Lessons from Kansas

Remember the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” If we ask that question today,  the obvious answer is Sam Brownback (and in all fairness, the Kansans who elected–and inexplicably re-elected– him.)

Brownback took office in January of 2011. Like Indiana’s Mike Pence, Brownback had Republican majorities in both legislative houses, and together they were able to implement what Rolling Stone has called “the Republicans’ wet dream agenda.”

They passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy along with tax cuts on business profits, significantly reduced business regulations, and at the same time cut spending on welfare, rejected federal Medicaid money, and put the delivery of Medicaid services into private hands.

One of Brownback’s advisors was Arthur Laffer—best known for the “Laffer curve”–the theory that reducing tax rates leads to higher tax revenues. Laffer’s theory was the impetus for Reagan’s tax cuts; he has called what Kansas Republicans did “a revolution in a cornfield.” Other advisors included Steve Anderson, from the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity.

Whatever Kansas is these days, however, it sure isn’t prosperous.

As New York magazine recently reported in an article characterizing Kansas as a “parallel political universe,” the “revolution in the cornfield” has left the state in a world of hurt.

Marginal gains at the municipal level were dwarfed by the $688 million loss that Brownback’s budget wrought in its first year of operation. Meanwhile, Kansas’s job growth actually trailed that of its neighboring states. With that nearly $700 million deficit, the state had bought itself a 1.1 percent increase in jobs, just below Missouri’s 1.5 percent and Colorado’s 3.3.

Those numbers have hardly improved in the intervening years. In 2015, job growth in Kansas was a mere 0.1 percent, even as the nation’s economy grew 1.9 percent. Brownback pledged to bring 100,000* new jobs to the state in his second term; as of January, he has brought 700. What’s more, personal income growth slowed dramatically since the tax cuts went into effect. Between 2010 and 2012, Kansas saw income growth of 6.1 percent, good for 12th in the nation; from 2013 to 2015, that rate was 3.6 percent, good for 41st.

Meanwhile, revenue shortfalls have devastated the state’s public sector along with its most vulnerable citizens. Since Brownback’s inauguration, 1,414 Kansans with disabilities have been thrown off  Medicaid. In 2015, six school districts in the state were forced to end their years early for lack of funding. Cuts to health and human services are expected to cause 65 preventable deaths this year in Sedgwick County alone. In February, tax receipts came in $53 million below estimates; Brownback immediately cut $17 million from the state’s university system. This data is not lost on the people of Kansas — as of November, Brownback’s approval rating was 26 percent, the lowest of any governor in the United States.

This is what happens when people elect stubborn ideologues unwilling to learn from reality or experience. (Here in Indiana, we’re about to see whether Hoosier voters have learned anything about returning ideologues to office.)

If Brownback had been Governor of Kansas when that storm blew her away, Dorothy probably would have stayed in Oz.