Electoral Expectations: Issues for 2018 Voters
by Paul Johnson with Mary Fund
2018 is a critical election year. The voters of Kansas deserve and should expect a substantive honest debate on the future direction of our state. Elections matter and candidates should present their ideas to address and solve the economic and political challenges facing Kansas, as well as offer a vision for the future.
The big issues center around the solvency of the state budget and state services, the future of agriculture and food in Kansas, the provision of medical services, the affordability of housing, the crisis with water management, and electoral engagement by many more Kansans.
The state budget is stabilized at this time, but barely. The 2017 tax increases restored just two-thirds of the 2012 tax cuts. Restoring nine rounds of budget cuts and limiting program transfers will take time. As you listen to candidates this fall or listen to neighbors and friends complain, consider the following issues and decide which candidates are willing to talk about these issues and offer ideas and solutions.
Social services and health care. The privatized child welfare system is finally being comprehensively analyzed and will need greater resources if we are to provide adequate protection and care for children in need. The privatized Medicaid system – KanCare – (that serves over 400,000 residents) has incredible problems with enrollment and auditible payments to providers. Expanding Medicaid would cover over 150,000 low-income working Kansans, while also assisting many rural health providers who are struggling to survive. Mental health services could be increased with an expanded Medicaid program as State support of community mental health centers has declined.
Education Funding. Public school funding was cut 15% in 2009 and lost ground to inflation in the last 10 years. While still 10th of the 50 states in education outcomes, Kansas is slipping in the rankings behind states who are increasing their state support. The 2017 Legislature added funding back into the school finances but will be it enough to satisfy the court requirements?
Agriculture and food. Agriculture is a key economic driver in Kansas. So far, no candidates are offering a vision on the future of farming other than more of the same. Consolidation and concentration of land and resources are seen as inevitable. Water resources– both quality and quantity– receive lip service, but no one is putting forward a plan (or even asking the questions) to address critical soil health needs through the kind of comprehensive conservation and stewardship practices needed to ensure sustainability.
Kansas has 60,000 farms, and the largest 10% account for 75% of all farm sales. But Kansans import 95% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the state. While consumer demand for local, naturally raised meats increases, Kansas has only 75 small meat processors left that might be able to supply 10% of that local meat demand.
From 5,600 dairies in 1980, today there are less than 400 with 50 mega-dairies accounting for two-thirds of the dairy herd. Kansas government actively recruits the next mega-dairy, or courts a billion dollar corporation for vertically controlled poultry production. There is no vision of expanding regional food systems where farmers and community or intermediate sized processors can earn a living wage while being partners in the ownership of this system.
The average age of the Kansas farmer is almost 60 and the transfer of farmland will increase over the next ten to 15 years, but there is no effort to promote beginning farmer loans and provide specialized business training to niche agricultural enterprises. Neighboring states of Nebraska and Iowa have beginning farmer tax credit programs that at least help retiring farmers lease to beginners. The financial stress of low commodity prices and high input prices, coupled with uncertain trade are pushing more farmers to the edge both economically and emotionally.
Consumer demand for organic food continues to skyrocket, and interest among farmers in transitioning to organic production is high. But there is little information available on organic systems at our land grant. Interest in specialty crop production is also high, but there are not enough extension agents offering regional information on horticultural production or analysis of the economics of such production.
There is also little policy maker concern over the expanding chemical war on controlling weeds and the impact on both organic and the emerging specialty crop sector in the state.
Kansas is primarily a beef state with a beef packing market monopolized by four corporations of which two are now owned by Brazilian companies. There is no vision of a competitive, regional meat market that believes in a free, fair market.
Affordable housing. The debate over affordable housing has been silenced in Kansas. Under Governor Bill Graves in the 1990’s, there was a Governor’s Commission on Affordable Housing along with a Housing Division within the Kansas Department of Commerce & Housing. In 2003, the Housing Division was moved out of Commerce and became the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC) – a semi-public entity in conjunction with the Kansas Development Finance Authority (KDFA – Kansas’ bonding authority).
As a semi-public agency that exists on federal grants and fees, KHRC does not report annually to the Kansas Legislature. KHRC has the weatherization program, the Community Services Block Grant, emergency shelter funds and the multi-family rental unit construction program. Kansas has around 1.2 million housing units with 2/3rds (800,000) owner-occupied and 1/3rd (400,000) rental. 40% of the renters (160,000) are cost burdened paying over 35% of income on housing.
Kansas now has 86 rural counties who have lost population over the past few decades and affordable housing is a key challenge. Rural economic developers site housing as a barrier to landing new manufacturing. Small communities lose the possibility of returning youth due to lack of housing. There needs to be a new vision to bring private, state, federal, non-profit, realtor and financial players to create a new comprehensive housing affordability strategy.
Water resources. Debate over water in Kansas has received lots of attention from policymakers and citizens, but few new financial resources. Western Kansas is truly dependent on the Ogallala aquifer. 40% has already been drained and that number will climb to 70% by 2050 at present rates of crop irrigation. Since the 1950’s, Kansas has issued too many groundwater permits – some 35,000. These permits are considered property rights so legal experts argue Kansas would be forced to spend tens of millions of dollars to retire some of these permits. Some irrigators are voluntarily setting conservation goals to extend the life of their water rights, and are using tools and technology that closely monitor soil moisture and help them use less water. But all of this only adds a few years to the aquifer’s lifespan.
In eastern Kansas, the water battle is over surface water and public water supply storage in several federal reservoirs. These reservoirs are silting in from stream bank erosion and soil run-off. Kansas has started dredging John Redmond Reservoir plus limiting soil run-off up stream at a cost of over $20 million. Water quality within those reservoirs is also at risk with algae blooms impacting more reservoirs. Farming practices that reduce runoff and protect water quality require programs with adequate funding and policies backed with commitment to providing water for farms and businesses in the future.
Voter Engagement. Of the 125 Kansas House races up this year, nearly 50 will have only one candidate. There are thousands of unregistered eligible Kansas voters—especially among youth and communities of color.
Voting rates are under 30% for the August primary and under 60% in November elections. Kansas, through its Secretary of State has spent far too much time and attention on making it harder to vote and chasing ghosts of voter fraud.
Improved election laws could encourage greater voter participation. Kansas should repeal laws that mandate the proof of citizenship. We could implement same day voter registration at the polls as many states have done. Kansas could follow states that automatically register residents to vote when they apply for driver’s licenses. We could also expand early voting opportunities and voter education campaigns with greater outreach efforts. Kansas needs to establish voter participation goals, and research what works to meet increased participation.
We face big issues as a state, in our communities, our families and as individuals. We need more people engaged in the conversation about those issues. This summer take time to pay attention to what matters in your community, and ask questions of those running for office be it dog catcher, county commissioner, legislator or Governor. The 2018 elections matter.
Contact Paul Johnson at email@example.com.