(Second of two articles)
The passing of Tom Docking last month may have extinguished something in a legacy, a niche of history that
reignited turn-of-the-century progressivism in Kansas. But the departing of talent needn’t extinguish the spirit that
propelled it, the generations, including all those voters, who gave it force and energy. There was something about
the Dockings that stirred both resentment and capitulation among Republicans and, in some cases, Democrats. The
result was often compromise, however uneasy, and a mutual commitment to move on. By examining these traits and practices we can see how far backward we have come. The death of a scion of this certain legacy may prompt lessons in the ways we can move forward again.
The inauguration of Tom Docking’s father, Robert, as the 38th governor of Kansas on January 9, 1967, was a moment
of humility for Republicans, grace for Democrats and irony for Kansas. The new governor, at age 41, had come from a
banking family; Robert had been a successful at a bank in Arkansas City and his father, George, a two-term former
governor (1957-61), was a banker in Lawrence. The new governor quickly revealed himself as a firm champion of civic goodwill and the idea of a citizen’s state seeking the
greater welfare of all.
Propelled by a wave of discontent with a recent – and badly needed – sales tax increase, Robert Docking had convinced
the state’s Republican majority to vote for him, and they did so eagerly. He became the first Democrat to unseat a Republican incumbent, he was young, mildly progressive and eager to shape the destiny of Kansas – as eager as his
political godfather, Lyndon Johnson, was committed to a “Great Society” for the nation at large.
On the day after Docking’s inauguration, the Kansas Legislature prepared to tackle a mountain of legislation:
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
and a record $600 million-plus budget.
All this and more, it was said, could be enacted and financed without a tax increase. Indeed, Docking – a Democrat – would ask the Republican Legislature for specific tax cuts.
Almost from the outset, Docking seemed a master at avoiding party labels for his plans, instead stirring calls for conscience and compassion, but with the appeal of practical objectives. Among the very first of Docking’s proposals were a 20 percent tax cut on the first $2,000 of all personal incomes (in 1967, $10,000 was a substantial annual income); a $1,000 homestead property tax exemption for senior citizens who were poor, higher interest payments for state and local reserve funds, home rule for counties, and 100 percent financing for the school foundation formula.
The 1967 Legislature was still bothered by reaction (starting with Docking’s election) to substantial but necessary tax
increases it had passed two years earlier. And it was faced with a pay increase issue brought on by a constitutional
amendment that moved the Legislature from biennial to annual general sessions. Their daily pay at the time was $10,
plus $15 for expenses, for work every other year. (It has since grown 11-fold.)
These matters, and a record $600 million-plus budget swollen by new and expanded federal programs, implementation
of two other amendments (education and income taxes), and countless other tasks were heavy on the legislative mind.
Docking knew this. His approach to the Legislature was so conciliatory and the bulk of his proposals so in keeping with
the spirit of that body that it would eventually act favorably on most of them. In other years, Docking would be known
as a champion of the industrial revenue bond and higher corporate income taxes, the Equal Rights Amendment, medical care for the poor and fair housing laws.
The popularity of Docking’s programs, and their grudging acceptance by wary Republican legislators meant, at
that time, that we were accepting an invitation to inflation. Here lay an offer to allow citizens a fairer share of government without immediate obligation to its invoice. It would
become a lure from which we could not escape at home, in Washington, or abroad; we would make promises we could
neither deliver nor repudiate.
Inflation does not come at once, and cannot be captured in specific frames; it gathers gradually, a progressive affliction
that is always diagnosed too late. Inflation was upon us because Lyndon Johnson concealed the enormous costs of war in Vietnam by leeching money through deficit financing. An additional cause was the domestic push to inflation, the federal government as 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.
Kansas was much a part of this, 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. Inflation fueled our economies, more money circulated because of it; tax rates could stabilize while sales and incomes jumped, pumping still more and more in tax collections for the state treasury. The dilemma in those days was what to do with the surpluses.
All this and no tax increase, thanks to inflation and Uncle Sam. And to the magnetism of a governor who oversaw with pride all those allotments, those new programs. Among them, final phases of a the state’s initial interstate highway system; increased aid to nearly every sector of state and local government, from local schools and public health to agriculture and recreation (reservoirs), colleges and universities, cities’ housing and urban renewal, and counties’ roads, rural utilities and other infrastructure.
Docking was reelected three times and if only by his record at the polls he was then Kansas’ most popular governor. His was an incredible ability to move voters and maneuver the Legislature, year after year. Many forces were at work in and upon Kansas during the Docking years. Inflation was only one of them. Two others would add to the sources of heat that would add to the incubation of trouble later – a crop failure in the Soviet Union, and the Arabs’ discovery that Americans’ dependence on oil marked them as vulnerable.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL