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SPOTLIGHT
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Looking inside Kansas' growth

Published on -3/2/2014, 6:31 PM

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What accounts for the enthusiasm our political leaders have for being moral busybodies, anti-government enthusiasts and fiscal fantasists? They have the support of an energetic minority of conservative middle and lower-middle class, mostly male, mostly employed adult Kansans who vote for the dream of improving economic opportunity, good schools, minimal lifestyle interference, fewer minorities (or "illegals") and low taxes. These voters' consistently perverse reward is government that provides minimalist services, lots of behavior regulation and a tax system that burdens the middle and bottom of the socioeconomic heap more than the top.

Our politicians praise unrestricted free-enterprise. They promise better schools, highways, economic boosterism and support for children. What they have delivered is a severe reduction in tax revenue partially offset with heavy borrowing through the state transportation department to help pay state government's general expenses. These politicians do not face up to the financial realities of the state's ill-designed and significantly underfunded public employee retirement system. And, as my Insight Kansas colleague noted last week, our Legislature engages in antics that waste time, money and the state's reputation in every quarter of the land. What indeed is the matter with Kansas?

One answer is Kansas is becoming the land time forgot. Since the 1940s, Kansas's population has grown 0.8 percent per year, while the nation as a whole has grown nearly two and a half times as fast at 1.9 percent per year. If we had matched the national average, Kansas would have a current population of 4.3 million -- six seats in the U.S. House. Instead, we are 2.9 million in number and much less diverse than the rest of the country. With our growth rate, we're moving inexorably toward the congressional representational status of Wyoming, Montana and Alaska. Since the 1980s, our population growth only slightly has exceeded the natural increase arising from the difference of births over deaths. This is pretty clear, circumstantial evidence people are migrating to Kansas in numbers insufficient to change our colors, faiths or attitudes.

Among our youngest citizens, the number of children enrolled in public K-12 grew from 466,778 in the 2006-07 school year to 485,147 in 2012-13. That's 3.9 percent, or 18,369 students in seven years. While enrollment of Kansas students in all types of higher education has grown from 157,000 to 167,000 between academic year 2007-08 and 2012-13, the number of those students enrolled in the state's public universities actually has fallen by more than 2,100.

On that subject, we keep pumping out approximately 40,000 degree or certificate awardees annually, but our labor force declined from the peak in 2009 of 1,507,644 by 1.1 percent to 1,490,707 in 2013. The decline in our unemployment rate, much ballyhooed by conservatives, occurred not because of a measly 10,000 new jobs since the recessionary low of 2010, but because our workforce has contracted. Social Security retirees have grown just as demographics predict, but those retiring from the workforce with disability have jumped nearly 30 percent from a bit less than 58,000 in 2007 to nearly 75,000 in 2012. Our best and brightest head for more favorable territories, while the less adventurous and more decrepit stay behind.

Those Kansans who are inward-looking, resistant to the trends of the ever-changing national culture, and convinced hellfire and judgment are not far off, are the most motivated public citizens in the state's polity. Those Kansans with a more outward-looking and future-oriented view largely have been passive or ineffectual. It's not original to state the rewards of politics go to the active and involved. For now, the winners are on the angry right. But public opinion seems to crave a centrist, progressive vision. Can the energy be found to make it happen?

Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.

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