How Kansas Conservatives are Crushing the State's Future
Kansas has historically been a state known for its moderate politics, with governors from both parties representing the state in a pragmatic way on social and fiscal issues. Watching politics in the state today, however, one would be hard-pressed to find any hint of this commendable history. Particularly troublesome is Governor Sam Brownback and the current state of the Kansas Republican Party, which today looks like a monstrous, mutated caricature of its former self.
This is perhaps best demonstrated in the case of the recent anti-gay discrimination bill that (luckily) languished in the Kansas Senate. Even more hilariously, we can look at efforts by the current Kansas Secretary of State – the widely beloved Kris Kobach – to work with former rock star (and current unmedicated lunatic) Ted Nugent on a bill in the state of Texas to legalize the hunting of wild pigs from helicopters (yes, you read that right).
In the photo on the right, Kobach and Nugent pose together to celebrate their helicopter pig-hunting bill. Nugent, best known for hits like Cat Scratch Fever and, more recently, referring to President Obama as “a sub-human mongrel”, declared Kobach “a dear pig killin’ friend of mine.” Looking at this absurd image necessarily brings to mind this question: What the hell happened to Kansas?
Oh, where to begin. The wave of ultra-conservatism that washed over the United States in 2010 did not leave Kansas dry. The likes of Sam Brownback, Kris Kobach, and dozens of inexperienced freshman Republican legislators were elected in a landslide victory. One could trace the roots of Kansas’ extremism even further back to the 1990s, when the Religious Right became a significant player in state-level politics.
Wherever the line of demarcation truly is matters little. The effects of this hard rightward turn are deeply ingrained in the state’s political foundation now.
Tax revenues are down sharply, threatening to drive Kansas’ fiscal balance sheet deep into the red. Even more disconcerting, the state just saw a debt downgrade by the credit ratings agency Moody’s. These two tragedies are driven largely by Governor Sam Brownback’s signature trickle-down-style tax plan that was intended to promote a rapid economic recovery in the state’s employment market. It didn’t work, Kansas is lagging behind all of its regional peers in job growth.
To offset the revenue-draining effects of these (largely upper-income and corporate) tax cuts, Governor Brownback and the Republican legislature have pushed through steep spending cuts, largely targeting state services like education. Mental health services spending has also seen a major lag in much-needed budgetary authority. Like half of the other states in the country, Kansas also refused to expand Medicaid as per provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which could have provided tens of thousands of uninsured lower-income Kansans with coverage.
Returning to the aforementioned education cuts, the Kansas State Supreme Court has been the one bulwark against Governor Sam Brownback’s efforts at massive funding retrenchment. A provision in the Kansas Constitution that reads, “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state,” has often been cited by the Supreme Court in its decisions overturning Kansas Republicans’ education bills. Governor Brownback and conservative Republicans are so intent upon seeing their agenda enacted that they have gone so far as pushing for passage of a constitutional amendment changing how Kansas’ Supreme Court nominees are selected and approved.
Currently, nominees are selected by a nonpartisan judicial commission that has largely worked without incident. While not a perfect system, it is certainly preferable to the Republicans’ proposal, which threatens to politicize the nomination and confirmation process by putting it in the hands of two political bodies: The Governor as nominator and the Senate as a confirmation rubber stamp. While this issue was thought dead after it was defeated last year, recent Republican victories at the appellate court level have renewed calls for this amendment.
So, in the end, what have four years of living in Brownbackistan given the people of Kansas? For one thing, a rising percentage of households in the state living in poverty (though, to be fair, this is in some part attributable to the steep 2008 economic downturn). Lower-income schools are feeling the adverse effects of the legislature’s education cuts more deeply than higher-income districts. The state’s gross domestic product is growing at a reasonable pace, but this growth lags behind the state’s potential and masks the negative outcomes that the poor and middle-class are experiencing.
I alluded earlier to Kansas’ ideologically driven decline being in part attributable to the wave of conservative Tea Party victories that flooded the United States in 2010. Though the roots of this nationwide rightward shift have deeper historical antecedents than just the 2010 election or the “public furor” over the Affordable Care Act, there is little doubt that this election marked a turning point in American political history. In states across the nation, and at the national level in the legislative branch, ultra-conservative governments swept into power at a time when the country most needed Keynesian-style liberal economics to aid its recovery from the 2008 Financial Crisis.
The above-sketched portrait of Kansas politics can be taken as representative of political dynamics that are at play across the United States. Conservative-led statehouses are enacting Reaganomics-style economic policies that almost inevitably result in the lower- and middle-classes feeling the bite of heightened financial instability. Even more disturbing are some of the social policies targeting women’s rights, allowing wholly unfettered access to firearms and the right to carry them ANYWHERE one so chooses. Not to mention the various discriminatory proposals aimed at regressing the legal status of homosexuals across the country and the despicable attempts at disenfranchising Democratic-leaning voters through the enactment of strict voter identification and polling place regulations.
Kansas is my state, my home. I was born, bred and educated here. To see it so utterly politically mutilated sends chills down my spine. Some see the image to the above right, the Kansas Capitol Building surrounded by construction scaffolding, as a metaphor for what the Kansas Republican Party is trying to do the state – tear it down and rebuild something unrecognizable on its ashes. I can only hold on to the hope that, someday, they will be stopped and that the state I know and love can regain its tradition of moderate politics.