Happy trails to a grand champion Kansas statesman

Rep. Don Hineman at the 2011 Kansas State Fair. "The First Annual Legislative Showmanship contest was held at the Kansas State Fair last Saturday," he wrote on Facebook. "When the dust had settled on the tanbark I was selected as Grand Champion by the judge, Governor Sam Brownback. All the credit goes to 4-Her Kate Hagans of Utica, who lent me her steer Mr. Snazzy, and coached me to victory!" (Don Hineman/Facebook)

Don Hineman is such a gentleman he still calls the man who booted him from his leadership position a friend.

Hineman is a farmer from Dighton, out west. He’s also a Republican state representative who serves around 22,000 people in Gove, Lane, Logan, Scott, Sheridan, Trego and Wichita counties. This week, or the first time in more than a decade, he won’t be on the August primary ballot.

“I’m now 73 years old and it just seemed like it was probably long enough,” he told me. “I had a good individual ready to step up and run for the seat I was vacating.”

That’d be another farmer, Jim Minnix, a former Scott County commissioner. No Democrat filed, so we can go ahead and call the November election for Minnix in Kansas House District 118.

Some people say Hineman is a classic statesman, the rare elected official who serves with integrity. They say it’s too bad he’s leaving the Legislature.

I called him on a hot day in July. When he stepped somewhere out of the western Kansas wind, I could hear birds chattering. He’d been replanting milo. It was late for that, but better than never.

I asked him to reflect on his time in Topeka.

“I guess I would summarize my legislative service as being focused on policy much more than politics,” he said. “That gained me some support and respect and appreciation from some folks but obviously caused consternation from others.”

Among his proudest moments, Hineman said, was being “directly involved” in overturning then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of the Legislature’s 2017 roll-back of Brownback’s infamous tax cuts. By then it was obvious, he said, “that simply cutting taxes was not a viable strategy for economic growth and simultaneously continuing to provide essential governmental services.”

That’s the thing about government, those essential services.

“People don’t appreciate governmental services until the ones they depend on disappear,” Hineman said.

Highways, for example.

“We’ve been lucky over the years that Kansas has had a superior highway system to most of our neighbors,” he said, but when legislators take money from the Kansas Department of Transportation to make up for shortfalls elsewhere, roads deteriorate. Especially in western Kansas.

“The average citizen believes there’s an excessive amount of waste in government budgets, and certainly there is some,” Hineman allowed. “That’s probably inevitable in an organization the size of state government. But that mantra is amplified and repeated so often by the folks who want to downsize state government significantly and reduce taxes significantly without great concern for government services, unfortunately the general public places more credibility in that mantra of wasteful government than is actually true.”

Kansas Rep. Don Hineman, second from left, and his family. (Submitted by Don Hineman to Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Rep. Don Hineman, second from left, and his family. (Submitted by Don Hineman to Kansas Reflector)

Besides serving as House majority leader for two years, Hineman also chaired the Rural Revitalization Committee, which identified three ways to help rural Kansas.

First, people need access to health care. Expanding Medicaid could help.

Second, rural areas need affordable housing — they can’t attract businesses if there’s nowhere for workers to live.

Third, everyone needs high-speed broadband.

“That’s just as important to our societal infrastructure as the railroads and highway system, or rural electrification in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he said. “High speed broadband is now the infrastructure that is needed and desperately lacking in rural Kansas — there are urban broadband deserts as well.”

Nothing much happened on affordable housing, which Hineman said was frustrating. They did make progress on broadband: Hineman credited Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration for putting some money for that into her highway plan.

“The funding is not adequate,” he said, “but everyone realizes it’s a start.”

They were also making progress on health care. Hineman’s committee approved a bill allowing Kansas to participate in a federal pilot project establishing rural health centers, but the House didn’t have time to vote on it before the pandemic ended the session.

It was another attempt to improve rural health care that got him in trouble.

“I took a leadership role in trying to get Medicaid expansion passed in 2019 session, and there was significant political blowback to that,” Hineman explained.

Last fall, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, removed Hineman as chairman of the Rural Revitalization Committee.

“Here’s the odd thing,” Hineman said. “Ron Ryckman and I are good friends. I understood why he had to make that move, to make some amount of unity within the Republican House caucus. I regretted it, hated to see it happen, but understood why he felt he needed to.”

That’s mighty diplomatic of Hineman. Because out here in reality, a Republican punishing another Republican for supporting something that would help the people of his district is a load of rotten milo.

Hineman’s earned a break. But he had advice for the rest of us.

“The first thing is to pay attention, and get your news from credible sources. There are a lot of issues that touch the Kansas Legislature that the average citizen is really not aware of, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a representational form of government, but if the people aren’t paying attention and in active communication with their representatives, that representational aspect is diminished.”

He said he’d been looking forward to traveling when his term ends in January, but the pandemic has delayed those plans. At least he’ll have less traveling to Topeka.