Last Monday was a beautiful day to travel around Southeast Kansas. Town halls in Fort Scott and Coffeyville and a roundtable in Parsons kept me moving, and learning.
In the coming weeks, the team and I will pour over the notes submitted. Here are a few thoughts and quotes from each listening stop.
A job applicant, a hunter and a governor walk into a bar… No it’s not the start of a joke, it’s a quick summary of the discussion in Parsons.
Finding qualified job applicants often comes up in southeast Kansas. One participant said, “We have the jobs, but we don’t have qualified people to fill the jobs.” Listen deeply in this part of the state and you’ll also hear the impact of drug use and addiction on the local job market. The employers here know the connection between quality mental health services and the strength of the local workforce. I was struck by the “connectedness” of my discussion in Parsons. People understand the issues facing Kansas and their communities are interrelated.
A theme I took away from Parsons was the need to work towards local solutions to tough problems. Several parts of the meeting revolved around empowering local regions. This quote sums up that idea:
“Give each region seed money to solve sociological problems. They won’t get solved from the state level. We can solve them, but we might need a little help getting started.”
That quote describes the traditional conservative, pragmatic Kansas approach that is so often missing these days. It implies a role for the state, but a limited one. It has the state doing it’s part, but places the responsibility for progress with those closest to the situation. It “gives the work back,” but with the state as an active and supporting partner.
I also heard people long for unique Kansas solutions. For example, one participant was passionate about developing hunting opportunities in Kansas, believing that doing so could be a boon to the Kansas recreational economy. I loved his comments. His ideas leveraged strengths of our state – our land, our tradition of hunting – and he cast a bold vision. He was modeling what we need to see from our elected officials.
One participant said, “Unique Kansas solutions come from good listening.” We don’t need cookie cutter policy ideas from other states. We need Kansas solutions for Kansas.
We are well past the traditional “quitting time” for the Legislature, but a state budget has yet to be adopted, and the debate about what level of taxes are needed to fund a state budget is still unresolved. Over the last few months I’ve had the chance to visit with all types of Kansans – urban, suburban and rural Kansans, conservative and liberal Kansans, baby boomer and millennial Kansans, men and women, etc. And, when you engage with so many different people with different views, you gain an appreciation for how hard it can be to find enough common ground to move forward on tough issues in the Legislature.
By and large, the people gathered at these town halls and roundtables reflect an overwhelming desire to modify our tax structure to solve the budget situation. They are tired of the state budget having more ongoing expenses than ongoing revenues. I’ve said several times during these roundtables and town halls that fixing the structural imbalance of the state budget must be the top priority for current legislators and, if not fixed by 2019, the top priority for the next governor. A debate about taxes and spending is always difficult. While there is strong support for fixing the budget, there are parts of the state that see taxes as a major challenge. It wasn’t a scientific sample, but I noticed more comments (written and spoken) about taxes during my visit to Fort Scott than have come up elsewhere. Here’s a sampling:
What concerns you the most? “Taxes in small town America. If we didn’t have family here, we would move our business. We are delaying expansion due to this issue.”
What makes progress so difficult on things that concern you the most? “High property taxes.”
“In our last tax cycle our valuation went up dramatically.”
The comments were more about local taxes than state taxes, but my experience is many taxpayers don’t pay much attention to the difference. Taxes are taxes. And, decisions from the state often influence the level of local taxes.
Here are a few other comments that stood out to me.
What do we need from our next Governor? “Someone to challenge local leadership to solve problems and give power to them to achieve it.” The best solutions are discovered and implemented locally.
“We need the next governor to give up on the tired “small vs. big” government argument and talk instead about the right size of government across different spheres.”
This was my second visit to Coffeyville (see my earlier Facebook note for the summary of the first meeting) and the theme on my mind from this discussion was the dangers of excessive partisanship. Many of the answers to question “What makes progress so difficult?” revolved around polarization and the lack of common ground. Here are some of the quotes that stand out:
Given what makes progress so difficult, what do we need from our next Governor? “The ability to accept good ideas no matter who they come from politically.” “Not to get caught up in the far-right or far-left or we won’t get anything done.” “Someone who can bridge the gap between both parties.”
There is a growing sense that progress is found through engagement. We can’t import a solution to our toughest challenges. We must create it. And, the quality of that engagement makes all the difference. If we only engage with “our side” we’ll miss parts of the solution. If we engage to make sure “our side wins” rather than to make sure Kansas makes progress, we’ll stagnate. Kansans get this. They understand. They are craving more elected officials to understand too.