Kansas is the Mother Shipton, the Madame Thebes, the
Witch of Endor, and the low barometer of the nation. When
anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first
in Kansas. Abolition, Prohibition, Populism, the Bull Moose,
the exit of the roller towel, the appearance of the bank guar-
antee, the blue sky law, the adjudication of industrial dispute
as distinguished from the arbitration of industrial differences
– these things come popping out of Kansas like bats out of hell.
-William Allen White, 1922
At the time, White had it right. Kansas was leading the
nation in more ways than we could count, showing the way to
abolishing child labor, recognizing workers’ rights, banning
the public drinking cup, expanding networks of paved public
roads, establishing a system of state universities, and more.
The source for inspiration began with the state’s early set-
tlers, who believed in humility and self-reliance; their faith
first carried the conviction that men were to share freedom,
not own it, and Kansas became the only state founded on a
moral principle – that slavery was wrong.
Within a generation, Kansas women were free to vote, and
to hold public office. In the city of Argonia, citizens elected
the first woman in the nation to serve as mayor.
Kansas led efforts to regulate railroads and challenge the
base evils of the Ku Klux Klan. Kansans were leaders in
breaking the huge corporate trusts that controlled banking, set
the price and supply of oil, manipulated the markets for steel
and the production of durable goods, including automobiles.
We became a major producer of oil. And heading into the
Second World War, Kansas industry turned to produce air-
planes and military hardware to aid our allies and, ultimately,
to supply our armed forces.
Recent decades saw the continued times of great govern-
ment achievement in Kansas. From an invigorated, post
World War II state in the 1950s, through the dramatic welfare,
tax and education reforms of the 80s and 90s, the men and
women in state politics believed fiercely in the advancement
of a common good.
This took form in the tangible and beneficial: a state self-
immunized against polio; a Kansas Turnpike, one of the
nation’s first super highway systems; hot lunches for schools;
flood control with lakes and reservoirs; statewide school
unification; a streamlined and unified state judiciary; our first
equitable (one-man, one-vote) legislative reapportionment;
ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; enactment of not
one, but two national models for public school finance.
Kansas, known for leading policies, offered national lead-
ership: Eisenhower, Landon and Frank Carlson braced the
nation’s power structure; Bob Dole, Jim Pearson and Nancy
Kassebaum enlivened it. The Menningers led the reform
of care for the mentally ill. Administrators and scientists at
our universities were at the front of global advancements in
agriculture and medical research; our engineers improved
transportation in developing nations.
At home, across the nation and over the globe, Kansas had
shown the way: government would make a great difference in
ALL THAT has changed. In less than the four years of a
gubernatorial term, the pride we once took in our government
has turned to embarrassment.
Have a look: A legislature dominated by the dogma of ideo-
logues and the jargon of political hacks. A governor obsessed
with an “experiment” that Kansas abolish its income tax,
determined that it become a state of little or no government.
A Capitol once magnificent, now little more than a cathedral
for the billionaire bishops Charles and David Koch, and their
straw front, the misnamed Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
In the past three years, legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback
have moved to dismantle the footings that supported benefi-
cence in Kansas government, and to sever the connections
among local, state and federal components.
Among the first calls to starve the government was the
governor’s rejection, in 2011, of $31.5 million in federal aid.
The money was to help establish a state health insurance
exchange under the Affordable Care Act and offer health care
to the uninsured.
A great budget sink hole now expands, the result of cutting
the state’s top two tax rates and allowing new loopholes for
big business. (Lower incomes continue to pay in full.)
The estimated budget deficit will approach $400 million by
the middle of next year and up to $5 billion by 2019.
Seeking money to stem the flow of red ink, legisla-
tors have raided the budgets of the State Parks, Insurance
and Transportation Departments, among others. City-county
revenue sharing has ceased. State funding for local teacher
salaries, classrooms and classroom supplies has been slashed;
aid to higher education, curtailed. Budget breakers have cor-
rupted medical care for the poor by turning the service over to
private companies, slashed welfare spending and closed local
offices in one community after the next.
Dramatic increases in local taxes are the bleak forecast after
continued cuts in aid to cities, counties and school districts,
their services already weakened by years of reductions.
Moodys and Standard and Poor, the nation’s top financial
rating agencies, have downgraded Kansas bond ratings. The
state is now a poor risk.
THIS AND MORE have come to national attention. The hoots
are loud, and getting louder.
“Characters, Cranks and Kansas,” “America the Clueless,”
“States Gone Wild,” are among the headlines in The New
York Times. The Week, a national newsmagazine, had this one:
“Kansas: The death of supply-side economics?”
Paul Waldman of the Washington Post, Paul Krugman of
The Times, and David Brunori of Forbes, have mocked the
madness of cutting taxes with no way to fill the growing
revenue gap. Waldman noted that Kansas’s job and income
growth lag woefully behind the nation’s.
Tax cuts are not the key to prosperity for all, Krugman said.
It didn’t work when George W. Bush tried it in Washington,
nor is it working in Kansas. “But faith in tax-cut magic isn’t
about evidence,” he said. “It’s about giving rich people and
corporations what they want.”
KANSAS WAS once governed by experienced and thoughtful
people who believed that government could make a difference
in people’s lives, help their communities ascend, lift the state
as a community.
Now look at us.
“I drove across Kansas recently on my way to Colorado and
got to see the state’s budget issues up close and personal at
various highway rest stops. Apparently conservative paradise
is a place where toilets are overflowing, sinks are broken, trash
is rarely emptied and toilet paper is a luxury. No thanks.”
That was a comment to The Times, following an article
headlined “Conservative Experiment Faces Revolt in Reliably
Brownback hasn’t brought progress, he has brought embar-
rassment. His no-tax, supply-side ”experiment,” has not
meant prosperity, but pratfall – a tired vaudeville joke.
Kansas, where enterprise and progress once popped out…
“like bats out of hell” is now a study in folly. Where pride was
once the mainstay, we have become a carnival of rubes, easy
marks for the hucksters.
For all the decades since before statehood, Kansas has been
a place where citizens looked to improve their lives with lead-
ers who helped make strong communities and a stronger state
– not leaders who made us the butt of jokes:
How many Kansans does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None. They’re still waiting for electricity.
Or this: In some states they farm sod for new lawns. In
Kansas, the governor calls it a housing boom.
Yep. That’s us. That’s the governor’s legacy – all that
freedumb and independence, an experiment ending in farce
as we scrounge over the prairie, searching for Brownback’s
progress, asking permission to put up another sod hut.
– JOHN MARSHALL