HUTCHINSON — On Governor’s Day at the Kansas State Fair, Sam Brownback granted awards, pleaded with community college students to stay in Kansas when they graduate and defended his record on renewable energy.
Thursday was the traditional day for the governor to take center stage in fair activities. Most of those who encountered Brownback were thankful and supportive as he told corny jokes, posed for dozens of cellphone pictures and handed out awards for everything from sorghum heads to quilts.
“I told him to keep up the good work even though a lot of people don’t agree,” said Kenny Knight of Lyons, inducted into the fair foundation’s Wall of Honor on Thursday.
In an address to students at nearby Hutchinson Community College — another annual tradition of Governor’s Day at the fair — Brownback talked of the state’s slow population growth compared with the rest of the country.
He projected that Kansas, which once had six congressional representatives, is on its way to losing one of its current four seats when Congress is reapportioned after the next Census.
Most of the speech was Brownback’s standard PowerPoint presentation, outlining how he hopes to reverse the population trend through tax cuts for businesses.
He ended with a plea to the students to stay in Kansas and not take their talents elsewhere.
“This is a great place,” Brownback said. “I hope you get a good education here, or wherever else you’re going to get an education.
“Get some good job training and job skills at other places — and then come home. And we need you. God bless you all.”
The speech didn’t draw the enthusiasm Brownback usually gets when he delivers it to business groups.
Afterward, students said they would rather have heard about the state’s budget picture and school finance.
“I’m interested in learning about the big deal with the budget cuts that I’ve heard he’s made,” said Krystal May, who is studying to be a music teacher. “So I would have liked to hear more about those than the population increase and decrease.
“I feel like that’s more pertinent to people’s futures, especially people who are interested in gen education and music education, (and in being) teachers in the future.”
Student Morgan Wilson said he also wanted to hear more from the governor about education cuts.
“A lot of teachers are scared,” Wilson said. “They’re scared to work in Kansas. That’s something I think he should have touched on, since he was speaking at a school in the first place.
“But, at the same time, I do see his points with what he was talking about with the population growth and decline and how that is important to what is going on around us.”
As he toured the Kansas Energy Expo at the fair, Brownback encountered some criticism from a former president of the Kansas Senate, Dave Kerr, who objected to the repeal earlier this year of renewable energy portfolio standards.
The standards, passed under former Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, required Kansas utilities to get at least 20 percent of the power they sell from renewable sources, primarily wind power.
After Kerr left the Senate, he worked in economic development and helped bring a Siemens wind-turbine plant — and 400 manufacturing jobs — to Hutchinson. Now, Kerr is chairman of the board of an ethanol alternative-fuel plant.
He said the effect of repealing the wind standards is undetermined so far but could make wind producers think twice about Kansas.
“Investors need stable policy, and this introduced some doubt,” Kerr said after speaking for several minutes with the governor. “I didn’t see any reason to (repeal) it but purely political.”
Later, Brownback said he didn’t see why Kerr criticized the repeal. He said he thinks it has made Kansas more, not less, attractive to the wind industry.
“It’s brought a lot of investment to the state,” Brownback said.
He said several new wind farms are going forward this year because the repeal brought an end to the political wrangling over wind standards.
The standards were Parkinson’s price for supporting expansion of a coal-fired plant near Holcomb in far west Kansas, which his predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, had blocked.
Parkinson’s compromise fell apart when the coal plant ran into regulatory and financial hurdles and wasn’t built, leaving conservative Republicans in the Legislature feeling like they’d given up something for nothing.
Brownback said wind advocates told him “whenever they saw this fight going on in Kansas, a lot of investors, and those are all national/international projects that are funded out of state, they’re watching all the fighting going on and just really questioning whether to put money here. But once that got stabilized, they started putting money in.”