We elect a bigger government, then we forget why

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It may seem that government has grown beyond our grasp, but it should be remembered that we have made it that way. We, the people, are the government.

Members of the House and Senate have the power to legislate, but we elected them in the first place. Governors hold certain executive powers but again, we elect them. If government has grown, it is because we want it that way, or need it to be that way. The advance of technology, the reach of federal power and assistance, our shifting local economies, our evolving and changing populace, all and more contribute to government growth.

In Topeka, a great expansion began more than 40 years ago, in 1975. The state’s Adjutant General had been evicted from his offices in the north wing of the state Capitol; the space was carved into offices and cubicles for 19 Republican state senators at a cost, then, of $200,000. (In today’s money, $940,000.)

This was the first phase of a multi-year plan to provide, for the first time, furnished offices for legislators and their private secretaries. Over the next three years, another 21 senators and the 125 members of the House would have offices and secretaries as evictions were handed out and agencies removed from the Capitol building. Another $200,000 ($940,000) was budgeted for the remaining new senate offices, and new offices for House members were expected to exceed $550,000 ($2.6 million).

Away went the state treasurer, the attorney general, the governmental ethics commission, the state auditor, even the Supreme Court, and others. The Secretary of State (Ron Thornburgh) put up a fight but withered under pressure of an eviction notice in 1997. The agencies went to new or refurbished buildings nearby.

In those years ago, the legislators’ new offices and secretaries would be needed weekdays only during a winter’s 90-day session. After the legislature adjourned, the offices would be locked, used infrequently when a legislator returned for a summer committee meeting. With the new offices in use only 4½ months each year, Bob Hougland, the Capitol Building Architect, said the facilities were “in a stage of functional retirement.”

Until that mid-’70s expansion, legislators had conducted their business from assigned desks on the floor of the House or Senate. Secretaries from a caged pool on the fifth floor of the Capitol were assigned to take dictation, and typed letters or documents.

Healthy state tax collections and infusions of federal funds soon accelerated public works, farm and conservation programs, recreation projects, community health, the arts, public radio and television, even tax relief, among other initiatives. All meant a demand for more legislative time, attention, and filing space. The legislature was expanding with the push of new responsibilities and complexities, their political cross-currents, their hunger for space and attention.

The early 2000s brought another remodeling, an 11-year renovation of the Statehouse, top to bottom and below, at a cost of roughly $600 million, not counting interest on the bonds sold. This included new offices and committee rooms for legislators, a new visitor center and underground parking facility, landscaping.

The place has come a long way for a lot of money since the days of “functional retirement,” but the structure of government has remained essentially the same. We chose this, we elected it.

Beyond all the cosmetics lie the effects of that government, its power to change lives, to help citizens and communities to advance. How has that changed, and in what ways? We have elected that, as well. What will we say in the next elections?

‒ JOHN MARSHALL

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