As Kansas Goes, so Goes the Nation

Before 1960, the state of Maine held its political elections in September, ahead of elections in November in nearly all other states.  So often did the outcome of Maine’s choice of president prefigure the national outcome that the state got the reputation of a political  bellwether:  “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

That old slogan comes to mind when one listens to current commentary about Kansas and the course of its economy in the past four years.  Has Kansas under Governor Brownback prefigured what will happen in America generally if President Trump’s proposed budget is adopted?   Does the nation face the prospect, “As Kansas goes, so goes the nation?”

Duane Goossen, former Kansas legislator and state budget director, has published an open letter to the  Kansas congressional delegation, warning that Trump’s tax proposal is remarkably similar to Brownback’s experiment.  That experiment shifted the tax burden from the upper classes to the middle class.  The result has been an economic disaster for Kansas.  The Brownback tax cuts, in Goossen’s words, “broke the state budget, wiped out reserves, significantly boosted state debt, and put public education at risk.”  The dream that tax cuts for the wealthiest would “trickle down” to the lower classes and generate economic growth proved to be a great delusion.

The three Mennonite state representatives—Don Schroeder (R), Steven Becker (R) and Tim Hodge (D) agree with Goossen.  They all joined with a majority of fellow legislators to vote to reverse the failed tax policies of 2012 and to override Brownback’s veto of that decision.  But the legislature did not get the two thirds majority necessary to override the veto.  The state has not found a way to bring in enough revenue to provide essential services.  The Kansas Supreme Court has ordered the legislature to fix school finance by June 30.

The anemic Kansas economy has discredited the ideology of “supply side economics.”  The state has one of the lowest job growth rates in the nation.  While Kansans generally believe that the 2012 tax policies were responsible for the state’s economic downturn, the governor argues that the problem is caused by declines in the oil, agriculture and aviation industries.  But that doesn’t explain why Kansas’ economy has not kept up with that of neighboring states.

Will the national legislature take the federal budget down the same road that Kansas has gone?   If so, will the economic results be similar?   Conservative Republican legislators, in Kansas as in the rest of the country, are indebted to wealthy businessmen who stand to benefit from tax cuts for the rich.  Kansas Representatives Marshall, Jenkins, Yoder and Estes, along with Senators Roberts and Moran, are hostage to those who have financed their campaigns.  They have political reasons to support Trump’s proposed budget.

The Kansas experiment may indeed be the bellwether for the country.  The rich may get richer, the gulf between the upper and lower classes may widen, and the national economy  may suffer.  There is indeed reason to fear that “As Kansas Goes, so Goes the Nation.”



No Common”Mennonite Personality”

There are three Mennonites in the Kansas House of Representatives:   Steven Becker (R), 104th district (Hutchinson-Buhler);  Don Schroeder (R) 74th district (Hesston); and Tim Hodge (D) 72nd district (North Newton).   Anyone looking for a common “Mennonite” personality among these three men is bound to be disappointed.   They have very different personal styles.

Becker, who is retired from a full career as district court judge, has the earnest, serious, and grave demeanor of a long-time public servant.   His full mustache, short beard and receding hairline lend a certain dignity.  He speaks with clarity and passion.  He communicates with his supporters on the internet with two-to-three minute extemporaneous  video messages.  His style is friendly, but marked with a certain charisma.

One of Becker’s main passions, derived from the tenets of his “faith community,” is opposition to the death penalty.   He has introduced a bill, HB2167, with fifteen bipartisan cosponsors, to repeal the death penalty.  That bill is scheduled for a hearing by the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee on February 13, 2017.   Becker’s leadership is critical to the success of the bill.

Don Schroeder, who like Becker qualifies as a “moderate Republican,” is a much more low-key politician.   Schroeder’s newsletters and newspaper reports are cautious and non-confrontational.   He doesn’t want to be “political.”  He is less intent on identifying his own point of view, than on reporting what is going on in the legislature.   As far as I know, he is not the primary sponsor of any legislation.  He smiles and makes friends easily.

Schroeder says he voted against Governor Brownback’s widely condemned tax policy of 2012.   But he has not been an outspoken critic of the governor, as Becker has been.  In a recent community forum in Moundridge, Schroeder excused the legislature by saying that the law is very “complex” and would be difficult to change.  “Our hands are really tied.”  Some of the frustrated folks in Moundridge were not convinced.

