TOPEKA — Brookings Institution policy director Marek Gootman moderated a panel discussion on economic development with a congressman, commerce secretary and chamber of commerce president.
Gootman, who works to bridge gaps between think-tank perspective and real-world action, ended up stealing his guests' thunder with a buffet of statistics and theories about how technology, population, education and innovation factored into a region's ability to match talent to opportunities for growth. And, he said, the metrics in Kansas add up to profound problems of economic competitiveness.
"Kansas and its economies have not recovered from the recession," said Gootman, who considered conditions best in the Wichita and Kansas City markets. "The rest of the state? Brutal. More than twice as many people who are in that high-skill category than there are jobs to occupy them."
His next bite of oxygen in the Topeka meeting: Among people with a high school degree but without a four-year college diploma, rural Kansas has four times as many people seeking a job meeting standards of self-sufficiency.
It reflected growing apprehension about the status of economic development in Kansas and concern about efficacy of taxpayer-financed policies intended to spur growth. The sense of urgency can be revealed by the frequency of expert debates on the subject, such as the one Gootman led in Topeka. The Kansas Department of Commerce is financing the first comprehensive evaluation in decades of Kansas' economic programs and prospects. The Kansas Chamber, a heavyweight lobbying organization, sponsored a 150-page study with two dozen ideas with potential to liberate the economy.
The Kansas Legislature contributed an audit affirming suspicions that most of the state lottery revenue earmarked for economic development wasn't being spent in accordance with Kansas law. It will spark conversation among lawmakers in the 2020 session.
And, there is bipartisan frustration that state-backed incentives favor urban areas, to the detriment of smaller communities. The state's economic strategies aren't nimble enough to keep pace with changing conditions, said Rep. Don Hineman, a Republican from Dighton in southwest Kansas.
"The 1950s era of Ozzie and Harriet and Ward and June Cleaver isn't coming back. It's gone," said Hineman, a 72-year-old rancher and farmer.
Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said the state failed to nurture the small-business ecosystems.
"We need to be (as) willing to throw money at small business and entrepreneurs as we are at winning these big contracts for big companies," Probst said.
Gov. Laura Kelly and David Toland, secretary of the state Department of Commerce, poured $800,000 into a study by the McKinsey consulting firm to analyze the economy, outline a blueprint for seizing potential and help design a way to accelerate progress on economic indicators ranging from gross domestic product to population growth and labor participation.
The last time the state waded into its economic development mindset, the result was the profound Redwood-Krider report in 1986. It was embraced by Republicans and Democrats and served as the North Star for government officials looking for economic spark.
"That really set the path for economic development in the state of Kansas and provided us with great data," Kelly said. "We need to redo that. The economy, the jobs out there — everything is so very, very different."
Toland, who previously worked on economic development in Allen County, said "Framework for Growth" should be finished by March.
The report will concentrate on cornerstones of aviation and agriculture, he said, but explore prospects in advanced manufacturing and transportation logistics. It is important to outsource the research to avoid bias and deliver an ambitious guide for the next decade, he said.
"They don't have a dog in the fight. They're coming in neutral," the secretary said. "The governor wants, and I want, an unbiased, objective analysis of whether we're getting that return on investment with existing incentive programs."
Kelly said the report would allow the administration to recommend which programs to retain and which to phase out.
"I'm curious to see what they come up with," said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. "I think it's good to scrutinize these programs."
In October, a report by the Kansas Legislature's auditing division showed state law wasn't followed in appropriation of $42 million from the Economic Development Initiatives Fund in fiscal year 2018. Only 18% set aside for economic development from the lottery was allocated to development programs under rules set in statute.
"Their purpose needs to be fully defined and measured. Maybe they don’t even need to exist," said Sen. Julia Lynn, a Republican from Olathe.
At the conference in Topeka, Gootman let his guests — U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Kansas Chamber president Allan Cobb and Toland — chew on statistics of Kansas economic malaise. He said Kansas fell from 24th to 43rd among states in employment growth since 2008. In the following decade, Kansas slipped from 14th to 35th in GDP. Kansas’ average wage fell from 21st to 45th during that 10-year span.
It helped fuel a population exodus from Kansas to such states as Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and California.
Marshall, who represents the 1st District covering most of western Kansas, said that to be competitive, Kansas communities required quality schools, affordable health care and reliable infrastructure, including high-speed internet. He said government could boost economic activity by dropping federal regulations and taxes. Somehow, he said, Kansans must convince young people to stay and be part of an economic resurgence.
"My vision is to pass along the same American dream that I got to live," Marshall said.