What Isn’t the Matter with Kansas?

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? asked why conservative voters in Kansas (and elsewhere) tend to vote against their own interests. That is, why vote for Republican politicians who consistently create policies that benefit the wealthy and privileged, but oppose measures that could very much improve the lives of most Kansans, such as pro-union policies, higher minimum wages, expanded government investment in public schools or healthcare, and so on.

The book was written in 2004, and tracked Kansas’ march to the right over the last few decades. Today, 12 years later, Kansas is so far to the right it could arguably be called the most conservative state in the nation.

Currently, the Kansas government is in crisis. In a matter of weeks, on June 30, we will reach the deadline the Kansas Supreme Court set for the Legislature to fix the unconstitutional manner in which Kansas funds public schools. The Court decreed this year that the Republican-led Legislature couldn’t use a new “local option” edict that benefited wealthier districts, leading to increasingly unequal educational opportunities for rich and poor students. $1 billion, or 25% of Kansas’ education funding, would be used in an unconstitutional manner, the Court ruled.

If the Kansas government fails to present a plan that would address the funding problem, Kansas schools will shut down. Summer school, where still going on, will have to end. Further,

Schools do much of their hiring of teachers and other staff during the summer. Crews clean, repair and ready buildings for a new year, and they maintain and inspect school buses. Some districts operate summer child care programs or driver’s education, as well as programs that provide federally funded free meals for children.

And if that isn’t critical enough, imagine the chaos in August when the regular school year is supposed to begin.

While the Court could extend the deadline if the Legislature makes progress on a plan, it is unclear if Republican Governor Sam Brownback and his congressional allies will be open to granting a special session of the Legislature, currently on break. Democrats are invoking Article 5, Section 1 of the Kansas Constitution to try to force a special session, but don’t have near the numbers to actually vote that into reality.

In other words, our “representatives” won’t even meet to address the problem.

While a few conservatives are also urging a special session, Brownback seems to fiddle while the state burns — he could call a special session himself, right away, but has not indicated he will do so. Other Republicans, to quote the Topeka Capital Journal are “looking for a confrontation with the Kansas Supreme Court.”

Apparently, some are having difficulty comprehending the idea that the Kansas Supreme Court actually has the authority to require legislative action to correct unconstitutional laws. Republican State Senator Greg Smith of Overland Park declared, “They can’t tell us what to do.”

Shutting down the schools for the regular academic year would mean some 67,000 jobs threatened, not to mention the health of an already fragile economy, as the roughly $6 billion the 286 public school districts spend each year would be largely frozen. “If schools shut down and people aren’t working, they would no longer have taxes withdrawn from their paychecks, and state revenue would take a hit. There could be further damage to the economy as those workers put purchases on hold…”

This disaster is, as Kansas residents know well, just the tip of the iceberg.

Brownback at one point explained to the Wall Street Journal, “My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works.’” Kansas would therefore be a great Republican experiment to prove that slashing taxes for wealthy individuals and businesses would lead to substantial economic prosperity for all Kansans. The New Republic writes:

Brownback established an Office of the Repealer to take a scythe to regulations on business, he slashed spending on the poor by tightening welfare requirements, he rejected federal Medicaid subsidies and privatized the delivery of Medicaid, and he dissolved four state agencies and eliminated 2,000 state jobs. The heart of his program consisted of drastic tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminating taxes on income from profits for more than 100,000 Kansas businesses. No other state had gone this far…

In addition to his sweeping tax cuts, Brownback wanted to eliminate the earned-income tax credit, which had benefited the working poor. He cut about $200 million in the state’s spending on education — the largest such reduction in the state’s history; and he proposed changing the school financing formula at the expense of poorer, urban districts…

He obtained the power to nominate judges. He reduced tax cuts on the wealthy even more: The rate for the top bracket fell from 6.45 percent to 3.9 percent, and Brownback promised to eventually reduce it to zero when revenues from other sources made up for any potential losses. The economic benefits, he boasted, would be immense.

Due to a far-right Legislature, Brownback was able to conduct his experiment, especially after 2012. Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared, “This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do here, in Washington.”

The results were largely disastrous.

The tax cuts lowered government revenue by $700 million, and somehow failed to trickle down and lead to new jobs and higher wages for ordinary workers. Kansas job growth was an absolutely dismal 1.1% in 2013, in 2015 0.1% (the seventh-worst in the nation). Kansas will likely be running deficits for years, worsened by the fact that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s dropped Kansas’ credit rating due to the massive revenue shortfall, meaning worse borrowing terms and snowballing debt.

With a huge revenue shortfall, more services had to be slashed (undoing the tax cuts was unthinkable). Early 2015 saw $44 million cut from public schools, $16 million from colleges. In mid-2016, $97 million was cut from Medicaid, the healthcare program for poor, elderly, or disabled Kansans, and higher education. Kansas colleges lost $30 million — the University of Kansas lost $7 million, the K.U. Medical Center nearly $4 million, Kansas State over $5 million. In spring 2015, a couple school districts closed early because they ran out of funds. All this had countless harmful effects for many students, parents, teachers, and school workers, such as “larger class sizes, rising fees for kindergarten, the elimination of arts programs, and laid-off janitors and librarians.” There were many other cuts beyond these, and many other side-effects.

Efforts to stave off massive deficits entered the realm of the absurd: the Brownback government even tried to profit off the auction of sex toys.

Even though the writing was already on the wall in 2014, Kansas voters somehow reelected Brownback to a second term, buying his promises that his tax cuts just needed more time to work. They voted against their own interests — again. Bad habits, it seems, are hard to break.

By 2016, Kansas had gained only a couple thousand jobs, and the state still had a $228 million revenue shortfall; Brownback determined that pensions, colleges, highways, and children’s programs would have to take a hit. The only taxes he would consider were taxes on cigarettes and liquor; taxes on goods are of course regressive, hurting those with the most money least and those with the least money most.

All this while childhood poverty doubled in Kansas since 2003.

Gone are the days we had the luxury to ask, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Now we must ask a slightly different question.

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