Tim Hodge, a youthful Democrat from North Newton, is new to the legislature and is just beginning to establish his profile.   In his first campaign, running against the incumbent Republican Marc Rhodes, Hodge came out slugging.  He attacked Rhodes for supporting governor Brownback and his tax, education, Medicare and other policies.   He has signed on as co-sponsor of Becker’s bill to repeal the death penalty.

Hodge defeated Rhodes by a small margin.   He has given new energy to the Democrat party in Harvey County.   It remains to be seen whether such a youthful and vigorous liberal Democrat will be able to win the support of the Republicans who are a strong majority in his district.  Will he be a one-term politician?  At least is already clear that Hodge will carve out his own personal and political style–quite different from Becker and Schroeder, his Mennonite colleagues in the Kansas House.



Duane Goossen Proposals


DECEMBER 7, 2016 5:09 PM

Former Kansas budget director leads call for lawmakers to make tax changes

Becker Hopeful

Earlier today Steve Becker sent the message below summarizing his view of the new Kansas House of Representatives, and expressing hope that a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats can start digging the state out of the Brownback ditch.

A quick view of the 2017 House of Representatives:

The members of the 2017 House can be divided into three EQUAL groups: one third conservative Republicans, one third common sense moderate Republicans and one third Democrats.

This division provides hope as no one group can railroad legislation. Each group must seek help from another. We will have to work together.

The Democrats gained 12 House seats.

There are 47 members of the freshman class.

There are no practicing attorneys in the Senate which is very unfortunate for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In my opinion the Brownback Coalition lost 24 seats in the House.

These are the New House leadership positions elected Monday:
Speaker – Ron Ryckman, Johnson County
Majority Leader – Don Hineman (my mentor), Dighton
Speaker pro tem – Scott Schwab, Johnson County
This leadership team is far superior to the last four years.

Top Issues (in no particular order):

Budget/Taxes – The current fiscal year has a projected shortfall of $347M. The next fiscal year is projected a $444M deficit. The Governor will likely not reveal his proposed cuts until session begins.

School Finance – A new school funding formula must be crafted and passed as the block grants expire in 2017.

The Supreme Court will issue an opinion on the adequacy of current school funding. I anticipate a ruling which will require an additional
$100M+ be devoted to public schools.

Perhaps we will address KanCare expansion, something I believe in.

The issues are difficult but the House is so much improved.

I have more HOPE in the 2017 House than in the last four years.

The 2017 Kansas Legislature convenes January 9.

🎄I wish all residents of the 104th District and everyone else across our State a very Merry Christmas🎄

May God Bless Us All

Steven R Becker
104th District

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Hodge Wins

Tim Hodge, Democrat, defeated incumbent Marc Rhodes, Republican, in the November 8 election for the 72nd district of the Kansas House of Representatives.   It was a close election.  Hodge got 4772 votes (51.1%) and Rhodes got 4552 votes (48.8%).

Kansas remains a Red state.   Donald Trump won over Hillary Clinton in Kansas — 57% to 36%.  Although Democrats made modest gains in the Kansas legislature, the Republicans will still have a strong veto-proof majority in both houses.  Only 42 of 125 House members (33.6%), and 9 of the 40 member Senate (22.5%), are Democrats.

How was Hodge able to win?   He ran an aggressive campaign–knocking on doors, attending political meetings, walking in parades, and working social media.  He used the state Democratic franking status to mail out a dozen or more full-color leaflets that identified Rhoades with Governor Brownback’s unpopular programs.  At the election eve Democrat meeting Hodge said the most important issues were Brownback’s 2012 elimination of taxes for businessmen, the unprecedented increases in the sales tax, and the raiding of funds from the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Hodge spent more money than Rhoades did for the campaign.   According to official reports, in the period from July 22 to October 27, Hodge raised $26,661 and Rhoades raised $15,217.

Three Mennonites will serve in the new legislature.   Don Schroeder from Hesston was reelected in the 70th district without opposition.   Steve Becker, from First Mennonite Church in Buhler, was reelected with 82% of the vote over token Democrat opposition.   Becker was encouraged by the failure of  conservative Republicans to recall members of the Kansas Supreme Court.  As a retired district court judge, Becker has strongly opposed Governor Brownback’s attempt to get control over the appointment of new Supreme Court Judges.

It now seems certain that a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans will pass a major revision of Brownback’s budget-busting tax policies.   Perhaps the governor will veto a reversal of his program.   But we can be sure that the Mennonite members of the legislature, now one Democrat and two Republicans, will vote against Brownback’s discredited tax policies.





