(Long before distress and malice became a Republican manifesto, Kansas had a most viable and vibrant government, led by people who helped the state to ascend, to ensure that citizens had better lives. This is the second of several articles about that system, and those who made it work. ‒ JM)
On Jan. 10, 1967, one day after the inauguration of Kansas Gov. Robert Docking, the Legislature prepared to confront a daunting list of challenges: implementation of three constitutional amendments, prison improvements, demands for more state office space, increased school aid and highway user taxes, help for the poor and the elderly, a legislative pay increase, fair housing regulations and a record $600 millionplus budget.
All of this and more, the governor insisted, could be enacted and financed without a tax increase. Indeed, Docking ‒ a Democrat ‒ would ask the Republican-dominated Legislature for specific tax cuts. He could do this, and the legislature would accede, because we had accepted an invitation of inflation, an offer to bring citizens a fairer share from government, and to make promises we could neither deliver nor repudiate. The federal government would become a spigot for the unchecked flow of hundreds of billions of dollars for thousands of entitlements and programs, agencies and activities far beyond the capability of any Congress or president to control. And we loved it.
Kansas became a willing partner, a beneficiary of federal aid to farmers, to the aircraft industry, to highways, airports, education, hospitals, the arts, the poor, the sick, the elderly.
We requested and accepted our share of this ever-rising, irreversible escalation. Our economies grew, more money circulated; tax rates could stabilize while sales and incomes jumped, pumping more and more in tax collections into a state treasury surplus.
By the summer of 1972, the federal government had paid $3 billion to farmers for withholding 60 million acres of grainland from production. The Soviet Union would make up for an historic crop failure by purchasing 19 million tons of American grain ‒ known later as the “Russian wheat deal.”
Wheat prices, land values and farm income and net worth would double and triple. The Russians gave farmers cash, and inflation provided an unchecked ability to borrow. Life in Kansas was good.
Another major marker involved oil and, at the time, our assumption of unlimited abundance. America was buying eight million uninterrupted barrels of oil a day from overseas.
When the Arabs discovered we were vulnerable, they closed the noose in 1974. Kansas had been the nation’s eighth largest oil producer and sixth in natural gas; no part of life escaped the squeeze on fuel supplies or the soaring cost of what was available. Oil at $3.41 per barrel in 1973 more than tripled a year later to $11.11 (and $20 in 1979). Oil was big in Kansas; so was the cost of living.
Government grew as well, and mostly for the better. Total state spending during Docking’s tenure more than doubled, from $638 million in fiscal 1967 to $1.39 billion for fiscal 1975, an average annual increase of 12 percent. Inflation and federal spending were at work in Kansas. For more than 20 years since 1967, federal dollars comprised 22 to 25 percent of total state spending ‒ and although the amounts have multiplied nearly ten-fold, the proportion of federal dollars in the state budget still is roughly the same.
In 1967, the Kansas budget contained $139.5 million in federal funds. In fiscal 1974, the first year spending topped $1 billion, federal funding was $273.7 million. In fiscal ‘79, of $2 billion, $482.6 million came from Washington. And so forth. (Today, roughly a fourth of the state’s $16 billion in total spending is from Washington.)
This is because each year, in spite of our proclamations of fierce independence, our rugged individualism, we are like Nebraskans and Oklahomans, Californians and Minnesotans, and people in every other state, wanting and needing and asking for money from Washington. We had done this in the name of better schools and highways, help for the poor, the elderly, the sick. Airports and railroads, endowments for the arts, aid for communities stricken by disaster, help for farmers and hundreds of other groups and causes among the beneficiaries of federal aid. Complaints about taxes fell hollow against the countless benefits that Congress had approved.
The Docking era ushered in a new kind of state and federal cooperation, a mingling of mutual aid and purpose, a realization that a strong nation was dependent upon strong states that, in turn, needed strong cities and counties. The system worked only when cultivated and led by people who understood the politics of compromise and the practicality of cooperation ‒ progress all around.
Kansas governors and legislatures, beginning with Robert Docking, once understood this premise and made it work. In the decades leading to the last millennium, government enabled cities and counties to become livelier and more robust, and with each generation, citizens expected their lives to improve.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL
(Next: The Bennett years)