Archive for Tuesday, September 7, 1999


September 7, 1999


— State government is involved in more areas of Kansas life than ever before, and it doesn't show signs of getting smaller.

Two dozen black cows, heifers and heifer calves find refuge from the sun in a farm pond, up to their bellies in murky water. Others sit nearby in Flint Hills prairie grass.

Soon Tom Perrier's family business will vaccinate each animal against the cattle disease brucellosis. It's an annual early fall ritual, which started during the 1930s after the county extension agent told his grandfather, "If it were my herd, I'd vaccinate."

The same state government that maintains U.S. Highway 54 through town and educated Perrier and his three children at Kansas State University also fights brucellosis, so Perrier can't sell any animal without testing it. After a half-century of effort, the state succeeded this year in becoming free of the disease.

State government has changed a lot since Perrier's great-grandparents homesteaded in the Flint Hills, about 65 miles northeast of Wichita, in 1867. It's bigger, more streamlined but more intrusive.

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  • The most obvious change in Kansas' political system over the past 138 years is that state government has grown dramatically.

After Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, its government was minimal. Drafters of the state constitution followed other states' tradition and created a weak governor who served a two-year term and appointed part-time boards to run a single penitentiary, a university, an agricultural college, a teachers' college and a Bureau of Immigration.

The current state budget is nearly $9 billion, and Kansas government agencies employ more than 39,600 workers.

Its rules affect Perrier's business directly, in small ways, every day. In the spring, when he wants to burn off old pasture grass to make way for new grass, he has to notify the county sheriff's office first. In winter, he can't let manure build up on the ground.

With a growing government came new taxes: An inheritance tax in 1901, a gasoline tax in 1925, tobacco taxes in 1927, an income tax in 1933, a sales tax in 1937 and mineral severance taxes in 1983.

"In my early days, you made good money and you kept it all," said Perrier, who's 54. "You make it now, and the government takes a good chunk of it."

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  • A generation after the Civil War, a wave of discontent among farmers, particularly in the Midwest, birthed the Populist movement. Populists elected governors in 1892 and 1896.

Politicians of both major parties still like to claim populism's legacy, attacking big business, or more commonly in recent years, big government.

"It just strikes me that Kansas has always had that fear of power," said Russell Getter, a retired Kansas University political science professor.

The Populist movement in Kansas, Getter said, was a reaction to the power of railroads in state politics and banks in farmers' daily lives. Among other things, the Populists pushed for an income tax and secret ballots in elections.

But the movement faded, in part because the major parties have a tendency to appropriate successful themes from minor parties.

Mel Kahn, a Wichita State University political scientist, noted some Populists complained bitterly when the national Populist and Democratic parties fused in 1896 to run William Jennings Bryan for president.

"Both major parties have demonstrated that they are ideologically eclectic," Kahn said. "Both have shown they are flexible."

In 1990, Democrat Joan Finney repeatedly described herself as a Populist in her successful campaign for governor.

But Kahn doesn't think a true Populist movement exists anymore, nor does he see a new movement emerging. One reason, he said, is that primary elections tend to "institutionalize" the major parties.

"There are probably people who would prefer to be participating in a Populist or Libertarian party but want to be where the action is," Kahn said.

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  • In recent years, Kansas politics has been marked by the visibility of social conservatives -- often labeled the religious right -- in the Republican Party and state government.

But mixing religion and politics is nothing new for Kansans.

An obvious example of the early influence of religion in state politics was prohibition.

Thirteen states had prohibition laws before the Civil War, but Kansas voters went one step further in 1880, amending the state constitution to enact prohibition. The prohibition provision wasn't repealed until 1948.

During the late 19th century, prohibition was a progressive initiative, and Robert Smith Bader, a Neosho Falls historian who's written a book on the subject, noted, "Many people called it the Kansas idea."

One influential group was the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Bader noted that the WCTU's presence in politics extended not only to prohibition but to women's suffrage as well.

"In those early days, many of the brightest and best-educated women belonged to the WCTU," he said. "Kansas was big in combining religion and social activism."

During the early part of the 20th century, Kansas politics was marked by the rise of Republican progressives who wanted to reform government. Spurring them on were ministers and congregations whose views were politically left-of-center.

Bader listed Charles Sheldon, pastor of Topeka's First Congregational Church, as one influential clergyman. Near the turn of the century, Sheldon wrote the best selling book, "In His Steps," which encouraged its readers to ask themselves, "What Would Jesus Do?" and act accordingly.

