Change is hard, and the sheer volume of change being thrown at Kansans this year is bound to make us uncomfortable. What would help, however, would be for Kansans to be confident that the elected and appointed public officials who are pushing these changes have a full understanding of their consequences.
The administration may have identified some problems that need to be addressed. However, as the state considers major overhauls in its tax system, its school finance system, its Medicaid system, its employee retirement system and other areas, it seems that officials too often fall back on phrases like “we need to do better” or “we have a plan for that” rather than being able to address the specific concerns of people who will be directly affected by these changes.
State officials say they have held many meetings across the state to gather input before formulating their plans, but they seem unprepared to address the issues that presumably would have been raised in such meetings. To whom were they talking? Were they listening to what was said? Their responses leave the impression that the officials don’t fully understand the issues involved or simply aren’t interested in changing their proposals to respond to constituent concerns.
The kind of major changes being proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback and his staff this year take time to develop and implement. The governor has only been back in the state for 14 months after spending 16 years in Washington, D.C. Members of his administration who are spearheading these changes have been in their current offices for 14 months — or less. Those who have come from out of state haven’t had time to get to know Kansas or many of the key players who could offer sound perspectives and good advice on the changes that are being proposed.
That lack of context and study was apparent in last summer’s decision to close Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services offices in Lawrence and several other communities. Only after the closings were announced was there any discussion about how the closures would affect the communities and what mitigating steps might be considered.
Now, Kansans have other questions. How will a new school finance plan that freezes state funding after several years of large cuts and almost guarantees funding inequities among districts achieve the governor’s goal of ending the cycle of lawsuits over education funding? How will private insurance companies provide better service to Medicaid recipients at a lower cost than the state while still making a profit? How will reducing or eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit actually benefit low-income, working Kansans?
A representative of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group, helped open legislative hearings on the governor’s plan to reform the state tax code last week. He and controversial economist Arthur Laffer obviously think the plan is a good idea — at least in theory — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best plan for Kansas.
Constituents aren’t the only ones with important questions. In almost every committee hearing, both Republican and Democratic legislators are raising concerns about the proposals that are on the table. State legislators need more time to study these issues and talk to people around the state about their impact.
At this point, there seem to be far more questions than answers about major policy measures. The governor and state legislators need to make sure they take time to get the answers before making major changes that could move the state in the wrong direction.