There are certainly redder states in the country, but Kansas should be heralded as unique in all of American history. Governor Sam Brownback was given an unprecedented amount of leeway by his enablers in Kansas’ legislature to enact a conservative vision of how a state “should” be run – the results, just a few years later, are so painfully bad that Brownback may go down in history as one of the state’s worst governors.
Making matters worse for Brownback is that, given his blank check, he has almost nothing and no one to blame but himself and the Republican policies that got him here. Try as he might, there is just no getting around the fact that this is his baby, a hideous and monstrous creature swaddled and nursed lovingly by Brownback alone.
Let’s review the state of (the state of) Kansas:
As Brownback started out his gubernatorial career, he was billed by conservatives as a “tax cutting superstar.” Republicans in other states viewed Kansas with jealousy as he slashed taxes for businesses (and particularly their “job creating” owners) and prayed that the economy would boom in response. In 2012, Brownback justified his tax slashing in a truly Ayn Randian way – arguing that government is just hurting the economy by getting in the way.
“It will leave more than a billion dollars in the hands of Kansans,” Brownback said. “They know far better how to spend their money than the state government. An expanding economy and growing population will directly benefit our schools and local governments.”
Apparently, Kansans didn’t know how to spend their money better, because just two years later, and Kansas is broke. Actually, not just broke but hemorrhaging money in a way that is hard to fathom. Having entered office with a surplus, Brownback’s cuts paved the way to an estimate $1.1 billion budget deficit in the coming years and absolutely no way to pay for it.
Brownback appears to be walking around in a daze. Many of those Republicans who had wished their states could be more like Kansas are suddenly very quiet about it. This was not how things were supposed to go. The premise, an ideology dating back to Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” is that by removing government and giving all the money over to businesses, the economy would be ignited and the tax cuts would pay for themselves in increased revenue. Brownback saw to it that personal income taxes were slashed across the board and that over 191,000 businesses were exempted from paying income taxes altogether. 191,000!
Who could have predicted that allowing most people to pay hardly any taxes would lead to an economic disaster? Oh, right. Economists.
The results would be funny if they weren’t so terrible for the average people of Kansas who now have to suffer the consequences. And Brownback, desperate to blame anyone but himself for something that is clearly his fault, has lashed out at the most clichéd Republican scapegoat imaginable: teachers.
In the past few months, Brownback has been on a disingenuous campaign to cast Kansas’ schools as places of opulence and runaway spending. He loves to tell an anecdote about a school spending a large sum of money on a piano, that he says is a waste.
“Recent media coverage of the purchase of a $48,000 grand piano is symptomatic of the inherent flaws in the current formula,” the governor said. “That money could and should have been used to hire another teacher to reduce class sizes and help improve academic achievement.”
But as Barbara Shelly from the Kansas City Star points out, the anecdote, like all Brownback’s excuses, is nonsense.
Actually, it couldn’t have. As a long-term investment — and not an unusual one for school districts, by the way — the piano purchase came from the school district’s capital outlay fund. By law, that money cannot be used to hire teachers.
However, Brownback isn’t letting reality get in the way of his narrative. He announced that he would be attacking school funding (in a state that was already cited by a court for underfunding its education system so severely that it violates the state constitution’s promise to educate Kansans.)
“School finance will be part of our budget conversation,” [Brownback’s chief of staff Jon] Hummel said. “The governor feels like the growth in spending that’s occurred the last several years in school finance is unsustainable. He’s going to encourage them (the Legislature) to look at ways to do that, to address that. There’s different ways to do it. You could reform the current system or you go to a completely new system.”
The damage to schools with this “completely new system” that Brownback has in mind is ugly. According to NPR, Kansas public schools would lose 1.5 percent funding across-the-board, and the state’s regents universities would see budgets trimmed by 2 percent. This at a time when schools are already struggling to make ends meet.
For good measure he also slashed teachers pension plans and those of other government workers in order to stop some of the financial bleeding he induced.
Rather than concede defeat, Brownback is defending his tax cuts. And really, what else can he do? To admit that his tax cuts hurt more than they helped would be acknowledging that the bedrock of the Republican ideology – government and taxes hurt the economy – is horrifically wrong. He may as well be saying that the Republican Party itself is built upon a faulty premise.
Instead, Brownback has quietly chosen to raise taxes on people he hopes we won’t care about. Rather than tax some of those 190,000 businesses he let off the hook, his new plan is to raise taxes on cigarettes and liquor.
Democrats pointed out that consumption taxes disproportionately affect working class people.
“It’s a hit on anybody who smokes. A hit on anybody who drinks. But these kind of consumption taxes always hit lower income people harder,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, the ranking minority member on the Senate budget committee. “You’d put them in the regressive tax category.” [source]
It’s time we stop enabling Republicans by allowing their ideas to carry any weight whatsoever. Brownback’s experiment in Kansas should be the final nail in the coffin. He was given the freedom to enact a Republican utopia and instead of soaring profits and milk-and-honey for the masses, he crashed the economy and was forced to pilfer the middle and lower classes to help cover the cost.
Feature image courtesy Kansas Governor’s office