When Government Worked for Kansas: A history in three parts

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(First of three articles)

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Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

Inside the Kansas House, 1893.

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Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

View of George Wilcoxen's family and sod home northeast of Bloom in Ford County, circa 1880.

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For many generations, Kansans were governed by experienced, educated and thoughtful people who realized the great difference that government had made in their lives. The House and Senate, the executive branch and the courts were composed of men (and later, women) who had grown up on farms or in farm towns, in small cities or in big cities, and most of them knew what it was like before the dirt path had become a road, before there was electricity in the house, before party lines came to the farm, before water came from anything but a pond or a well.

With each generation, the roads were better, the water cleaner, the electricity reliable. There were wide highways and new schools, state parks and lakes, and conservation programs and crop insurance. There were new hospitals, flood control and programs to help with the mortgage. There were jobs, a minimum wage, and guaranteed insurance for bank accounts. There were school lunches. There were holidays.

The people elected to office had known lives before a time of new and noble purpose. They had come through a civil war, a panic, a great depression and two world wars. They saw the need for a government. It could not go away.

By the decade, a few reminders...

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During the 1950s the Legislature financed an historic, two-year state program to inoculate the citizenry against polio, with determined focus on children. It was a bold and innovative plan (1956-57) to counter an epidemic that had killed or crippled thousands of youngsters and cloaked a generation of parents in fear. The dread was suffocating in every children’s ward, with every pair of braces, every iron lung, every funeral. Legislators were determined to shake the state free of this dark plague. Kansas, it is believed, was the first state in the nation to self-immunize against infantile paralysis. There was federal aid in funding during the first year, but when that ran out, legislators were determined to complete the program wholly from state revenues.

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Among other noble ventures, the Legislature enacted one of the nation’s first statewide programs for hot lunches in public schools; the 234-mile Kansas Turnpike and inter-city viaduct in Kansas City opened the state in 1954 to high-speed, four-lane traffic — two years before President Eisenhower announced his plans for a national system of interstate highways; and Kanopolis Reservoir was among the state’s first federally funded state reservoirs to open, with the dual promise of flood control and recreation.

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And in that decade, Kansas offered the first in a string of reminders that political parties cannot massage votes consistently from any group or class of the citizenry. On Nov. 8, 1956, the day a nation returned Kansas’ favorite son, Dwight Eisenhower of Abilene to the White House in a Republican landslide over Adlai Stevenson, Kansas voters split their ticket in record numbers and elected a Democratic governor (George Docking) for the first time in 20 years.

Landscapes of change

The '60s are a tumultuous decade in Kansas history — the decade of its bloody birth, founded on the moral principle that slavery was wrong and, a century later, the decade of complete reshaping for the state’s public school system and the legislative branch of state government.

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Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

Monroe School, one of Topeka's four segregated elementary schools, before the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka.

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It has been a half-century since Bill Chalfant, a young Hutchinson attorney, filed suit in Shawnee County District Court charging unequal representation in the Kansas Legislature. In the lawsuit, filed Nov. 1, 1961, Chalfant alleged the apportionment laws of Kansas were unconstitutional.

Among other charges, the lawsuit said that 39 percent of the Kansas populace controlled the State Senate; 18 percent of the people controlled (were represented by) 63 members of the 125-member House; and that the state’s four largest counties (Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte) contained 37 percent of the state population but were represented by only 15 votes in the House.

In 1966, five years and two Supreme Court decisions later, the Kansas Legislature changed the allotment of seats in both the House and Senate to reflect representation by “one-man, one-vote.”

The astonishing aspect of this historic reform was that it unfolded with little, if any acrimony. There were enormous pressures on all lawmakers and long debates before the governor’s special session. At least 38 members of the House would be asked to vote themselves out of a job. Yet they complied. Once the session convened, nearly every member of the House believed in the mission. House Speaker Jess Taylor, a Tribune Republican, said, “I don’t look for any great deal of argument.”

Rep. J.C. Tillotson of Norton, who later would become a distinguished member of the Senate, said, “I don’t agree with the Supreme Court decision, but it is our duty to comply with the law of the land.”

The balance of power – the allotment of legislative seats – had begun to shift as rural populations dwindled and the cities and suburbs grew. Reapportionments in the succeeding decades have become vivid portraits of rural decline and urban expansion.

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Legislative reapportionment had followed another wrenching issue, the “reapportionment” of school districts. Public school consolidation (1963) across Kansas created 305 unified school districts from nearly 2,000; this reform was to bring economy and efficiency to a system that had begun to struggle with financing and staffing, especially in rural Kansas and in blighted inner city neighborhoods. State aid would ensure a more stable financial base; nonetheless, the commitment of Kansans to move ahead was almost unimaginable as hundreds of districts were merged and thousands of classrooms shuttered.

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Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

Robert Docking, the 38th governor of Kansas (1967–1975).

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In 1967 and ‘68, Gov. Robert Docking, an Arkansas City Democrat, needed the Republican-dominated House and Senate to enact his major programs, nearly all of them containing the appeal of practical objectives.

