Since 1980, the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University has helped facilitate public policy development for western and rural Kansas. The research techniques employed by the institute and the accurate readings of public sentiment have made it an invaluable resource for the entire region.
It's too bad the entire state, or at least Topeka, doesn't pay closer attention to the public service provided by the Docking Institute. If Kansas lawmakers did, they might find it easier to be in step with what the general population is thinking.
Readers of The Hays Daily News -- and the Wichita Eagle, for that matter -- were able to view the latest Kansas Speaks in Sunday's print editions. The annual opinion survey gauges what Kansans throughout the state are thinking about politics, overall quality of life, the economy, taxes, energy, public policy and the upcoming general election. Each topic is approached with scientifically valid data collection, which results in an extremely high confidence rating of the numbers. If legislators were to pay heed, they'd find their work much easier. At the very least, they would have insight into the collective mindset of their constituents -- as divided as it is.
That doesn't appear to take place, however.
"I don't recall any elected official ever commenting on our results," said Gary Brinker, director of the Docking Institute, "either in the media or direct correspondence.
"Of course, one of the most interesting findings the survey shows is that much of what Kansan's want flies in the face of laws and policies recently enacted, so I'm sure many elected officials would rather Kansas Speaks did not exist."
If Gov. Sam Brownback and the majority bloc of conservative Republican legislators were wondering why so much skepticism existed about the massive income tax cuts being implemented, they need only look at the statistics. Amongst Kansans who believe state spending should be increased for items such as K-12 public education, no less than 74 percent believe income taxes should be raised to pay for it. Sales and property taxes were much lower as the preferred source of revenue, registering 49 percent and 32 percent respectively.
Kansas Speaks breaks down overall numbers by various categories such as party affiliation, household income, education level and age. Only the strongest self-identified Republicans don't have a majority of people believing income taxes should be raised to pay for state expenditures, and even in that group it is 42 percent. Not very strong Republicans, independents no matter which way they lean, and all Democrats support raising income taxes -- which is not the direction the state is headed.
Perhaps it is because of that disconnect Brownback is not faring well in favorability ratings. Only 33 percent approve of the governor's job performance, slightly better than President Barack Obama's paltry 30 percent approval rating. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., earned 35 percent approval, which explains why he's in such a tight re-election race himself.
Half of Kansas believes the state economy is at least doing "good," although another question suggests there is volatility in that number. When asked if respondents were concerned the Kansas economy would threaten them or their family's welfare, only 19 percent were "not at all concerned." Eighty-one percent were concerned, whether slightly, moderately or very.
When asked what was the most suprising result of this year's Kansas Speaks, Brinker offered: "I did not think support for decriminalizing marijuana would be so popular. Two-thirds want possession to be no more than a misdemeanor, while almost one-third want a policy like Colorado. If in the next few years, Colorado doesn't experience any major problems, this could easily swing to a majority."
We would not have guessed such sentiment existed in the Sunflower State either. But that is why the Docking Institute conducts the annual survey. It is fascinating reading, both for an inquisitive public and for policy-makers who are supposed to be doing the people's business. We encourage this significant work to continue. Getting a finger on the pulse of the state is no easy task. State officials and elected leaders would serve themselves and us much better if they paid attention.
The entire report can be found at www.fhsu.edu/docking.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry