Archive for Sunday, July 21, 2002

Candidates ignoring big-picture issues, former governor says

July 21, 2002


You might remember Mike Hayden, Kansas governor from 1987 to 1991. He now is secretary of wildlife and parks for Gov. Bill Graves.

Hayden has been following the current gubernatorial campaign more closely than most Kansans, noting what is being said by the candidates and perhaps more importantly what is not.

"The thing that is kind of disheartening," Hayden said, "is the silence" on the issues the former governor considers paramount.

Hayden, a Republican, said it was little wonder the candidates mostly have been talking about how they support good schools and a strong economy.

"In modern-day campaigns you do a survey to see what's on people minds," then the candidates say what people want to hear, he noted.

The result is candidates who say the same things in slightly different ways while ignoring bigger, perhaps intractable, problems.

"It's not the persistent problems that are the greatest concern for me," Hayden said. "Every year, funding higher education and K-12 schools are not easy questions, especially in a down economy. But look at the broad issues; for example, what's happening in rural Kansas." People are leaving the western two-thirds of Kansas in hordes, he said.

"In the 1950 census," Hayden said, "the same percentage of people in the 1st Congressional District (most of rural Kansas) had a college education, as did in the 2000 census. In 50 years we had not advanced the average number of people over age 25 with college degrees.

"These are the far more overriding questions than the individual question 'how will a school district get by one more year.' The real question is, is there any way to address this economic drain, this population loss, this aging of the population? Or are all these small towns facing eventual demise? I was in office when Frank Popper proposed the Buffalo Commons, and I was one of the critics. But the words of Frank Popper have come to haunt us."

In 1987, Popper, a Rutgers University professor and his wife, Deborah, said the High Plains were losing population so fast that free-ranging bison should be reintroduced.

Indeed, the 2000 census showed there were more Kansas counties with population densities less than 6 people per square mile than existed in 1890 three years before historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American Frontier closed.

"These are the big questions of the day," Hayden said. "The Hugoton gas field is declining at an annual rate of 8 percent. That's been the lifeblood of western Kansas the last 50 years. Project that decline out to what it means to the economy, jobs."

The Ogallala Aquifer is another of Hayden's concerns.

"Its demise for years has been talked about," he said. "Today, we're not a whole lot closer to solving the problem than we were 20 years ago.

"These are the issues that are going to confront us. Not whether $10 or $20 per pupil is added in the school formula. That ultimately will be resolved. But what are the futures of small towns? All the state aid in the world won't allow a school district to survive that has no children," he said.

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