One can only image the strain on Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly right now.
When voters elected her in 2018, she was widely seen as the cleanup crew for Gov. Sam Brownback. Kelly, as her campaign presented her, was a nonideological technocrat dedicated to getting things done through compromise.
For a while, Kelly indeed performed that function. And then COVID-19 hit. In an instant, her job transformed from repairing damage to managing an ongoing pandemic that has walloped the health and pocketbook of Kansans. If it caused whiplash for many of us living in the state, one can only imagine how it looks from the corner office in the Capitol.
From that perspective, one can sympathize with Kelly’s veto of a bill meant to enhance educational opportunities for children in the foster care system. The proposal would track the academic progress of foster kids and establish a scholarship program to support technical education or an associate’s degree program.
Kelly’s reason? Kansas faces a COVID-19-created budget gap and we can’t afford new spending.
On one hand, we can see the point. Prioritizing expenditures in the months to come will be difficult. On the other hand, repairing the state’s foster care system was one of Kelly’s foremost priorities on the campaign trail and in the first stage of her governorship. The bill also wasn’t remotely controversial, with a 110-3 vote in favor in the House and a 36-3 vote in the Senate.
Making sure that foster kids kid a solid start in life surely is worth the investment. Not spending the money, and not tracking their education, may well end up costing the state more. We know that those with education after high school earn more than their peers — and pay more in taxes.
There’s a larger question in play here, too.
We know that state revenues will be depleted by the pandemic. But Gov. Kelly and those around her will face a stark choice. Do they follow the example of Gov. Brownback and slash spending while looking for short-term patches? Or do they examine state spending thoughtfully and with long-term goals in mind?
Do they continue to spend where the state needs to spend, trim where possible, and talk to legislators about ways to boost revenue that fall on those most able to pay?
The answers to these questions won’t be easy or necessarily politically popular. But the state’s budget can’t be balanced on the backs of foster kids.