(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 fourth of several articles about that system, and those who made it work. ‒ JM)
Robert Bennett, an articulate, intelligent and moderate Republican, began a four-year term as governor with Kansas in sound financial condition. The state was rich because its tax collections, chiefly on income and sales, had swollen with inflation. At the same time, there were pressures of an Arab oil embargo, new demands from the state’s $600 million welfare system, the need for aid to relieve school districts from ever-rising property taxes, and warnings that highway repair and improvements were overdue ‒ for starters.
Bennett’s agenda called for careful planning, the wise allocation of state finances and maintenance of the state’s healthy budget surpluses. He seemed up to the task; his party controlled the House and Senate, ready to carry out his directives.
But Bennett was so well-prepared, and so fortified intellectually and politically, that he seemed almost from the outset to confuse his own vision with the prevailing reality.
For a small example that grew to a large problem, Bennett believed that some state officers ‒ although creatures of the Constitution ‒ should be appointed by the governor, not elected by the people. Many agreed. The duties of these officials now required the skills of professionals and talents of executive managers, rather than the finagling of wardheelers.
But instead of testing the potential for support or the threat of opposition, Bennett signed an executive order (three months after his inauguration) that the treasurer and insurance commissioner would be appointed after their current terms expired in 1977. The order was subject to legislative approval, which Bennett assumed would come quickly.
It didn’t. Democrats saw a direct threat to their state treasurer, Joan Finney. Republicans were angry at the snub to Insurance Commissioner Fletcher Bell. At best, the governor was guilty of bad timing. The legislature junked Bennett’s order. Although the setback was not serious, coming early in the governor’s term, three other scandals, some with roots in previous administrations, left this governor with a corroded image.
It was disclosed in January 1975 that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation had been spying on innocent citizens and keeping files on more than 300 persons ‒ including state officials ‒ who had never been arrested, who had never been charged or suspected of a crime. The KBI surveillance operation ran parallel with a national domestic spy scandal unfolding in Washington atop the Watergate tragedy; undercover agents for the Central Intelligence Agency had been shadowing innocent Americans.
While the KBI domestic spy scandal festered in a federal court, Southwestern Bell Telephone Company admitted giving free phone credit cards and unlimited long-distance telephone privileges to members of the Kansas Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates telephone companies and other utilities. (Bennett received the resignations of two commissioners.)
But the governor’s first year had only begun. Hope remained that with a Republican legislature behind him, and with his shrewdness and experience, Bennett would become a leader of the caliber of Frank Carlson or Alf Landon.
That hope began to fade. Many Republicans, including State Sen. John Simpson of Salina, his former campaign treasurer, and Wendell Lady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and an ally from Johnson County, began to be disenchanted. The governor, they worried, wanted only to keep the boat afloat and not rock it, not gamble on new ventures, such as increasing aid to cities and counties, or adjusting a formula for local school finance, or expanding the highway improvements plan. The state, they believed privately, could not go long without new taxes or by banking only on state surpluses.
There was further disappointment when Bennett made a bald power play to appoint a legislative friend to the corporation commission; to do so, he needed repeal of a statute prohibiting lawmakers to accept other state posts, for the obvious reason that such a practice opens the door to ethics problems. A Democratic legislator stunned observers by supporting the repeal. Bennett was blind to the ethics involved. The legislature followed Bennett’s will and the law was changed and the legislators were named to the commission.
But Bennett’s greatest weakness as a public official, was his reluctance, even disdain, for meeting the public, spending time with the masses, and it showed. He was bored with meet-and-greets, pressing the flesh, the many luncheons and dinners that took his time. He sometimes cut short his public appearances, leaving quickly with little explanation. He acquired a reputation of aloofness, even snobbery, a negative appeal. None of this was good for a governor who wanted a second term.
(Next: The Carlin era)