Last Word with Mike O'Neal
Served 28 years in the Kansas House of Representatives
Served two terms as the Speaker of the House
Graduated from the University of Kansas and the University of Kansas School of Law
Passion for Business My respect for business started when I was young. My dad was both an employee and a small business owner. He was a route salesman for a baking company. He worked hard six days a week to pay our bills. It was enough to keep our heads above water, but not enough to realize my parents’ dream of home ownership and college for their only son.
My dad had an opportunity to buy a small commercial residential dairy route, utilizing a large commercial dairy production facility in a nearby town to package his product under his own label. Dad had three employees: Mom, who did the orders and invoices; the delivery guy who drove Dad’s only business asset, a delivery van; and yours truly on some weekends and in the summer.
My parents’ dream fueled Dad’s entrepreneurship, and, in turn, the fruits of their hard work resulted in home ownership and a college education for me. For my part, I helped Dad stock grocery store shelves with his bread and delivered his milk to church camp. I knew and respected what was making my employment and my educational opportunity possible. I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve had a profound respect for business, especially small business, since.
Lessons Learned from the Legislature I learned that democracy is messy, often dysfunctional, partisan, cumbersome, frustrating, yet indispensable to the well-being of the state. It beats, by a wide margin, whatever the second best form of government on the planet may be. It also provides, arguably, the best education outside the classroom.
More importantly, a part-time, citizen legislature is the best form of state democracy, consisting of citizens from all walks of life, from all parts of the state, taking time away from their jobs and families to represent their neighbors in Topeka and address their needs, concerns, aspirations and provide the ways and means for government to function.
I learned that politics is the art of compromise—that your opponent in the legislature today may be your ally tomorrow. So, act with integrity, and when you disagree, and disagree you must at times, then disagree without being disagreeable.
Vision for the Future of Kansas Kansas, notwithstanding our lack of mountains and beaches, continues to be one of the very best places to live and raise a family. We have an abundance of educational opportunities, both public and private. Kansans have a work ethic second to none. My vision for Kansas is that we couple these attributes with a governmental and regulatory environment that is welcoming and helpful to entrepreneurial spirit and business enterprise and does not create or perpetuate barriers that drive business away and fail to attract new business and industry to the state.
Kansas businesses are the economic backbone of the state. They make it possible for our children, our educational product, to have an opportunity to succeed with career and family. Kansas businesses and industries make it possible for us to have the educational institutions we have, the roads, public safety assets, health and welfare systems and all our leisure and entertainment opportunities. If they have the opportunity to be successful, the state and its citizens will be successful. It’s our state’s businesses and industries that make the economic pie bigger for all. Grow GDP and everyone, including state and local government, benefits.
Achieving Economic Growth through the Kansas Chamber Our Kansas Chamber Legislative Agenda is a product of member input, the work and recommendations of our various work groups, results from our annual Business Leaders’ Poll, state and national studies and our annual Competitiveness Index results. Our nearly 50 member Board of Directors approves the final product in December and we then take our agenda to the Kansas Legislature.
Thanks to significant election wins over the past three election cycles in particular, we now have a pro-business, pro-jobs majority in both the Kansas House and Senate. Our Kansas Chamber Legislative Agenda has influenced, and does influence lawmakers, by reflecting the positions of the businesses and industries in their districts.
The Kansas Chamber Legislative Agenda covers taxation, government efficiency, legal reform, human resource issues, health care, regulatory affairs, energy and environment, and education. The successes of our Legislative Agenda, over the past decade in particular, have meant more tools in the economic development toolbox, less taxes and more capital, lower workers compensation and other business costs, a stable legal environment, fewer governmental barriers for our members, and a business-friendly environment for existing and prospective businesses.
In addition, we have a strong pro-education agenda that supports giving classroom teachers the resources they need to address every student’s needs such that we can truly prepare students for college and careers that are aligned with the needs of Kansas businesses and industries.
Business Engagement to Strengthen the Economy If a business is not already a member of the most effective business advocacy organization in the state, they should be! Many of our members depend on us to “be there so they don’t have to be.” Businesses, and employees of those businesses, need to be aware of the issues that affect business and the jobs those businesses produce. They need to become acquainted with those who have been elected to represent them in Topeka, along with their positions on issues important to the business community. Getting involved in our various member-driven work groups is a way of assisting us in keeping focused on the “real world” state, local and national challenges our businesses and industries deal with on a daily basis.
Our students are tomorrow’s workforce, and Kansas businesses need to engage with our educational institutions to corroborate on the skills needed for our students to be successful in the marketplace. Our new K-12 and Higher Ed leadership has voiced a willingness and commitment to involve business and industry in the quest to align students and curriculum with the needs of our employers. Businesses need to accept the invitation and, where indicated, proactively seek public-private educational partnerships.
Biggest Challenges for Kansas Kansas, like most states, is still struggling with the hangover effect of the deep recession from 2008. As a cash basis state, we have fared better, since, by state constitution, we must balance the state’s books at the end of each fiscal year. Kansas has taken bold steps to improve its economic climate and attractiveness to those with capital to invest by reforming its tax policy to move away, over time, from taxing our productivity and move toward taxing consumption. Those steps, and others, have improved our national rankings and we currently outperform every state in our region except Colorado.
The challenge is that the Legislature has not brought spending in line with the lower tax revenue resulting from reductions in personal income taxes that benefited all Kansas taxpayers. The 2012 tax reforms are working. We have seen promising growth in new business filings and job growth, after a decade pre-recession where the only true job growth was in public sector jobs. We have a low unemployment rate. But, for tax reforms to truly reach their designed potential, there must be state budget discipline so this continues to be a challenge facing us. Tax policy reforms take time to produce their full stimulative effect. In the meantime, government needs to live within its means like Kansas businesses and families do.
To stem the tide of students taking advantage of our abundance of educational opportunities in the state only to leave the state to pursue career opportunities, we need to expose our students to the abundance of opportunity that exists here long before they approach graduation. It’s worth repeating that we need to get K-12, Higher Ed and Kansas business and industry on the same page and work corroboratively, rather than in parallel universes.
What Do You Know For Sure? I know that for all the issues that the media exploits to suggest how bad things are in Kansas and how Kansans are divided, the reality is that there are vastly more areas where Kansans are united. We live in the greatest country on earth thanks to the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed and we live in a state with a proud heritage of human rights, individual freedoms, limited government, a system of free, competitive enterprise and a spirit of entrepreneurship and optimism.
I know that faith, family and freedom are precious and should not be taken for granted. I know that we, as a state, continue to live up to our motto of reaching “to the stars through difficulty,” and that we succeed when we put our collective minds to it. I know that we are not only the “Heartland;” we are, as my friend Neeli Bendapudi, Dean of the KU School of Business says, “the intersection of smart and nice”.