Kansas, from Land of Ahs to Land of Guffaws


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

peoples lives.

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

Red Kansas.”

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.





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