From continuously coming up short on school funding, to never seeming to find the right fiscal balance that keeps taxes in check but allows the economy to grow, to failing to keep Kansas among the healthiest states in the nation, Greg Orman says he has watched Democrats and Republicans alike fumble their way through the last couple of decades.
Orman points to two decades of what he calls “difficult numbers,” stating that the state’s median household income was over $57,000 when former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius started her first term in 2003, but plummeted to less than $50,000 by the time former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took over.
There’s the outward migration the state has experienced, illustrated by 82 of the state’s 105 counties seeing population declines since the turn of the century, Orman said.
Things haven’t gone much better with health care, where Orman says Kansas has gone from being the eighth healthiest state based on health outcomes in 1991 to 25th at the end of the Sebelius administration.
As he sees it, “something over the last eight years has gone very wrong in the state,” and both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.
“Both parties have had an opportunity to fix this. Both parties have had an opportunity to turn the state around and create a brighter future for all of us, and neither one of them have succeeded,” Orman said when he sat down on Oct. 1 for an interview with The Garden City Telegram. “So it’s not just the Brownback experiment that’s been challenging, it’s been the leadership we’ve gotten out of Topeka for two decades have really left Kansans behind, and that’s what Sen. Doll and I are working to fix.”
While the state’s problems are bigger than the budget issues caused by Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, Orman said, he admits it’s going to take a while for the state to dig out of the hole it's been put in.
“I think it’s important to be honest with the people of Kansas and say we can’t fix in a day what it’s taken a decade to destroy,” Orman said.
To Orman, fixing the state’s fiscal issues has to be more than just cutting taxes — which he says is what his Republican opponent for governor, Kris Kobach, wants to do. And he also believes it won’t happen with tax hikes and big spending, as he suggests his Democratic gubernatorial opponent Laura Kelly wants to do.
“Secretary Kobach has talked about returning to the Brownback experiment — cutting taxes, cutting spending. He really wants to starve the government. Sen. Kelly has talked about all sorts of things that she wants to spend more money on, but has publicly said there is no way to make the state of Kansas more efficient, so she’s gonna have to raise taxes,” Orman said. “I’m not interested in big government and high taxes. I’m certainly not going to starve the government. I think we need better government.”
Reducing wasteful spending is what Orman would like to do. One example, he said, is the state spending too much money policing, trying and incarcerating young people for possession of marijuana.
“We’re spending $155 million building a new prison when we should be looking at things like the sentencing guidelines for petty crimes and say, ‘We’re just not going to waste criminal justice resources on something like that,’” Orman said. “If you get caught with recreational quantities of marijuana, I think you should get a speeding ticket and you should go on your way.”
While Orman believes there is waste in state government, and that money could be diverted to higher priorities, such as making sure public education is adequately funded, he also feels the state needs to do more to grow the economy.
“We need a proactive economic development plan to grow the Kansas economy, that leverages our strengths, that addresses obstacles to economic development, that focuses on workforce development and ultimately addresses the reputational deficit that we have here in Kansas,” he said.
A good start would be to legalize industrial hemp, Orman said.
“I want to give our farmers the freedom to farm industrial hemp, the freedom to make the decisions on their farms as to what crops they should grow. And I think they will start growing a lot of industrial hemp when given that opportunity because it uses half the water of wheat and can be four times as profitable per acre,” he said. “So I think what we’ve seen is when we give our farmers the freedom to make their own decisions, they make pretty good decisions.”
Orman favors expanding Medicaid in Kansas, but doing so in a way that isn't costly to the state.
He points to the City of Garden City, with its direct primary care coupled with an insurance policy over the top of that in the event employees get seriously ill, need to be hospitalized or need to be treated for a chronic condition, as a shining example.
“In talking to the folks in Garden City, they’ve seen their health care costs stay flat if not decline a little bit, whereas the rest of us are seeing rising health care costs,” Orman said. “So if we move our Medicaid system to a system of primary direct care, coupled with an insurance policy for more serious matters, I think we can deliver better quality of care, more preventative care, we can keep people healthy and we can do it without spending more money.”
Something also needs to be done about a system where Kansans are only eligible for Medicaid if their income is under 38 percent of the poverty line, and only eligible for ACA subsidies if their income is less than 138 percent of the poverty line, Orman said.
“So if you’re a single, working mother making $10 an hour and you get sick, the only way you can pay for your health care is to quit your job. And that’s the wrong message,” he said. “We need to be giving people pathways and incentives to improve their lives and contribute more and do more. We can’t be giving them this perverse incentive.”
When it comes to policy, Orman said the governor is really just a partner with the Legislature. Where the governor can, and should, stand out is in managing the state’s $17 billion budget and some 40,000 employees, he said.
“In that regard, what we need is someone who has deep management experience and the ability to take large organizations and make them more efficient, get better results for people without spending more money. I’m the only candidate in this race who has that experience,” Orman said. “… Among the three of us (Kobach, Kelly and himself), I’m the only one who has the experience that’s gonna be able to turn the state of Kansas around.”
And he thinks he found the right running mate in Garden City Sen. John Doll to complement his management skills. He touted Doll’s experience as a teacher and small business owner, as well as his time as a city commissioner and mayor.
“He brings experiences that I don’t have. He’s a bridge-builder,” Orman said. “He’s someone as we look to get things done for the state of Kansas, John has deep relationships with the Legislature and individual legislators and the leaders, and I think he’s gonna to be an invaluable part of our administration and again a strong and powerful advocate for western Kansas.”
Orman dismisses the polls that currently show him a distant third behind Kelly and Kobach.
“… I think Kansans want something different. I think they’re gonna make the right decision, they’re gonna make the smart and the brave decision, and they’re gonna vote for me,” Orman said.
Contact Brett Riggs at email@example.com.