The Kansas Legislature has marked a special session this week in Topeka to curse federal covid vaccine mandates. Other legislatures have done the same or talked about it. They include the Dakotas, Nebraska , Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama and especially Florida, where the issue excites a governor’s presidential ambitions.
In each case, legislators succumb to the fever of culture wars while real issues are side-railed. At Topeka, there is no real mandate argument; Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, doesn’t care for them. Republicans, who dominate the House and Senate, say likewise. The special session, costing roughly $60,000 a day in legislative pay and per diem, becomes an expensive dress rehearsal, staging for glossy campaign mailers to flood post offices next year.
Meanwhile, important matters stay on the shelf as Republican legislators take their marching orders from the national party and Democrats retreat to their blue metropolitan cocoons. Local concerns are shelved for the hysteria stampedes of Red versus Blue.
This may play well in the cities, but rural Kansans confront many issues of mutual concern, and they outstrip the scabrous tribal wars of national parties and cause lobbies.
Among those concerns is the 2020 census, with its record of more rural population loss and great shifts into the metropolitan northeast and the Wichita area, and the steady rural exodus of the young.
– Health care, shortages of medical professionals, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies that have closed, with others in financial peril; Kansas is one of only a dozen states that have not expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor.
– A rising inventory of local roads, bridges, water and sewer systems that need aggressive maintenance or repair.
– Broadband and digital infrastructure improvements and upgrades have been promised since the state’s telecommunications act of 1996; mostly they amount to a litany of broken or suspended promise. On Oct. 20, the Federal Communications Commission announced $554 million in another round of financing through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund; Michigan ($188 million) and Georgia ($149 million) got the lion’s share, with 17 other states in line for funding. Kansas was not among them.
– State aid to cities and counties: For decades, the state had by law transferred money to cities and counties for local property tax reduction. The transfer has been suspended for more than ten years. Funds for city-county revenue sharing are gone; machinery and equipment taxes, too. The allocations were to stabilize the local cost of state-ordered mandates and local collection and processing of state taxes. The sole remaining transfer – a declining pittance – is the state motor fuels tax allocation.
– Local schools and school finance: Republicans have already warned the Department of Education that despite court rulings, education funding is in for a severe round of state aid scrutiny, if not cuts;
– A lack of affordable housing has stymied growth in most farm towns and cities, where even available housing is in short supply.
– If young adults with families are to be attracted to small cities, many will ask about options for affordable childcare and they will be told there are few, if any.
– Transportation in rural Kansas includes more than roads and highways. Air, rail and bus service need a dose of enrichment, reconstruction and promotion.
– Two years ago, students and educators in southwest Kansas began talk about bringing a satellite campus from one of the state’s universities – Fort Hays was mentioned – to Dodge City. At stake, they said, is the long-term health of communities in the region, an “education desert” in the one quadrant of the state with no public university. Students said they wanted to pursue four-year degrees in the southwest, where they wanted to live. The campus at St. Mary of the Plains, a four-year liberal arts college that closed in 1992, was mentioned as a potential site.
These items and more need serious attention and outstrip the tribal loyalty oaths that subsume politicians these days. The challenges that confront rural Kansas are shared concerns that affect all citizens, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Mugwumps. If a caucus is to be involved it should be a rural caucus of no particular color, one that embraces mutual purpose, that rural citizens must have better lives and that their communities advance, chin-out, to offer promise to the next generations.