Among his first initiatives was a 20 percent tax cut on the first $2,000 of all personal incomes, a $1,000 homestead property tax exemption for senior citizens who were poor, higher interest payments for state and local reserve funds, home rule for counties and 100 percent financing for the school foundation formula, the vehicle to increase aid to new districts under consolidation.

In following years (Docking was elected to four consecutive two-year terms), the governor would be known as a champion of the industrial revenue bond and higher corporate income taxes, the Equal Rights Amendment, medical care for the poor, and fair housing laws.

Docking also was helped enormously through President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policy initiative called “The Great Society.” Johnson’s program would press the government’s reach into countless corners of American life where federal dollars, agencies and bureaucrats had never been before. Docking would have a record $600 million budget, swollen by new and expanded federal programs, including money for highways, urban renewal, education and a war on poverty.

The Republican-dominated legislature responded grudgingly, for the Democrat Docking would become one of the state’s most popular governors. The flow of new federal programs and money would allow him to cut state taxes while increasing overall spending — and declare balanced budgets. Kansas was a beneficiary of federal aid to farmers, to the aircraft industry, to highways, airports, education, hospitals, the arts, the poor, the sick, the elderly. Kansas requested and accepted its share of an ever-rising, irreversible escalation.

Inflation fueled our economies, more money circulated because of it; tax rates were stable while sales and incomes jumped, pumping more money and higher tax collections into the state treasury. The dilemma in those days was what to do with the surpluses.

Lawmakers at first failed to realize that the heartbeat of local government ‒ property values and property taxes ‒ was being thrown into arrhythmia by inflationary spirals.

The 1970s

We had known the serious talk before about a “global economy,” but it seemed academic, something that happened at a distance. Early in this decade it became quite real for Kansas.

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A Kansas postcard from the 1970s.

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In the summer of 1972, the federal government paid $3 billion to farmers for withholding 60 million acres of grain land from production; at the same time the Soviet Union would make up for a devastating Russian crop failure by buying 19 million tons of American grain.

Wheat doubled in price overnight. Farmers had money. Their land and their net worth would double and triple in value. Even the value of used farm machinery was increasing. The Russians gave farmers cash and inflation gave them an unchecked ability to borrow. All of this seemed too good to be true, and a decade later we would find out that it was.

Under Govs. Docking (1967-75) and Robert Bennett (1975-79), a Republican, state government would be marked by historic reforms in governmental ethics and campaign finance, unification of the state courts, school finance reform and the expansion of federal revenue sharing into cities and counties.

Such state aid programs as local property tax relief, city-county revenue sharing and motor fuels tax refunds can be traced to the influence of Johnson’s Great Society in the ’60s, and federal revenue sharing in the 1970s under President Nixon.

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The School District Equalization Act of 1973, which became a national model for public school finance, established a formula that determined how much money the state would provide local school districts; central to this formula was a district’s “wealth,” determined by combining a district’s reported taxable income and its assessed property valuation. Taxable income composed 45 percent of district wealth, and property values, 55 percent. (This formula stood, with legislative modifications, for 20 years, until the dramatic reforms of 1992.)

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The Legislature, on the heels of a Watergate scandal that brought pressures for ethics reform at many levels of government, enacted a new state campaign finance act, reformed conflict of interest laws, increased regulation of lobbyists and special interest groups, and created a Governmental Ethics Commission with a full-time staff to administer and enforce the new laws and regulations.

In addition to unification of the courts (1974), workers compensation laws were liberalized, and new consumer protection statutes went on the books. The Legislature also enacted a 55 mile-an-hour speed limit and established a budget for the new Fuel Allocation Office of the Department of Economic Development, to be run by the state’s “energy czar,” Harold Wills, in anticipation of an embargo of oil shipments to the U.S. by the Arabs’ Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

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The states and Washington were inter-dependent. Each year, Kansas and other states want, need and ask for more from Washington. We have done this in the name of better schools and highways, help for the poor, the elderly, the sick. Airports and railroads, endowments for the arts, disaster aid for communities, help for farmers and hundreds of other groups and causes are also on the list of those who benefit from state and federal aid.

Kansas has become part of a world economy, a national economy, one that we helped create. Far from being a state of independents, we had become a nourisher of dependency.

→ Part 2: The ’80s, Carlin’s Legacy and Beyond

→ Part 3: A New Confederacy

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John Marshall, owner-editor of the Lindsborg News-Record.

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John Marshall, a native Kansan, has been writing about Kansas government and politics for more than 40 years; much of that time (1970-1997) included assignments as a Statehouse correspondent or as an editor for the Harris Group newspapers. He is a former owner-editor of the Lindsborg News-Record (2001-2012), and continues to write a weekly column for that newspaper.

The opinions in the columns solely reflect those of the author. They aren't endorsed by the Kansas Health Institute, which seeks a broad range of opinion to stimulate discussion.