The new year is looking brighter in Kansas. More Kansans are working, and the state has addressed, but not completely resolved, its fiscal crisis.
Continued improvement in 2018, an election year, and beyond depends on a number of factors. Here are five areas to watch:
Nearly 20,000 more Kansans had jobs in November 2017, compared to November 2016. And the labor force – the number of people employed or looking for work – also grew, by about 9,000.
Data from the federal Department of Labor are promising and more important than unemployment figures.
Since the recession, drops in the Kansas jobless rate were partially caused by workers leaving the state or giving up on finding jobs. But for about six months, the drops in the unemployment rate have reflected more people getting jobs – while the labor force was growing.
Gains over the past year look big, but they aren’t impressive when compared to pre-recession figures.
In November 2007, 1,425,536 Kansans were employed, compared to 1,435,125 in November 2017. That’s not even 1,000 new jobs a year. And the labor force today is smaller than it was in 2008.
That’s why it’s crucial that the state put a higher priority on workforce development, primarily through investing in education, from kindergarten through college.
Programs that help adults transition to new jobs also need to be part of the mix as technology continues to be a barrier for many who would like to get better jobs or need to change jobs after a layoff.
Kansas needs to find the means to fund education sufficiently.
That doesn’t mean schools should get a blank check.
Those who want a half-billion more for public K-12 education need to be specific about what the money would be used for and how they would raise it from taxpayers.
It’s not that the anti-public-education crowd is right that vouchers, charters and private schools would be better and cheaper. They’re not. But that doesn’t mean public education is beyond improvement, especially when it comes to being frugal.
Given all the school building projects going on in Kansas, you can’t help but doubt the necessity of some. That’s especially true with new athletic facilities that are bigger, fancier versions of what districts already have.
Then comes the cost of operating and maintaining all the old and the new facilities.
Spending at the K-12 level on other non-academic pursuits – such as public relations – also deserve review. Some funding of non-classroom programs aids the mission of schools and benefits the communities of which they are part.
But spending on non-classroom programs and activities has grown out of proportion in too many districts. The same is true at many community colleges and public universities.
The state needs good schools that offer top-notch educations and opportunity for Kansas students. We should be willing to invest the money needed to give every Kansan – child or adult – the education he or she needs to succeed.
But we also need to understand that resources are limited. That we need to choose how, why and where are priorities are going to be.
One of the biggest drains on our money, both as individuals and a state, is health care.
Action in Washington, D.C., has ensured it will get even more expensive.
Instability in federal policy already has pushed private insurance premiums higher. And it remains uncertain whether protections regarding access, coverage requirements, discrimination and pre-existing conditions will be maintained.
There also are plans in Washington to cut Medicare and Medicaid, although it’s unclear whether the U.S. Senate will support the House’s plans.
Certainty about health care and steps to hold down costs will require leadership from Washington, D.C.
On other fronts, such as state taxes, education and the environment, Kansans will need to assess the dozen or more candidates who want to be governor.
In making their choice, Kansans ought to reject those who traffic in anger and hate. Look instead for leaders who offer solutions, leaders who focus on reality, facts and ideas. Let’s choose leaders who aim to build on our potential, rather than play to our pettiness and angst.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.