax cuts for businesses and promised the state will be more aggressive in promoting energy conservation and wind power as she outlined her legislative agenda Wednesday night.
And, two days after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed mandating health insurance for all of his state’s residents, Sebelius called on legislators to draft a plan this year for eventually bringing universal coverage to Kansas.
Embarking on her second term, Kansas’ Democratic governor offered a broad mix of proposals in her State of the State address that she said would help secure the state’s future. She reiterated commitments to boosting spending on higher education, stimulating economic development and following through on previous commitments to more money for public schools.
Her proposals included ideas that Republican legislators and business and anti-tax groups have promoted, such as reducing the state’s corporate income tax rate. She also proposed cutting the tax employers pay to finance benefits for unemployed workers and reducing taxes for small businesses.
Those initiatives followed another burst of good economic news, that the state collected $60 million more in revenues than anticipated in November and December. Sebelius told a joint session of the Legislature that Kansans are “full of hope and ready to embrace the opportunities before us.”
“What will we do with the chances we’ve been given?” she said in the address prepared for delivery. “Will we act to give Kansans the tools and the freedom to seize their opportunities? Will we embrace the values that have made our state great?”
The governor didn’t provide many details about her proposals, but spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said many of the specifics will be discussed in briefings for legislative leaders and other presentations, starting Thursday.
“We make these commitments to a future many of us will never see or may only glimpse from afar,” Sebelius told legislators.
“We make these commitments because, as leaders, we recognize our duty is to the future, to make it as bright and as boundless as possible for all those who will follow us.”
Republican leaders have listed most of the issues Sebelius addressed as priorities this year, including energy, education spending, health care and job creation. The House GOP unveiled its agenda Monday, and Senate Republicans followed a day later.
“There’s a lot of common ground,” said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. “There are a lot of Republican ideas that we heard yesterday that came out of the governor’s mouth today.”
But universal health coverage doesn’t appear to be part of that common ground, with Republicans saying they’d rather focus on making sure workers can take health insurance with them when they change jobs.
Schmidt said while a call for universal coverage sounds bold, it’s difficult to achieve. Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said, “This isn’t Canada and it isn’t California.”
Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, added: “I’ll be amazed when I see someone run the numbers and it’s not $1 billion or $2 billion or $5 billion to get that done.”
But Sebelius told legislators that the concept enjoys bipartisan political support – Schwarzenegger is a Republican – and widespread support among Kansans.
“We must commit ourselves to the goal that all Kansans will have health insurance, and we must begin now,” she said.
Sebelius said she wants to lower corporate income taxes to make Kansas more competitive with other states. For weeks, she has been advocating lower unemployment taxes, something that’s possible because the state is collecting more money than it needs for jobless benefits.
She also proposed revising the state’s franchise tax, which firms pay for the privilege of doing business in Kansas, to provide relief to 16,000 small businesses.
Sebelius’ proposals were welcomed by the Kansas Chamber, the state’s largest business group, which pledged to work for their passage.
The governor also promised that Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson would lead an effort to find further efficiencies in state government “to give businesses confidence to invest in Kansas.”
She didn’t neglect spending proposals either, promising additional money for state universities to repair crumbling buildings and operating funds so they won’t have to raise tuition as much. She also touted an already announced proposal to create an Office of Rural Opportunity to help stimulate the rural economy.
She said she has asked utilities to undertake consumer education programs with the goal of reducing energy consumption by 5 percent by 2010 and by 10 percent in 2020.
Sebelius also said her goal is to have wind provide 10 percent of the state’s electricity by 2010, doubling that figure by 2020. She said her proposed budget will contain money to allow for planning new transmission lines to deliver wind-generated electricity.
“There’s no reason our state should not lead the nation in wind energy,” she said.
Legislators differed on her proposals. Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, a member of the House Energy and Utilities Committee, questioned whether the governor’s goals are realistic.
But Rep. Joshua Svaty, D-Ellsworth, another utilities committee member, thinks the state can meet the wind-power goal.
“Actually, they’re pretty progressive,” he said of her proposals.
The governor said she is looking to promote alternatives to coal, the dominant fuel used in powering electric generators in Kansas, saying, “It has been economically cheap, but its health and environmental costs are rising.”
“Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state, because we are only here for a short time and we will ultimately pass it on to our children,” she said.
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