Senate rookie says Kansas needs to think bigger on economic front to counter brain drain

Or is GOP’s strategy of growth via tax, budget cuts a game changer?

Sen. Ethan Corson, a first-year senator from Johnson County, says the underappreciated brain drain of Kansas' young adults requires imaginative, bold investment in economic development to create jobs and retain this generation of Kansans. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Ethan Corson, a first-year senator from Johnson County, says the underappreciated brain drain of Kansas' young adults requires imaginative, bold investment in economic development to create jobs and retain this generation of Kansans. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Senate rookie Ethan Corson is among the youngest of 15 newcomers to the chamber, but no stranger to elective politics in Kansas.

Corson worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the administration of President Barack Obama, practiced law at a firm in Washington, D.C., and was executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party for two years. He was running the state party when Kansans elected Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. In 2020, he turned his attention to the Senate seat left vacant by Barbara Bollier and wants folks to know the biggest under-recognized challenge facing the state was exodus of young adults for careers far from Kansas.

“It is the number one problem that is happening in Kansas that not enough folks in the Legislature are talking about it,” he said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “That really is our future.”

Corson, who grew up in Johnson County and has a 21-month-old son, said he conducted informal field work a couple years ago while a fellow at the Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He interacted with honors students mostly educated at Kansas public schools with Kansas tax dollars. His question: What are you doing next?

“For almost all of them it was, ‘I’m moving to Nashville.’ ‘I’m moving to Chicago.’ ‘I’m moving to Boston.’ Really eye opening, because these are the kids that we most need to keep in Kansas,” he said.

He said state legislators need to focus tax dollars on start-up businesses and promote a brand of entrepreneurship attractive to the best and brightest. Think big, he said, by forging an investment magnet capable of inspiring a generation of engineers working in the electric vehicle supply chain. Or, he said, the state could double down on wind energy research, development and manufacturing.

An inhibiting factor, he said, has been the penchant of Republican lawmakers to declare tax reductions and budget cuts the narrow path to economic growth.

“We need to challenge folks to stay here to be a part of something special,” Corson said. “I think so much of it is we’re always in this mentality of cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.”

Mega-tax reform

Corson said the tax reform bill passed last month by the Senate would recklessly gut state revenue by $1 billion over a three-year period. If the bill became law, he said it would jeopardize state funding of public education, rural broadband infrastructure, highway construction and mental health services.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, says Senate Bill 22 offers long-delayed tax relief to businesses and individuals, including a higher standard on income taxes and exempts retirement benefits from state income tax. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

He said Senate Bill 22, which cleared the Senate but not the House, favored tax cuts to big corporations and wealthy individuals instead of small businesses along Main Street. It’s reminiscent of the 2012 income tax cuts signed by Gov. Sam Brownback that triggered years budget problems before repealed in 2017, he said.

“During my campaign … we made about 135,000 attempts to talk to voters,” Corson said. “There was not a single person who said, ‘You know what, Ethan, the big issue that I think you need to tackle in the Legislature is multinational corporations don’t have enough tax relief. You know, I’m worried that the wealthiest Kansans aren’t getting enough tax breaks.'”

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Tyson Republican and chair of the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee, said the tax bill proved Republicans in the Senate were standing up for hard-working Kansans. The bill allows Kansans to itemize deductions on state income taxes and take advantage of standard deductions on federal taxes under a law signed by President Donald Trump. It would raise the state’s standard deduction on income taxes and exempt Social Security and retirement benefits from state tax.

“The RELIEF Act is aptly named because it provides real and immediate relief to our families and businesses who have stood strong during the past year and endured the many challenges associated with the pandemic,” Tyson said.

 

Emergency management

Corson said the GOP majority in the Senate was shortsighted in attempting to weaken the governor’s authority to respond to public health disasters such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Proposed changes to the Kansas Emergency Management Act would shift authority over executive orders to a committee of state legislators and further slow the state government’s reaction by requiring a legal review of the attorney general. It’s also restrains county health officers and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment from delivering guidance to the public.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the Kansas Emergency Management Act requires revision to keep governors from imposing unnecessary limits in a crisis. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“We’re gonna have a political committee that would have to approve, in an emergency, approve any executive orders before they could be issued?” the senator said.

“Of course, there is a role for oversight. What we’re debating is what that proper role is. I’m worried that this bill would just hamstring so much of government, whether it’s the governor or the secretary of KDHE, municipalities, cities, school boards, local health officers,” he said.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, said Senate Bill 273 was based on evidence the governor and public health officers required latitude to protect the public, but shouldn’t possess unilateral power in a government built on checks and balances.

“From restrictions on the freedom to worship to an unwieldy set of mandates that imposed unnecessary restrictions on people and even shut down businesses, the burdens imposed by various units of government called out the need to establish a new framework,” Masterson said.

 

Democrats’ future

Corson, who led the state Democratic Party from 2017 to 2019, said victories by Kelly and Davids in 2018 demonstrated what was possible when the right candidates were on the ballot at the right time. In the governor’s race, Kelly defeated former Secretary of State Kris Kobach. She did so in a state that two years later awarded Trump a 200,000-vote victory over Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Davids, who serves the 3rd District of Wyandotte and Johnson counties, became the first Democrat to represent a U.S. House district in Kansas in a decade.

“Congresswoman Davids ran an incredible, inspiring campaign,” Corson said. “I feel privileged to have gotten to know her through this and just find her to be an incredibly smart, hardworking, talented person who inspired a lot of people to really get up off the couch, stop yelling at the TV and get out there. Governor Kelly ran a really hard-fought campaign. Did an excellent job.”

Corson said Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and capable on a party-line vote to override a governor’s veto. He contends that may not always be the case because the 2020 Census would show population growth in legislative districts where Democrats compete well with Republicans.

“There are going to be, no question, additional legislative seats in places like Johnson County, where Democrats now have the majority of the delegation,” he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.