Lessons From the Statehouse and Beyond
by Julie Mettenburg
People warned me there would be days like this.
A fine mist alternated with raindrops pelting from the grey sky that cloaked our capital city. I had rushed in to testify on a corporate farm bill in front of the Senate Ag Committee and planned to get back to my office quickly, but someone had parked a truck containing a home-made bomb just a few spaces from my car.
So on this morning, feeling blue and with yellow tape encircling the lot holding my car, I clutched my umbrella and trudged across the Statehouse lawn toward a downtown coffee shop to wait out the police investigation that would last into the afternoon. Along the way, I reflected that actually, it felt like a bomb had gone off in the Kansas state legislature.
This year's very active session could alter the Kansas landscape for several lifetimes. The bill on which I had just testified would make it easier for counties to grant permits to large, corporate out-of-state swine facilities, like the 125,000-hog Seaboard facility seeking to move into Greeley County.
The next day a hearing was scheduled to consider whether the sludge from "fracking" natural gas wells should be spread on fields rather than injected into pits. This sludge is known to contain toxins and salts that render land potentially unusable.
And as our policy reporter, Paul Johnson, has pointed out, all of this comes in the face of decreasing environmental oversight, as our regulatory agencies shrink due to budgetary challenges, and the Legislature decides whether to cut taxes because the State coffers have gained ground.
Lack of Representation?
In sum, it feels like the limited resources of groups like the Kansas Rural Center in Topeka is taking its toll, as this year, an active legislative agenda moves with almost opportunistic fervor to roll out the welcome mat to large corporations across environ-mentally and economically questionable sectors.
The press are barely covering these bills as they sail through the legislature in mere days or weeks. The modern world is also moving a mile a minute. The result is that the public scarcely knows about the new laws that will change their world.
We will not understand the repercussions for several years, when any damage to our environment, economy and communities will become apparent. By then, it will be difficult if not impossible to turn back the effects of 125,000 hogs concentrated over the Ogallala Aquifer and elsewhere in the state, or on the potentially exploitive contractual or employment arrangements imposed upon our farmers, workers, and immigrants, or so much fracking sludge spread over our fields.
Indeed, I found myself wondering, who's being represented here? The corporations who seek our resources, or our citizens and communities?
Although much has been made about the jobs that supposedly will come with these economic "opportunities," we are also looking at having to change immigration policy to ensure we have the workers to fill them. So who are we seeking to employ, and at what cost? Have these jobs been analyzed in terms of pay, contractual requirements, and environmental toll? These are questions it seems we should take the time to consider before establishing these new laws.
New Energy from the Grassroots
Thankfully, my gray day ended when the yellow tape came down, (the bomb threat was neutralized) and this scene of disconnect in the statehouse contrasts markedly to my travels around the state. New energy bubbles up from the grassroots and within organizations like ours. I am one of several new staff or leaders from various organizations in Kansas linked together by our intersecting goals, hope and new ideas, like little rafts on a rough sea.
Perhaps new energy was most obvious at the Big Rural Brainstorm in Newton on Feb. 3 and 4, where 200 "Rural by Choice" Kansans gathered to tackle big issues facing their communities, such as how to grow from within rather than wait for jobs from the outside.
We worked on how to save our rural groceries, how to get food distribution where traditional distribution models have failed us, how to improve our health and how to keep our wealth in our communities. We organized around ideas, entrepreneurship and connections and returned to our communities with action, activities and next-steps.
It was not lost on these rural advocates that our elected representatives are largely absent from these conversations.
When will Topeka and Washington listen? The answer, we know, is when our rural communities are speaking loudly enough, and when our citizens exercise our vote. When we require it. This requires organization, to bring our many voices together, which is the ultimate task for these new grassroots activists and leaders including myself, with your help.
What You Can Do
*Sign up for our weekly policy e-updates by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and monitor activity so you can know when to contact your representatives on important issues.
*Contribute to KRC. We have a tall fundraising challenge to support this work.
E-mail me at email@example.com if you are interested in connecting with like-minded activists who want to create change from the grassroots up.
Julie Mettenburg began work as KRC's Executive Director Dec. 1, 2011. She lives in Lawrence, Ks. with her husband and two children, and is active in the management of her parents farm near Princeton, Ks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org