On Windy Hill: Pondering promises broken and kept – Osage County Online | Osage County News

On Windy Hill: Pondering promises broken and kept

Fulfilling old promises, a new Highway 31 is under construction adjacent to the old highway between Osage City and U.S. Highway 75. File photo.

Sitting at my desk, looking out over the windy hill on a warm fall day, the phone rang.

“Osage County News, this is Wayne.”

“Hello Wayne, this is Laura Kelly.”

Not every day does the Kansas governor call me, though it wasn’t exactly a surprise. The previous week, I had received an invitation to talk the governor for 15 minutes. Though a little puzzled about why Gov. Kelly would want to talk to me, I gladly accepted the invitation and considered it an honor. I had a few days to prepare, but I was still nervous about talking to possibly the most important person in Kansas.

Was there anything specific you wished to talk about? I asked.

Gov. Kelly listed some topics she could cover: Kansas’ agriculture industry, economic development progress, transportation, COVID-19, leaving it up to me which to talk about in 15 minutes. After first wasting minutes talking about the weather – a warm, windy fall day the governor said she was unable to go outside to see – I asked about her outreach to media, such as this interview with me. She explained she wants to communicate with Kansans as much as possible, and conversing with local media is one way to connect to people such as those who live in Osage County.

“Folks like you reach the eyes and ears of Kansans, and I appreciate your willingness to talk to me,” the governor said (to me!)

As a topic on the minds of many Osage County drivers, I steered our conversation to transportation and the currently under-construction state Highway 31. Osage County citizens have waited dozens of years for K-31 improvements, having been promised a new seven-mile stretch to Osage City several times in the last 15 years or so, only to have the road pulled out from under us due to sketchy politics.

Just last year, our area’s state Representative Blaine Finch assured me the highway was going to be built, and I told him I’d believe it when I saw the bulldozers. Now, the bulldozers have arrived and a complete new highway is well under construction. I finally believe it!

“Thank you, governor, for any part you had in finally getting this highway built,” I told her. She explained how the project finally came about, saying she knew about the broken promises made to Osage County and other parts of the state over the past years.

“I actually have been very well aware of the K-31 project,” the governor said, “because of Sen. Anthony Hensley.”

She explained that when she served on the senate ways and means committee, “[Sen. Hensley] used to advocate for this construction. He used to come in and lobby on your behalf.”

She agreed with me when I shared my opinion that Sen. Hensley had been a dedicated public servant for the people of Osage County during his years in office.

She noted the K-31 project had been formerly proposed as part of a 10-year state highway plan, T-Works, which had been established under a previous governor.

“So much of T-Works did not get done due to the terrible tax experiment” implemented by the former administration, she said.

“It took money to fill the holes created by that tax experiment,” she said, explaining that it had for years been the state’s practice to tap transportation funds from the “KDOT bank” to cover expenses for other state functions.

“When I came into office, I immediately went to work to close that KDOT bank, and I will close the bank of KDOT when I do my budget this year,” she said, but not before promises are kept.

“In the meantime, we are able to put money in there to fund the IKE project, which puts projects into the pipeline.” She said the new IKE program includes projects to be scheduled every two years, guided by local consult meetings, and funding the program for 10 years will “ensure all of the promises that were made under T-Works are kept.”

“K-31 is to be finished by the end of next year,” the governor said. “We’re just trying to keep promises that were made. I won’t make any promises I don’t plan to keep.”

I told her thank you again, and said that all of the transportation businesses, commuters, and anyone who drives on that highway will be thankful for the promise finally kept.

“Good roads and good bridges are really essential for economic health of our communities,” she said.

Turning the conversation to the health of Kansas, I asked Gov. Kelly if we could expect life ever to get back to normal – healthcare workers are under extreme pressure, businesses are stressed, the food supply, restaurants, grocery stores, agriculture and production, had been hit hard by the pandemic. The day before we talked, the governor had ordered flags at half staff across Kansas to observe the 6,000th COVID-19 death in the state.

“Well, my crystal ball is cloudy,” the governor said. “I suspect we will get back to normal, but it will be a ways down the road.”

“One way everyone can help, and get businesses operating as normal, keep kids in classroom, and give our health care people a break – get vaccinated,” she said. “That will be the only thing that will help us get back to normal, that and get their booster shot when it comes available. Get vaccinated.”

Despite the pandemic, Gov. Kelly said the state’s economic progress has continued, both in agriculture and in business.

“We have not taken our eye off that ball,” she said, even during a pandemic. “We are going out and recruiting businesses for the state of Kansas.”

She noted that in 2020, Kansas had set a record for economic investment, and recently was recognized for its economic opportunities by national trade magazines, including Site’s recognition for top business climate in our region, and Area Development’s Gold Shovel Award for 2021, recognizing it in the 20 top states for doing business in U.S.

“Our economy is actually very strong and growing,” she said.

She said during her time as governor, the state has also focused on the agriculture economy. She described as “one of the most important things I have done as governor,” was to support President Trump’s trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

“We needed to get our trade relations with Canada and Mexico straightened out,” she said. “Our farmers rely on our exports.”

In 2019, as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was being ironed out in Congress, Kelly urged Kansas’ congressional delegation to support the agreement for Kansas farmers, noting many were recovering from a year of natural disasters at the time.

The governor also talked about steps that were taken to help farmers, ranchers, and processors as Kansas’ food supply chain was affected by the pandemic.

Facing possible shutdowns at the state’s major meat processing facilities, the federal CDC was consulted “to help meat packers operate safely and not be shut down,” the governor said. “They had to slow production down, but never had to shut down.”

She said grants were directed to smaller rural meat packing plants, so they could increase their capacity and help locally with the meat processing slow down. Resources were also directed to rural grocers, helping some to restructure their business model for pickup and delivery.

I asked if employment situations were improving across the state, knowing some of our local “help wanted” customers have recently reported they have been successful in recruiting applicants once again.

The governor said Kansas still is suffering from worker shortages, some of which date back to long before the pandemic hit.

“I do think we are seeing more people back in the work force,” she said, pointing to having schools open as one driver of employment.

The pandemic created a “seismic shift” in the direction of some people’s employment status, she said, “I do believe a there is a whole host of things going on. Some people have taken early retirement, or if laid off, or whatever, a lot of people decided they wanted to do something else in their lives. Some are looking at investing in skill training instead of going to back to the job they had.”

She noted the state’s employment and economic health is directly connected to our physical health and the pandemic: “The one way to get back to normalcy is for everyone to get vaccinated.”

As the governor told me she had time for one more question, I realized our 15 minutes had gone quickly. I told her I really appreciated the opportunity to speak to a governor that I had voted for, and said I would be happy to talk to her any time, especially since she now had my telephone number.

Reflecting back, I wish I had taken time to tell her I supported her actions last year at the start of the pandemic when she was trying to keep us safe with statewide emergency measures. As she was guided by science and state and federal health departments, our state Legislature took away her emergency powers for the sake of “local control,” and instead put all of our lives in the hands of county commissioners. Perhaps we should ponder those politicians’ promises someday.

After the call, self assessing my somewhat rusty interview skills, I thought I had probably committed the interviewer’s worst fault – talking too much. I also realized I had more to talk to the governor about than I thought I would. But, after all, she did call me up here on windy hill.

On Windy Hill, Wayne White sometimes writes about things he thinks about. He not only lives on a windy hill, he’s been known to be a windy writer.

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