Will campaigns bring us the Kansas we once had?

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Before the summer’s campaign cicada chorus turns to an autumn cricket screech, imagine something on the far side of all the noise. Think on a Kansas that once was – and what history may tell us about it. Imagine a Kansas that could be, again. For the five decades leading to the last millennium, our state was governed by experienced, educated and thoughtful people who realized the great difference that government had made in their lives. The Legislature, the executive branch and the courts were composed of men (and later, women) who had grown up on farms or in farm towns, in small cities or in big cities, and most of them knew what it was like before the dirt path had become a road, before there was electricity in the house, before party lines came to the farm, before water came from anything but a pond or a well. With each generation, the roads were better, the water cleaner, the electricity reliable. There were wide highways and new schools, state parks and lakes, and conservation programs and crop insurance. There were new hospitals, flood control and programs to help with the mortgage. There were jobs, a minimum wage, and guaranteed insurance for bank accounts. There were school lunches. There were holidays. The people elected to office had known hard living before the time of new and noble purpose. They had come through a civil war, a panic, a great depression and two world wars. They saw the need for a government. It could not go away. During the 1950s the Legislature financed an historic, twoyear state program to inoculate the citizenry against polio; when federal aid ran out, legislators were determined to complete this self-immunization wholly from state revenues. Among other triumphs: One of the nation’s first statewide programs for hot lunches in public schools; The 234-mile Kansas Turnpike and inter-city viaduct in Kansas City, opened in 1954, two years before President Eisenhower announced plans for a system of interstate highways; and Kanopolis was among the state’s first federally-funded state reservoirs to open, with the dual promise of flood control and recreation. The 1960s brought a complete reshaping for Kansas education with the School Unification Act; only three years later, in 1966, the state’s legislative districts were reapportioned according to population and “one man-one vote”; home rule came to counties; the state financed 100 percent of the school foundation formula, which increased aid to new districts under consolidation. Those glory years for Kansas government were helped enormously through President Johnson’s domestic policy initiative, “The Great Society.” The state’s budget allowed new and expanded federal programs, including money for highways, urban renewal, education and a war on poverty. Kansas was a beneficiary of federal aid to farmers, to the aircraft industry, to highways, airports, education, hospitals, the arts, the poor, the sick, the elderly. The spirit of advancement continued through the next decades with historic reforms in governmental ethics and campaign finance, unification of the state courts, school finance reform and the expansion of federal revenue sharing into cities and counties. There were new governors and legislatures, and more change with tax reform, new masterstrokes in finance for local schools and colleges and universities, and two massive highway improvements programs. All this progress came by understanding a fundamental truth of the political culture: that in a modern industrial society, all individual effort must be braced by a government that guarantees, at least, opportunities for those who want to work, food for those who would otherwise starve, pensions for the old and medical care for the sick. This is what had moved earlier generations in Kansas government. It is what had inspired decades of reform and advancement – a belief that government should make life more rewarding for all citizens. It is what must move today’s generations as they view the coming elections – the kind of state we want to live in, one that advances all citizens, not one that ranks them, or picks and chooses whom to help and which are abandoned to fate. Imagine that Kansas, the purpose we once endorsed, and how we can bring it back.

‒ JOHN MARSHALL

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