We now live in a split state, a confederacy of rural and urban interests, of busy cities and their reliant suburbs, and vast, rural tablelands sprinkled with dependant farm towns. Those who represented their constituencies in the state legislature once believed that mutual interests trumped their varied concerns; without a prosperous agricultural economy, the production of food, fuel and fiber for global markets, the cities would struggle; vice-versa for urban commerce and industry. They shared an interest in building great roads, in supporting fine schools, in superb health care, and in nearly every aspect of improving life, of helping communities to ascend.
How things have changed! For generations, Kansas had cast a peculiar fascination over citizens yielding to her spell, a kind of allegiance or yearning, a belief that no genuine Kansan ever could emigrate. They could go away, but they could never leave, not in their hearts. But over time, corporations have become farmers and ranchers, technology has enlivened cities, insulated suburbs, chilled their inhabitants. Business and its attendant politics were realigned. Homage and fealties weakened, fidelity dissolved. People moved and resettled. Attachment was stuffed in the bottom of the trunk, with grandma’s blankets.
It shows in the state legislature. We mark a half-century since court-ordered reapportionment for the Kansas Legislature, and the realignment – as the skeptics warned ‒ has been anything but a blessing for the state’s rural regions. Reapportionment may be a constitutional blessing but population shifts have thrown power and politics to the cities, leaving the rural parts to spin in futility.
More than half the members of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are now elected by voters in six counties: Sedgwick, Shawnee, and four counties comprising the Kansas City area metroplex – Wyandotte, Johnson, Douglas and Leavenworth.
Those six counties elect 66 members of the 125-member House, and 24 of the 40-member Senate.
The Senate President and the chairmen of the senate’s most powerful committees ‒ Ways and Means (spending), and Taxation ‒ are from Sedgwick County. The Speaker of the House and chairmen of the Tax and Appropriations Committees are from Johnson County. This concentration of power is absolute, with consequences. The leaders are prime targets, and recipients: money and marching orders flow from special interests, elite, conservative think-tanks such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the Kansas Policy Institute, quartermaster for the billionaire Koch brothers. Voters may elect legislators to Topeka, but money moves their mission.
A brutal picture, but a clear one. Kansas is two places, for two constituencies: The haves and have-mores, and the majority of others. This is how a poll or a survey or a simple look-around can tell us one thing, and the Legislature, obliged to other patrons, can do quite another. This is how democracies begin to falter, and how states begin to fold.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL