IT LOOKS LIKE cruel, unusual punishment. Laura Kelly has been locked in a windowless conference room in Topeka for a week. Under fluorescent lights she pores over files and debates with colleagues how to balance the state books. Isn’t this prolonged, tedious toil for the governor-elect? “No! I am totally a wonk. I’m having fun going through budget for days on end”, she says, eyes sparkling and evidently pleased.
Ms Kelly is suited to apparently intractable tasks. She prefers scrutinising policy to campaign grandstanding. Few rural voters back Democrats, but in her 14 years as a state senator she put in long hours on the road in Wabaunsee county and won over farmers. In this year’s race she got the backing of several Republican former governors. And though voters sent conservative Republicans to dominate Kansas’s House and Senate, 48% picked her, a Democrat, as governor. Her Republican rival, Kris Kobach, got 43%.
Kansas is typically conservative but also has a tradition of pragmatic centrism. Ms Kelly grasped how to appeal to moderates: by discussing better health care and how to fix economic problems, while saying less about immigration, guns or Donald Trump. She has put moderate Republicans in her transition team (and will probably do so in her cabinet) while celebrating cross-party collaboration of years past.
Kansas Democrats generally rely on urban and suburban types, especially near the Missouri border. Her example suggests that, at least in a year where the president is not on the ballot, they can be more ambitious. She was also lucky in her clever but miscalculating opponent. Mr Kobach, the outgoing secretary of state, is a hard-nosed, far-right ally of Mr Trump who scaremongered over immigration and (non-existent) voter fraud. Pressed on the state’s economic woes, he called for more of the tax and spending cuts proposed by the former governor, Sam Brownback.
Mr Brownback launched a deluded fiscal experiment early this decade. He cut income taxes sharply, let most small businesses avoid tax and prophesied economic nirvana. A catastrophic slump in state revenues followed. Total revenues between 2012 and 2014, when the new measures took full effect, dropped by nearly $760m, a decline of 12% (see chart). That forced schools to close early and left roads unfixed. The Pew Charitable Trusts, a think-tank, notes that average incomes of Kansans grew by just 1.3% annually in the past decade, lagging the national rate of 1.9%.
Some state institutions atrophied. Ms Kelly describes herself as a “front-row witness to the decimation of the state agencies”, illustrating the point by talking of foster care. Under Mr Brownback financial help fell for vulnerable families, pushing more children to be fostered. But a freeze on hiring social workers left the system understaffed, spread neglect and sent many children bouncing between homes. Some have been moved over 100 times or are forced to sleep in offices. Several fled. She says “60 or 70 kids have disappeared”.
Some of the fiscal mess is being cleaned up. Last year the legislature—with a vetoproof two-thirds majority that involved Democrats and moderate Republicans—overturned most of Mr Brownback’s experiment, restoring the old income and business taxes. That has brought a surprisingly bountiful upturn in revenues.
Despite this, problems lurk. A supposedly independent transportation fund was plundered to cover short-term costs. There were plans to raid other funds. The state skimped on paying into public pensions. After years of neglect, the Supreme Court ordered more spending on education, which has meant finding hundreds of millions of dollars from somewhere.
Kansans still pay unusually high levels of sales tax, even on food, and that hurts the poor especially. An obvious step would be to cut those while nudging up income taxes again. But Ms Kelly is cautious, vowing no more tax fiddling for now, aware that voters are fed up with yo-yoing changes. She knows, too, she has to deal with a legislature controlled by her opponents. “A piece of cake”, she says, drily.
Another worry is loss of talent. Kansas draws some Latino workers to meatpacking plants. But it struggles to attract and keep highly educated folk. Burdett Loomis, a political commentator, says state agencies especially saw an “unravelling” as Mr Brownback replaced experienced staff with cronies. That will take time to fix.
Ms Kelly agrees, lamenting that Mr Brownback appointed officials “for ideological reasons, not for talent”. She vows to do the opposite, and will readily recruit from any party. “We are coming out of a world of hurt, we need someone with knowledge” to fix the state, she says.
Correction (January 1st 2019): A previous version of this piece cited the Pew Research Centre as the source of data on average incomes. It was in fact the Pew Charitable Trusts that provided that information. This has been amended.