Through no fault of their own, Kansas state employees have been through a lot over the past decade.

Their departments were often underfunded because of a combination of inadequate tax revenue and economic weakness from the Great Recession. And they often weren’t respected — casualties of a state government that saw them more as problems to be solved or ignored than resources to be leaned upon and enhanced.

That’s why we appreciate hearing Gov. Laura Kelly tell state employees just how much they’re appreciated at an event earlier this month. According to Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Sherman Smith, Kelly put it this way:

“I know these have been challenging times. I don’t have to tell you how deeply the workforce was cut in Kansas agencies. Often, they were cut to the point where you were just trying to get by and keep your heads above water. I know that feeling, and I hate that feeling. And I’m committed to changing it.”

To state the obvious: State employees are not the enemy. If anything about Kansas’ decade-plus experiment with privatization stands out, it’s that private businesses don’t necessarily have state taxpayers’ best interests at heart. Too often, poorly written contracts or simply shoddy performance have shown the severe limits of this approach.

Public employees work for the public. Their goal isn’t to a shareholder in another state or a chief executive in another country. They literally work for us, the people of Kansas.

Or as state prison chaplain Oscar Gomez put it to Smith:

“The job that we do as correctional staff is very important for the state. Our commitment to the public, to keep the incarcerated people where they belong but also to reform them — as a chaplain I do a lot of stuff to try to get them better so they go back to society with a different mind and a different heart.”

There is still a long journey ahead. While this year’s budget from the Kansas Legislature includes raises for state staff, the challenges in rebuilding a hollowed-out state government remain. Kelly will need the cooperation and support of state employees to make that goal a reality.

Her pep talk was an important step. But as everyone knows, words only go so far. Actions and real, sustained investments will make the difference in years to come.

Topeka Capital-Journal