Gov. Sam Brownback jawboned Flint Hills landowners to develop tourism by opening up their private lands to the potential hordes of visitors. He called this "the Kansas way" — pure voluntarism, with no state monies involved. Rather, Kansas would continue to take advantage of federal (ahem!) funds to purchase easements.
Might work, but the message was essentially this: Tourism is great. Now go do it without any serious help from the state.
The Kansas way. Does that innocuous phrase have any real meaning?
I think it does. In terms of public-private relations, the Kansas way in the modern era has evolved from the 1960s and 1970s, when modern state government was put in place by the likes of Bob Bennett (as both state senator and governor), along with House Speaker Pete McGill and his Democratic counterpart as minority leader, Pete Loux.
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There were many others, of course, but these Kansans constructed a modern government that provided increased state aid to education, developed a retirement plan, and constructed new departments (such as Social and Rehabilitation Services) that could process the increased aid coming from Washington, D.C.
The tax system to support a larger role for government was built on the classic three legs of income, sales and property levies. Over the years, the mix of those taxes has varied, but they remain the foundation for the steady funding of state government.
The Kansas way of providing reasonable, but scarcely overwhelming, funding for state activities has produced solid policy outcomes: An education system that is ranked in the top quarter of the country. A road system that rates among the nation's very best. Social services that are scarcely munificent but generally address the state's needs. And a business climate that is welcoming by multiple measures.
The Kansas way produces no booms and no busts. If you want those, go to Florida, where the bursting of the real estate bubble has led to massive cutbacks. Or to Texas, where there is no income tax and nearly the worst school system in the nation.
By and large, policymaking in Kansas has been reality-based, not ideologically driven. In part, this derives from the work of state legislators, who have brought a wide range of civic experience to the Capitol and have forged compromises that have served the general interest.
The strong, straight-line Republican winds of the 2010 election produced a historic conservative majority in the Kansas House, along with a very conservative governor. The basic moderate conservative policies that defined the Kansas way over the past decades have been called into question.
The resulting hit list is truly remarkable: The Kansas Arts Commission. An independent parole board. Funding for Planned Parenthood. Electoral reform to address nonexistent problems. A flood of out-of-state top appointments with highly conservative agendas. Reductions in school funding to early 1990s levels. A continuing attack on the Kansas Bioscience Authority.
And that's just what we can see.
Brownback may think he can define "the Kansas way," and his position affords him many opportunities. But the powerful narrative in the legacy of Bennett, McGill, Loux and the governors and legislators who have followed them may prove highly resistant to Brownback's reframing. The traditional story is one that deserves telling and retelling, as we draw upon the moderate roots of the Kansas way.