Hodge Rhoades Hostilities

The campaigns of Tim Hodge and Marc Rhoades for the office of District 72 Kansas House of Representatives have become more hostile and less civil as the November 8 election approaches.

The hostility reached a new peak with a full-color flyer from the Rhoades campaign, mailed out by the Kansas Republican Party, from Brent Kroeker of Enid, Oklahoma.  Kroeker is a 43-year-old farmer who was Tim Hodge’s classmate at Tabor College.  Since graduating from Tabor, Kroeker became a right-wing Republican while Hodge became a moderate Democrat.   Kroeker currently serves on the Tabor College Board of Directors.

Kroeker’s pro-Rhoades flyer (with the text also published as a letter to the editor in the Newton Kansan) claims he is a personal friend of Hodge, and knows that Hodge holds to extreme”outrageous core beliefs” that do not belong in Kansas.  Hodge, says Kroeker,”

  • “Dismisses the U.S. Constitution as an irrelevant, outdated document forged by slave owners.
  • “Describes conceal-carry gun owners as lunatics and mentally ill.
  • “Refers to the NRA as a “home-grown terrorist organization.”

Hodge responded to Kroeker in the November 2 Kansan.  Yes, he wrote, he and Kroeker were friends.   When they were classmates at Tabor, Hodge stood by his friend when he was expelled from the college for vandalizing a local convenience store.  Although they have gone different political directions, Kroeker’s accusations are false.  Hodge honors the U.S. Constitution, including the second amendment and rights of gun owners.  He hopes they can renew their friendship after the election.

The Hodge-Kroeker affair has resulted in a blizzard of gossip and speculation in the Kansas Mennonite community.  Members of the Kroeker family have been closely associated with both Tabor and Bethel College–Mennonite schools with a long history of competition.  Where did Kroeker’s affiliation with Rhoades originate?  Did Rhoades solicit Kroeker’s attacks on Hodge?  What is the meaning of “friendship” in the context of such hostilities?   With friends like this, who needs enemies?  Is this a reflection of the broader polarization of American politics?

I find myself wondering if my new book, A People of Two Kingdoms, Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics (Bethel College, C. H. Wedel Series, 2016) was published too soon.   New stories keep popping up.  The Hodge-Kroeker-Rhoades story, which is still unfolding, is without precedent.




Tim Hodge Challenges Mark Rhoades

Tim Hodge, resident of North Newton and member of the Koerner Heights Mennonite Brethren Church, is running a vigorous campaign for state representative in the 72nd district.  Tim is a graduate of Tabor College.  He is a partner with Adrian and Pankratz, P.A. and a member of the Newton Board of Education.  His wife, Mary Ellen teaches special education at Northridge Elementary School.  Their three children attend Newton public schools.

Hodge knows he has an uphill battle running as a Democrat against the long term Republican incumbent, Marc Rhoades.   There are twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats in the 72nd district.  Both candidates have strong Mennonite connections.  Rhoades grew up in the Bethel College Mennonite Church.   His great-grandfather, Peter A. Penner, was a pioneer Mennonite missionary in India.

In Hodge’s favor is the ailing economy of Kansas and the unpopularity of the Republican Governor, Sam Brownback.  In his speeches and campaign posters, Hodge sharply criticizes Rhoades as “Just Another Brownback Republican.”   Most devastating for the Kansas economy have been a 2012 tax cut on businesses, a refusal to accept federal Medicaid Funds, and a major sales tax increase.

In previous campaigns, Rhoades had proudly endorsed Brownback’s agenda.  This time the incumbent has attempted to differentiate himself from the governor.   But Rhoades has to admit that he was in favor of the budget busting bills that forced the administration to “steal” two billion dollars from the Kansas Department of Transportations, to transfer funds from other departments, and to reduce funding to higher education.   Hodge’s campaign brochures promise to “Protect Education, Work to Re-Open Methodist Youthville, and Restore the Child Care Tax Credit.”

The contrast between Hodge and Rhoades could hardly be more stark.   Hodge is a moderate Democrat, committed to public education, social welfare programs, and fair taxes.   Rhoades is a conservative Republican, supporter of a “trickle down” economic program that benefits business interests and opposes government programs for the poor.  The matter of Mennonite identity does not come up in the campaign, but it is clear that Hodge’s position is closer to the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.