Archive for Thursday, February 12, 2009

Legislature needs upgrade

February 12, 2009

An old Chinese proverb holds that within every crisis awaits opportunity. With the economic slowdown generating less tax revenue for Kansas government, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to reinvent and redesign state and local government for greater effectiveness and efficiency.

In 1861, when Kansas was birthed into statehood, there were no cars, radios, telephones, TVs or Internet. The horse was the primary means of transportation and communication. More than 100 counties were laid out to ensure that the courthouse was never more than a day’s horseback ride away. In 1861, it was decided that we needed 40 state senators and 125 state representatives to make laws in Topeka, a number also derived from the horse.

All businesses, big and small, readjust their business model every few years. They go through mergers and consolidations, and they adapt to changing times. Churches and nonprofit groups do the same. Yet Kansas government has not made similar improvements and adaptations. Our state and local governments are still structured with the legacy management structure from 1861. We still operate the state and county government with the same management structure. Here are two proposals to redesign government:

• The Legislature should lead by reducing its size and reinventing itself. We should place on the 2010 ballot a proposition to downsize the Legislature by at least 30 percent. It is no longer necessary to have 165 legislators. The timing is perfect for this idea, as the Legislature will redraw the district boundary lines in 2012. Legislators with larger districts out west should be given extra compensation for mileage they incur.

• Consolidate counties, townships, and cities. In rural Kansas, fewer but stronger counties would better compete with the urban areas in attracting talented people, jobs, employers and other development. The state should incentivize unification by paying the legal costs involved with these mergers, and we should allow merged counties to continue to receive state aid. In Wyandotte County, we had great success after unification. The Kansas Speedway, Nebraska Furniture Mart, Cabelas, Great Wolf Lodge and 500 new homes all came after we unified our government, making it more effective at economic development.

I’m proposing a study commission to analyze a Kansas map of 36 counties. This map is not mandatory but is an attempt to create a modern management structure where each new county has at least one “economic development engine” such as a university, county courthouse or regional hospital. I suspect a thorough study will show: cost savings through economies of scale; technology will help with access and deliver services; and more effective economic development.

The primary goal is to adapt and upgrade our government to meet the needs and technology of the times. The secondary goal is to create a government we can afford and can serve our needs for the next 100 years.

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