The Future from Here: Assessing Post-Election Kansas
By Tom Parker
In midterm elections this year, the majority of Kansas voters rejected the sharply divisive Republican candidate Kris Kobach for Laura Kelly, a moderate Democrat. While some considered her win a repudiation of the Trump Administration, Governor-elect Kelly saw it as a shift toward a more bipartisan, common sense approach to governance. With 48 percent of the statewide vote to Kobach’s 43 percent, it was evident that her focus on school funding, highway construction and Medicaid expansion resonated with voters weary of baseless rhetoric. On the national level, Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives but lost seats in the U.S. Senate.
The election was, in many ways, a mixed bag that left many people scratching their heads and asking, What now? To get some ideas of what Kansans can expect, the Kansas Rural Center invited Dorothy Barnett, Executive Director of the Climate + Energy Project, Paul Johnson, KRC policy analyst, and Zack Pistora, Legislative Director for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, to answer that question at their annual Food and Farm conference, held Nov. 16-17 in Wichita. The panel was moderated by Rachel Myslivy, Assistant Director of the Climate + Energy Project.
Each speaker was asked to outline the top priorities they believe Kansans should be aware of during the upcoming
legislative session, then Myslivy asked them to name their top tip for civic engagement and the number one question people should ask their legislators.
For Barnett, addressing the state’s energy future was paramount. Though many climate and energy issues were neglected by the former administration, she was optimistic that the newly elected Governor Laura Kelly and Lt. Govenor Lynn Rogers would boost opportunities for advancing the clean energy economy and for tackling issues on the environment and climate change.
Not only will the governor get to appoint two members to the Kansas Corporation Commission, she will also appoint members to the Citizen Utility Ratepayer Board, or CURB. The three-member Kansas Corporation Commission regulates the state’s telecommunications businesses, pipeline companies, water, electric, gas and power companies as well as transportation companies. CURB is an independent state agency responsible for protecting the interests of residential and small commercial utility ratepayers from unreasonable utility rates, and to promote long-term, cost-effective reliability of utility services.
Kansas has done an admirable job with renewable wind energy, she said, but lags behind in solar generation. Consumer and small commercial access to solar energy, often hampered by needless regulations, deserves a solar bill of rights that would make solar energy more accessible and affordable.
Of critical importance, and long overdue, is the need for a state energy plan. “Kansas is one of only six states that don’t have one,” Barrett said. Part of that plan should focus on climate resiliency and the role of new technologies in the face of a changing climate, she said. Scientists predict that in the coming decades weather patterns will become more severe, so it’s time to investigate alternate strategies such as separating communities on micro-grids that would help redistribute energy both during and after natural disasters.
Like Barnett, Paul Johnson expressed optimism over the election, with caveats. Johnson, policy analyst for KRC, writes weekly legislative update e-reports and monitors the state legislature on environmental, local food and independent family farm issues.
“It’s hard to overstate how different this political landscape would have been if we would have had a different outcome in the governor’s race,” he said, “But at this point I think we have to be pretty clear-eyed about how pragmatic Laura Kelly is going to be, and some of her choices on priorities.”
The farm bill, however, was uppermost in his thinking. “The key that affects land use in our state is the farm bill,” he said. “What drives farm subsidies is what makes the difference in what we’re planting. We only subsidize five crops with our farm bill—wheat, cotton, rice, soybeans and corn. Our farm bill funds feed grains, not food grains. It’s not the diet we should be shifting to right now.”
The House’s version of the farm bill would do away with limits on subsidies that go to the largest farms, he said. Under the current bill, 80 percent of farm payments go to the top 20 percent of the nation’s farms. The House bill would also kill the Conservation Stewardship Program. “It’s the conservation plan for working farms,” he said. “The Senate bill didn’t do any of that. We need to take the Senate choice and move forward.”
(Editor’s Note: The 2018 farm bill passed on Dec. 20 adopted more of the Senate version. See related article this issue)
Zack Pistora’s take on the election was that the real winners were the voters. “We had five percent more turnout than we did the last midterm election,” he said. “That’s 130,000 people. We now have a more representative democracy in Kansas than we did before.”
Pistora represents the Sierra Club on water conservation, hydraulic fracking, energy efficiency, clean energy and other issues at the Kansas State Legislature. He felt that having a Republican-controlled legislature with a Democratic governorship might make for more bipartisan legislation, and lead to more cooperation.
In his opinion, the key environmental issue facing Kansas is water, and his list was long, from siltation in major reservoirs that supply drinking water, algae blooms that threaten wildlife and recreation, and, at the heart of it, inadequate and inequitable funding for the state water plan. The plan is supposed to collect $2 million annually from the lottery and $6 million from the public, but the state hasn’t been putting that money into the plan, Pistora said. Encouraging the governor to reinstate statutory funding for the state water plan fund would be a good start toward rebuilding financial reserves for water issues.
Revamping the water usage fee for high-quantity users could finance conservation methods, improvements to water technologies and research for alternate crops, he said. “The more water you use, the more you should have to contribute to the fee,” he said. “Who’s that going to affect the most? Farmers. But we’re just asking for a penny for every thousand gallons. And everybody who’s not a farmer, we’re asking two pennies.” Over the past 50 years, 100 trillion gallons of water were removed from the High Plains aquifer, much of it through agriculture, and in 2013 alone one trillion gallons was used by Kansas consumers, he said.
The midterm election turnout showed that people want more engagement with their legislators, Myslivy said. Unfortunately, many voters have no idea how to go about doing that or what topics to discuss. In each panelist’s opinion, what question could voters ask their legislator to begin the conversation?
“We’re in a period where customers want choices about where their energy comes from and how it’s being used,” Barnett said. “I would ask if they support my right as a customer to put solar panels on my roof, and if so, would they protect my rights to do so?”
“Get to know your legislators and Congressman,” Johnson said. “Show up at their coffees when they’re out an about in their district, keep your issues short and direct.”
“What leadership role are you taking for the environment?” Pistora said. “And then ask, what can I do as a Kansas constituent to make sure we lead in an environmental future?”
Myslivy had an answer for that last question. “Attending WEALTH Day at the state capitol is a fantastic way to get connected both to other people who care about these issues and to learn about the organizations in the state who are doing the work,” she said. “We’ll buddy you up with a seasoned advocate to take you to talk to your legislator if you want, we’ll give you fact sheets, questions to ask, we’ll do everything you need to be part of the process.” The next WEALTH day is March 12, 2019. It is sponsored by Kansas WEALTH (Water, Energy, Air, Land, Transportation and Health). WEALTH is a network of Kansas environmental and advocacy organizations including the Kansas Rural Center.