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Chapman Rackaway: Western Kansas in the crosshairs

Rackaway
Rackaway

Whether you have lived in western Kansas for a decade, as I have, or a lifetime, you tend to be independent. The region was built by hardy stock.

Compared with Wichita and suburban Kansas City, west of I-135 might as well be another state. Now, the eastern half of the state seemingly wants the western half to go away.

In 1992, Kansas instituted a school funding formula to even spending differences between districts. That sparked an effort by districts in the state’s oil- and agriculturally rich southwest corner to secede to a new state along with communities in Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico. The oil and farm riches would have made the new state wealthy and harmed eastern Kansas by draining the state of nearly $70 million in tax revenue. The movement was stifled partly by a concerted effort from eastern Kansas.

Today, the opposite seems to be the case. Drought and urbanization have depopulated western Kansas. Low oil and agriculture prices are making it worse. Half of Kansas’ counties have fewer residents than they did in 1900. Between 2000 and 2010, 50 counties declined in population. Twelve counties lost more than 10 percent of their total population in that decade, all of them in the state’s western half.

Only 25 House and six Senate districts run to the west of I-135. Only two legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, and House Republican Caucus Chairman Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, come from west of I-135. Reduced clout for western Kansas means less protection.

Perhaps that explains why the Legislature has gone from trying to keep the west in Kansas to showing it the door.

Two bills – one already passed, the other pending – would have massive adverse effects on the state’s breadbasket. The bill that has passed, House Substitute for Senate Bill 7, dumps the 1992 formula in favor of block grants. While the block grants would potentially hurt some other schools to the east of I-135, the western half of the state looks to take a disproportional hit. The beating hearts of western Kansas communities, the very schools that inspired secession, may well be stopped.

Even more disturbing and damaging for the west is Senate Bill 178, which would raise agricultural land property taxes by a statewide average of 473 percent. With the majority of farmland in the state to the west, the actual hit would be even higher. Johnson County representatives may want to see the west pay what they believe is its fair share, but few farmers are making enough to sustain a fivefold tax increase. It’s a sneaky way to increase state revenue, but a devastating blow to western Kansas’ agricultural tradition.

If the eastern representatives wish the 1992 secession movement had been successful today, they’re certainly acting like it. Drought, depopulation and low prices have hurt the western half of the state in serious enough ways. The eastern half seeing the west as a cash cow is both wrong and worse.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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