Kansas remains a great place to live, and Kansans are optimistic about the future, but they also revealed a significant amount of uncertainty in the fifth annual Kansas Speaks survey of public opinion in the state.
Overall, according to Fort Hays State University's Docking Institute of Public Affairs, Kansans who responded to the 2013 Kansas Speaks survey are feeling caught between different forces and unsure about what the future will hold.
First of all, Kansans believe the state is a great place to live. But that does not mean they look at events in the state with rose-colored glasses. Although 87.4 percent of respondents rate Kansas as a good, very good or excellent place to live, only 53.4 percent rate the Kansas economy that highly. Most people rate the economy as fair or good, but clearly the enthusiasm among Kansans for the state does not extend to the state of the economy.
In fact, 61 percent of respondents are concerned the Kansas economy will threaten their family's welfare in the near future. There is an apparent concern for the economy, but one of the biggest uncertainties is what the people want to do about it. Sweeping into office in 2010, Gov. Sam Brownback promised to improve the Kansas economy through a low-tax, pro-business policy agenda showcased by a gradual reduction of corporate and individual income taxes.
After two years of Brownback's governorship, respondents are divided on the effects of the plan. Survey participants are evenly divided on Brownback's economic plan, with 38 percent satisfied with his handling of the economy and 40 percent dissatisfied with his performance.
Respondents to Kansas Speaks are also evenly divided on Democratic plans for the state's economy, but more neutral. ResuIts suggest that people might not be enthusiastic about Brownback’s economic agenda but aren’t even sure what the Democratic plan is. The actual percentage of supporters, 30 percent, and opponents, 36 percent, for Democrats is close to the numbers for Brownback, so no clear mandate on a direction for the economy emerges.
Most notable are the results on state spending. Many respondents (44.5 percent) think government spending should be decreased, but other data suggest that Kansans don’t know where the cuts should come from. More Kansans think funding for education, both K-12 (66.5 percent) and higher education (45.1 percent), and social services (50.1 percent) should be increased.
In those same categories, 6 percent thought K-12 funding should be decreased, 12.7 percent thought funding for higher education should be reduced, and 6.2 percent thought funding for social services should be reduced; 27.5 percent, 42.2 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively, thought funding should remain the same.
In no specific areas did a mandate emerge for reduction in government spending. So while people who participated in Kansas Speaks generally think that government spending should decrease, they have no preference for specific and substantive cuts in the state budget.
In fact, they would like to see spending increases on the two policy areas that make up three-quarters of the state budget: education and social services.
Support for spending increases is so strong that three in five participants support school districts being allowed to sue the state Legislature to increase their funding. Respondents are also decisive on how they would pay for extra spending, strongly favoring tax increases for large corporations and wealthier Kansans, with majorities supporting higher taxes for both groups.
Kansans are unsure of the future, skeptical of all political leaders’ ideas for improving the state’s economic health, and want the government to decrease spending, while at the same time they want increased funds going to schools and social services. The one thing that is clear from the responses to this year’s Kansas Speaks is that uncertainty reigns.
Fort Hays State University's Docking Institute of Public Affairs has conducted the survey since 2009. For this year, 1,459 Kansas residents were contacted from May 23 to Sept. 18, and 944 completed the survey. Dr. Jian Sun, senior research scientist at the Docking Institute, said the 64.7-percent response rate computes to a 3.2-percent margin of error.
The full survey report is available through the Kansas Speaks link on the Docking Institute homepage at fhsu.edu/docking.
Dr. Gary Brinker has been the director of the Docking Institute and an associate professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Fort Hays State University since August 2008. He was previously the director of the Center for Social Sciences and Public Policy Research at Missouri State University, from May 2002 to July of 2008, and the associate director from August 1997 to May 2002. His teaching interests include research methods, social problems and quantitative analysis. His sponsored research projects define an eclectic research agenda.