Government & Politics

Does Kansas have an image problem? Governor candidates say yes, but disagree on why

The “Welcome to Kansas” sign at mile marker number 1 on the Kansas Turnpike one mile north of the Oklahoma state line.
The “Welcome to Kansas” sign at mile marker number 1 on the Kansas Turnpike one mile north of the Oklahoma state line. The Wichita Eagle

Kansas has an image problem. The state’s candidates for governor agree on that.

But ask about the exact problem and how to fix it, and the candidates divide into two camps.

On one side stands Gov. Jeff Colyer, who says negative perceptions go back decades.

On the other side is everyone else. They largely blame Colyer and his predecessor, Sam Brownback, for the state’s image woes.

A bad image can mean more than just being the butt of jokes. Candidates say Kansas’ image problem makes getting businesses and people to move here more difficult and spurs young people to leave what they see as an intolerant state.

“Real, live experiment is a terrible sales pitch for something. Those words usually only show up in shady classified ads,” the comedian Seth Meyers once joked in reference to Brownback calling tax cuts a “real live experiment.”

Repeated budget shortfalls, repealed protections for LGBT state employees and other measures seen as discriminatory have all contributed to making Kansas the subject of bad headlines and the talk of late-night comedians, the candidates say.

Some candidates also say Colyer and Brownback before him have not done enough to promote Kansas’ good qualities, like its state parks.

The candidates all say they can help turn around the state’s broken image. They promise to either be the state’s chief spokesperson or improve the way others view Kansas by keeping at bay legislation that would produce bad press.

‘Land in Kansas’ campaign

Colyer unveiled a new marketing campaign for the state last week. Called “Land in Kansas,” it’s aimed at luring businesses to the state. An assessment of the economic development desires of Kansas communities is also planned.

The campaign will sell Kansas as a land of opportunity and the best place to open and run a business.

To Colyer, who was lieutenant governor for seven years under Brownback, the state’s image problem stretches far back into the past and has more to do with Kansas’ location smack dab in the middle of the country than what happened under Brownback’s watch.

“Kansas to many people is a flyover state, but we really need you to land in Kansas,” Colyer said.

Other candidates say much of the state’s image problem can be traced to the recent past.

“Jeff Colyer and Sam Brownback have had the past eight years to bring positive change to Kansas. They failed. Only now that he’s on the campaign trail does Colyer acknowledge the image problem that he has been complicit in creating,” said Carl Brewer, the former Democratic mayor of Wichita.

He called the marketing campaign too little, too late.

Independent Greg Orman said he would seek to be the chief spokesperson for the state as governor, sharing with the rest of the country what a great place Kansas is to live, work and raise a family.

“Instead of hearing ‘what’s the matter with Kansas,’ we need the rest of the country to start talking about what’s right about Kansas,” Orman said.

Kansas has a significant image problem, Republican Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer said. He said Kansans want a champion for the state in the governor’s office.

CNBC this month ranked Kansas the 35th best state to do business in for 2018. Selzer noted that just a few years ago Kansas was ranked in the top third of states.

“Our state has a severe out-migration problem, in part because our volatile and unpredictable tax and policy structure as well as ineffective leadership in the governor’s office,” Selzer said.

Democrat Josh Svaty, a former state representative, said under his watch Kansas would not change the tax code for the foreseeable future.

After lawmakers and Brownback cut income tax rates in 2012, they raised the sales tax rate in 2015. The Legislature then overrode Brownback’s veto to raise income tax rates in 2017.

Businesses are now looking for stability, Svaty said.

“We have been sending the message consistently to businesses over the past eight years that this is an unstable place to do business and we have to fix this,” Svaty said.

Taxes, social issues have an effect

Svaty said Kansas over the past several years had waded into social issues, putting it in a group of states that some employers avoid. In 2014, Kansas attracted national attention over a bill that would have allowed private and public employers to refuse to serve same-sex couples based on religious beliefs. The legislation ultimately didn’t pass.

Then, in 2015, Brownback repealed an executive order that Gov. Kathleen Sebelius put in place years earlier prohibiting discrimination against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Brownback’s decision came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

This year, lawmakers passed and Colyer signed a bill that ensures faith-based adoption agencies can refuse to place children with LGBT couples. A recent decision by the Kansas Department for Children and Families also means those agencies may receive state contracts.

“We talked to young people across the state who are planning to leave Kansas because the state is not viewed as friendly to young people, especially not friendly to anyone who has an openness to others who might be gay or lesbian,” said former state senator Jim Barnett, who is running as a Republican.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said she would work to stop discrimination in all forms. She noted Colyer’s decision to sign the adoption bill into law as an example of continued damage to the state’s image under the Brownback-Colyer administration.

“The failed Brownback-Colyer tax plan set our state back a decade or more. And that won’t be fixed by shiny signs and an ad campaign. It requires coordinated policy change to support and attract businesses,” Kelly said.

Kobach said that politicians have thought for too long that any image problem can be solved through a logo or slogan. “That is exactly what Jeff Colyer has done with his ‘Land in Kansas’ slogan, which is a phrase that will bring zero people to Kansas,” he said.

The best thing Kansas can do is cut taxes, Kobach said. He supports reinstating Brownback’s 2012 tax policy, but has also called for spending cuts to offset decreased revenue from tax cuts.

“I also believe one of our greatest assets to bring people to Kansas on visits is our outdoor resources like our state parks, our hunting and the growing area of agri-tourism. The current administration is not marketing those enough,” Kobach said.

At a news conference last week, Colyer didn’t appear fazed when asked to respond to those who say Brownback and the Legislature are responsible for Kansas’ image problem.

“There have been some negative perceptions of Kansas that date back generations in reality,” Colyer said.

He recounted meeting a woman in Saline County soon after becoming governor who told him: “You know, Jeff, the rearview mirror in your car is small and the windshield is big for a reason, because you’re going forward.”

“And that’s what this is about,” Colyer said. “Where are we going? And that’s what Kansans’ expectations are for us — that we’re moving forward. We want to engage Kansans in this whole process.”