"There was much less emphasis on raw belief than on action," Bader said. "What would Jesus do, not what would Jesus believe?"

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  • Despite progressives' desire to reform state government, it still grew haphazardly. By 1950, an organizational chart for Kansas government was a jumble of lines and boxes for 142 separate boards, commissions and departments.

And if businesses were regulated, they still were viewed as partners in government.

For example, a 1919 law required the livestock sanitary commissioner to be endorsed by the Kansas Livestock Assn..

Legislators rewrote the law again in 1943, to set up the state's first formal program -- a partnership with the federal government -- to deal with brucellosis. Still, the chairman of the new, seven-member Livestock Commission was the president of the Livestock Assn.

"Many, many, many of those regulatory functions were really carried out by the private economic interests themselves," said Getter.

But Don Evans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's epidemiologist for the Kansas brucellosis program, said federal and state officials probably didn't see brucellosis as a problem until the 1930s because livestock producers didn't.

"That's really what it takes in any disease program, for the industry to recognize it as a problem," he said.

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  • A grandfather of Perrier, the Eureka cattle rancher, represented Greenwood County in the state House of Representatives for 14 years, starting in 1911. That Legislature met only every two years, and members were paid $3 a day.

The executive branch had a similar atmosphere. Even in 1950, part-time boards ultimately were in charge of highways, social welfare programs and health programs, as well as the effort to eradicate brucellosis.

Another wave of change was coming, state-by-state.

"The thing that drove it was the modernization of state government," said Jim Sheffield, a Wichita State political scientist. "States, post World War II, became much more significant in terms of their responsibilities."

The movement hit Kansas in force during the 1960s. In six years, from 1966 through 1972, voters approved revisions of five articles of the state constitution.

The changes gave the governor a four-year term and the power to reorganize the executive branch. Reorganization orders created four cabinet agencies by 1976, and legislators created another four.

"State governments throughout the nation were saying, 'We need to reorganize government and make it more efficient,'" said former Gov. Robert Bennett, the state's chief executive in 1975-79.

The Legislature changed, too.

A 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said legislatures had to be apportioned by the "one-person, one-vote" rule. In Kansas, the change was dramatic, because each of the state's 105 counties had been guaranteed a state representative, no matter how small its population.

"What it tended to do was to bring people who were younger and probably a little more urban oriented into the Legislature," Sheffield said.

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  • State government always has been concerned about economic development. It formed an Immigration Bureau to attract new residents in 1864 and an Industrial Development Commission in 1939.

Bennett issued an order to create a Department of Economic Development in 1975, to help broaden the state's economy. His successor, Democrat John Carlin, opened a state trade office in Japan, and now the state has offices in Hong Kong, Australia and Europe.

The interest in international trade -- foreign nations represent a prime market for beef and live cattle -- affected livestock businesses like Perrier's. Meat and live animal exports from Kansas, excluding poultry, increased from $59 million in 1983 to $714 million in 1998.

"I'm sure my grandfather, most of the cattle he sold were within 50 miles of here," Perrier said.

Livestock Commissioner George Teagarden acknowledged one factor in the state's push in the 1990s to eradicate brucellosis was international trade.

"Disease status is always a question," Teagarden said. "We've got to be able to prove to the importing country that we can meet their requirements."

Teagarden believes that in the not-too-distant future, international trade will require a national system for identifying individual bulls, steers, heifers and cows, perhaps one administered by the state.

Perrier's business outside Eureka already has anticipated the idea. Every animal there gets a separate identification number and wears a yellow ear tag.

"It's all on computer now," he said.

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  • In the next millennium, state government's budget is almost certain to get larger, pushed by inflation and the increased cost of materials and services.

Getter thinks another round of executive branch reorganizations is possible -- perhaps public safety or water agencies next -- if an economic downturn puts the state in a financial bind.

The urbanization of the Legislature is likely to continue after the 2000 census, because many of the state's fastest growing communities ring the Kansas City and Wichita metropolitan areas.

Religion will continue to influence politics. The hottest election races in 2000 are likely to be for five State Board of Education seats, because of the board's recent decision to de-emphasize the teaching of evolution.

Even without a formal movement, a Populist strain remains, and Kansans are still fighting large corporations.

Nor is the fight against brucellosis over. Having received the USDA's designation of Kansas as free of the disease, state officials want to keep it.

So Perrier is going to vaccinate his animals this year, as his father and grandfather did. The state has no plans yet to encourage him to stop.

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