What’s still the matter with Kansas? How to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s official portrait as U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. “If you do not want to see Brownback-like tax policies financially hurt Kansas again, choose candidates who do not support them,” write Ethel Edwards and Susan Osborne. (United States Department of State)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Ethel Edwards is co-leader of the Women for Kansas Northeast Chapter. Susan Osborne is a member of the state leadership team of Women for Kansas.

With respect to Thomas Frank, whose “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was published in 2005, Kansas continues at times to be its own worst enemy. Kansans seem to forget rather than learn from mistakes made in the not-so-distant past.

Just seven years ago, economists predicted that Gov. Sam Brownback’s initiatives, which depended heavily on tax reduction for the wealthy, would bankrupt the state. Brownback still won the election and, sure enough, in the years that followed, Kansas saw nine rounds of budget cuts, three credit downgrades, sluggish growth, lower than expected revenues and brutal cuts to government programs. Kansas public schools were ruled constitutionally underfunded, operating reserves were drained and state highway funds were raided.

Kansas’ “experiment” became an example throughout the United States of how not to manage a state and how the trickle-down economic theory does not work.

Brownback did not complete his second term; he was deeply unpopular when he left Kansas for a job in former President Donald Trump’s administration as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

In the 2018 Kansas election, voters seemed determined to fix the state’s finances and sent many moderates to Topeka. They rolled back Brownback’s tax cuts and Kansas began to stabilize. Some economists worried that it would take generations to recover. America paid attention, noting that Kansas had apparently learned its lesson.

Not so fast! In 2020, with a governor who fought to repeal the Brownback tax plan, Kansans did an about-face and purged moderate legislators. The newly elected majority passed tax cuts that once again favored those with money. Medicaid expansion, which would be a boon to the working poor and rural communities with hospitals at risk and create almost 23,000 new jobs, was pushed aside while junk insurance was touted. Lawmakers passed voting restrictions designed to disenfranchise many Kansans. Gov. Laura Kelly was put in a position of unsuccessfully vetoing several bills passed by the legislature’s Republican supermajority.

Kansas was once known for its progressive image: the state passed a child labor law, created juvenile courts and enacted a civil service law. Joseph Bristow, a U.S. senator from Kansas, introduced the resolution that led to the 17th Amendment, providing for direct popular election of U.S. senators.

Kansas women won the right to vote in municipal elections in 1887 and elected the nation’s first female mayor, Susanna Salter of Argonia, that same year. In 1918, Kansas women, who had enjoyed equal suffrage since 1912, helped elect Lizzie Wooster to the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was the first woman in Kansas, and one of the first in the country, to hold statewide elective office. Kansas was also one of the first seven states to approve the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment just days after it was proposed.

How can Kansas return to its progressive roots? How can Kansas citizens, who have long supported voter access, fair tax policies and Medicaid expansion, choose thoughtful, informed, common-sense candidates and support them through winning campaigns? What will it take for average Kansas residents to elect legislators who genuinely care for their communities and their neighbors and will stand up to special interest groups?

Kansans must act. If we want true representation in our Legislature, we must all get involved and reject candidates who listen to and are supported primarily by special interests while ignoring the documented wishes of their constituents. We must demand that elected officials show up at forums and debates. We must quit saying that “politics” is not important to our lives or our livelihoods.

We should ask questions, do the research and work for candidates who match our positions. Medicaid expansion will benefit our state, so work for candidates who support expansion.

If you do not want to see Brownback-like tax policies financially hurt Kansas again, choose candidates who do not support them.

If your right to vote is important to you, look closely at the voting bills being pushed and see if they really make it easier for all Kansans to vote, and work for candidates that support voting rights for all Kansans. Join voting rights advocacy organizations that are suing to keep these voter suppression laws from being implemented.

If education for all is important to you, then connect with organizations that support public education, and work for candidates that oppose funneling tax dollars to private schools.

Research candidates’ positions rather than just listen to their slick ads. Join groups that support the values you support and consider running for office yourself.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Ethel Edwards
Ethel Edwards

Ethel Edwards is co-leader of the Women for Kansas NE Chapter. She is a retired teacher, administrator and consultant at public elementary, middle and high schools and at the district and state levels. She has degrees in mathematics, language arts, library media and administration. She is past president of the Kansas Association of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Education Association of Topeka.

Susan Osborne
Susan Osborne

Susan Osborne is a member of the state leadership team of Women for Kansas. With chapters throughout the state, Women for Kansas is a non-partisan organization that supports moderation in political issues and cooperation between political parties. She is retired from teaching and administrative positions at Wichita State University, Friends University and Newman University.