Governor readys for 2008 session with new agenda
Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Friday said she supports increasing the cigarette tax, wants to start a comprehensive discussion on energy and is alarmed by the harsh tone of the debate on illegal immigration.
Sebelius' comments were made during an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World as she prepared for the Jan. 14 startup of the 2008 legislative session.
In her second term, Sebelius, a Democrat, has become accustomed to working with a Republican-dominated Legislature. But recent events may make that job more difficult.
In October, her administration rejected permits for two coal-fired electric power plants in western Kansas, citing concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.
The decision angered GOP legislative leaders from the region, who have vowed to try to reverse the action.
"I think it adds an additional dynamic. No question about it," Sebelius said.
But the governor said she will try to start "a comprehensive conversation about climate change strategies."
With looming federal taxes or regulations on carbon dioxide emissions expected, Kansas needs to focus more on renewable energy, conservation and efficiency standards, she said.
"We have an incredible asset in wind that many states don't have," Sebelius said.
On health care reform, Sebelius embraced recommendations of the Kansas Health Policy Authority, which included a 50-cent per pack increase in the state cigarette tax and a statewide ban on smoking in indoor public areas.
The increase in the cigarette tax would help pay for health care costs, much of which are caused by cigarette smoking, she said.
And she said making cigarettes more expensive will cut down on the number of teenagers who take up the habit.
"All the ads in the world don't have nearly the impact as raising the cigarette tax," she said.
She also urged the Legislature to consider all the health care recommendations as a package. The proposal also includes increased funding to provide insurance for low-income Kansans, promotion of healthy foods and physical activity in school, and aggressive enrollment of eligible children in Medicaid.
"Kind of cherry-picking and choosing one strategy versus another is not nearly as effective as moving the package forward," she said.
Some legislators have vowed to push legislation aimed at reducing the number of illegal immigrants in Kansas, including repeal of a law that allows some children of illegal immigrants to attend a state higher education institution at the lower in-state tuition rate. Sebelius signed that bill into law in 2004.
But Sebelius said she was troubled by the divisiveness of the debate about immigration, and she blamed the federal government for failing to provide reform.
"The wall is not realistic," she said referring to plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. "Mexico is our No.1 trading partner. We can't wall in or out this country."
She said many illegal immigrant families have been here for generations and represent an important part of the work force.
Some Kansas businesses are in desperate need of workers, Sebelius said.
"If you were to strip a lot of workers out of the work force here, we'd be in real trouble," she said.
Another incident that will heighten the political tension of the upcoming session is the scandal surrounding state Attorney General Paul Morrison.
On Friday, Dec. 14, Morrison, a Democrat, announced he would resign from office after admitting to having a two-year extramarital affair with a woman who was a subordinate when he was Johnson County District Attorney. Morrison, however, has denied allegations made by Linda Carter that he sexually harassed her and tried to get information from her about an investigation by current Johnson County District Attorney Phill Kline. Morrison faces several investigations.
Sebelius said she hopes to have a replacement picked by Morrison's resignation date of Jan. 31.
But, she added: "I don't want to play beat the clock. It really is finding the right person and making sure that they're ready to lead this important agency."