Mar 17, 2011

Open Letter to the New Governor of Kansas: Looking for Economic Opportunities

by Paul Johnson

Congratulations Governor Brownback on your election as the 46th Governor of the great state of Kansas. In the midst of a very serious economic recession and the highest unemploy-ment in decades, Kansas should use this situation to reassess certain fundamental infrastructures in our state – food, energy and affordable housing.
In remembrance of our 150 years of pioneering self-reliance, Kansas can rediscover an economic independence that will boost our economy, create more local employment and leave us less vulnerable to future food and fuel price hikes. The State of Kansas has developed and funded several 10-year transportation plans but that model has not been applied to our systems of food, energy and affordable housing. You could provide such guidance.

Governor, as you know, Kansas has tremendous agricultural resources to be a diversified producer of many food products. Unfortunately this diversi-fication has significantly declined over the last 100 years. In 1910, Kansas had over 140,000 acres in fruits and vegetables but today that acreage has declined to just over 6,700. Kansans consume $525 million annually in fruits and vegetables but 97% of that total - $509 million – is imported while only 3% - $16 million – is grown locally. Comparable data could be compiled for the opportunities in meeting the growing consumer demand for local, natural meats by the remaining 71 small meat processors in Kansas. Kansas should establish some local food goals to capture - say 10% - of the $5.6 billion spent annually on food in our state.

Governor – the energy picture has dramatically changed in Kansas over the last 60 years. The Hugoton natural gas field was the third largest gas field in the world. Kansas built an economy and a housing stock around this very inexpensive energy supply. Kansas was a major natural gas energy exporter. In 1997, Kansas turned the corner and became an energy importer. Kansans now import over $2.5 billion a year. Every unnecessary dollar spent on Wyoming coal is unavailable to reverberate in our own economy.

Also, Kansas has been virtually last among the 50 states in offering utility-based or governmental energy efficiency programs. Kansas has 948,000 occupied housing units and a best guess is that only one-fourth of these units are adequately insulated. Utilities are guaranteed monopolies serving defined areas. Energy utility law should clearly mandate that energy conservation is equal to energy production to provide the most cost-effective energy service. Your first appointment to the Kansas Corporation Commission can send this ‘balanced energy’ policy signal.

Governor – in your State of the State address, you listed a ‘decrease in the percentage of Kansas’ children who live in poverty’ as one of your five measurable goals. One serious problem for many low-income families is the availability of affordable housing. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Kansas has 948,000 occupied housing units with 302,000 being rentals (32%) and 646,000 being owner-occupied (68%). 4 out of 10 renters are cost burdened paying over 30% of their income for housing expenses while 1 in 6 homeowners are paying over 30%. In April, the housing data from the 2010 U.S. Census will be available to assess the cost of housing in Kansas.

Kansas needs a coordinated 10-year private-public housing plan that identifies the needs for new construction, rehabilitation options and a dedicated funding source - similar to the 10-year transportation plans. This plan must be coordinated between the 7 entitlement urban areas and the balance of the state of small cities and rural areas. Your ‘Rural Opportunity Zones’ investment plan will need an affordable housing component to grow.

For whatever else happens with our economy, Kansans will always eat, will always pay utility bills and will always have to pay their housing costs. Where we can capture those food dollars locally and lessen utility bill and housing expenses, Kansas will be a wealthier and more secure state for the future. What a tremendous legacy you could leave for our blessed state.

Paul Johnson is currently KRC’s Legislative and Policy Watch Project Coordinator monitoring the State Legislature.

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