Opinion Columns & Blogs

Darrell Hamlin: Kansans need a shared purpose to guide state

Our Legislature has adjourned, and Gov. Sam Brownback has signed the budget, yet I'm still unsure what this all means.

The state with John Steuart Curry murals in the Capitol lacks a state-funded arts commission. K-12 base-aid funding has been set back to levels not seen in nearly two decades. Public-sector angst is through the roof.

Budgets, it has been said, are moral documents that best reflect our values. To settle the rancor alive in our legislative discourse, civic leadership demands that we settle on a purpose we all believe in.

I'm worried about the direction of our state.

Other Kansans, however, have a more positive perception.

They say our Republican-led Legislature faced a daunting shortfall while trying to balance the budget. They see us taking baby steps toward a government that does not regulate or tax away our state's vital economic energy.

I believe their concerns are legitimate. And the first step toward finding a shared purpose is to deeply consider the other side's point of view.

Other writers have taken on this issue.

In 1896, storied Emporia newspaper editor William Allen White took aim at the politics of his day when he published the editorial "What's the Matter With Kansas?" In 2004, author Thomas Frank used the same title for his book about a cultural backlash shaping public policy.

Both argued that populist impulses in Kansas' political psyche were too destructive economically and too strong to govern. Until we cracked the conundrum, they said, Kansans would not be able to get out of their own way.

A contemporary question might be: Where do we go from here?

That question challenges us to articulate values, identity and aspirations. Who do we want to be? What does that look like? How do we get there?

Wherever we want to go, we cannot get there without a better understanding of what we all want, individually and for our state.

We need a shared purpose.

Discovering that purpose is an act of leadership. Though it does not feed all our desires or assuage all our resentments, it gives us something to try to accomplish together.

Let's agree that what we have in common — Kansas — is more important than our differences. We need to be legacy-oriented, remembering that what we do in public life has a future cost, and what we choose not to do has a future cost.

For my part, I've had to shed some things I value.

I'm willing to be less ideological and more experimental with public and private approaches to our problems. I'll have to be more thoughtful and patient about the outcomes.

Exercising leadership involves managing losses and risking casualties. So the Kansas we end up with may not be the place with everything I want, but it will be something we've built together.