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What's The Matter With Kansas? The GOPers Running It Into The Ground

"Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy," Brownback wrote in a Wichita Eagle editorial in July 2012.
What's The Matter With Kansas? The GOPers Running It Into The Ground
Image from: Gage Skidmore

It's fascinating that U.S. News & World Report could write this article without once mentioning ALEC or the influence of Koch Industries, but they did. So they did a really good job of describing the disease, without mentioning what caused it:

When voters in Kansas tossed them the keys to the government in Topeka, the Republican-dominated Kansas legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback went all-in, enacting nearly every policy in the GOP playbook – from sweeping cuts in taxes and spending to aggressive new laws on the party's favorite social issues, like abortion and gun rights.

Four years later, however, the state government is in meltdown, creating a toxic fiscal and political mess that will take years to mop up.

Splintered into conservative and far-right factions, the Kansas GOP is openly at war with itself over an $800 million, two-year budget deficit gnawed open by the tax cuts nobody wants to roll back. If they can't fill the hole by week's end – against long odds – furloughs of government employees will follow.

Then there's the high-stakes showdown between lawmakers and the state Supreme Court over disparate funding between rich and poor school districts, an unfortunate development in the state that prompted the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. The clash of political titans, spurred by power moves and score-settling, could trigger a constitutional crisis, and hinge on whether Republicans can fire the court and pack it with their allies.

Meanwhile, Brownback, who won re-election in a come-from-behind race last year, is an instant lame duck hobbled by job-approval numbers only Richard Nixon would envy. Since his second term swearing in, the governor has enacted a series of what critics call mean-spirited restrictions on welfare recipients, and national Democrats call him the poster boy of the GOP's war on the poor.

The political dysfunction is raging eleven years to the month after publication of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" a case study of how the Sunflower State went from populist, Civil War swing state – its citizens' ruthless battles with pro-slavery Missouri settlers led journalist Horace Greeley to coin the phrase, "Bleeding Kansas" – to a bastion of deep-red conservatism.


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Just like the battles between Kansas and Missouri homesteaders were gathering storm clouds that foreshadowed the Civil War, the political turmoil churning on Brownback's watch, analysts say, is a harbinger of what could occur on the national political landscape.

The clashes between conservatives and arch-conservatives on Capitol Hill over control of the Republican Party is also happening on the presidential campaign trail. And as many as eight current or former GOP governors, from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on the right to Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana on the far-right, could contend for the party's 2016 presidential nomination; nearly all of them have endorsed the same economic philosophy as Brownback.

And if any of them win the White House, it's likely that, like Brownback, they'll have a Republican-majority legislature to help implement their plans.

Mark Peterson, director of the Kansas Institute of Politics at Washburn University in Topeka, says we're witnessing in Kansas what could be a turning point in the GOP's internal civil war. The problems in Topeka follow the national party's decades-long "purge" of moderates by "Grover Norquist-style conservatives – people who believe that government is hugely expensive, far too intrusive, provides way too many services and is a confiscator of wealth."

Indeed, Brownback himself famously called Kansas' incoming, one-party rule a real-world experiment in GOP fiscal and social policies. He and his allies wasted no time installing the supply-side economic idea that tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, a sure-fire, fiscally responsible way to grow the economy.

"Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy," Brownback wrote in a Wichita Eagle editorial in July 2012.

What followed, however, was an economic face-plant: growth flatlined, state revenue dried up and the conservative brain trust found itself on the business end of consecutive nine-figure deficits.

"The tax cuts fundamentally had little or no impact" on job creation or attracting entrepreneurs to the Prairie State, Peterson says. At the same time, he adds, 'taxes were going up on regular wage earners" as struggling localities hiked property taxes and raised user fees to make up for lost revenue.

But Dave Trabert, president of the pro-growth Kansas Policy Institute, rejects the argument: he says Kansas has "a spending problem," due to weak-kneed lawmakers unwilling to force government to be more efficient.

In Trabert's view, the GOP's tax and spending cuts were good first steps, and Kansas is taking in more than enough revenue to meet its needs and balance the budget. But he says Brownback and lawmakers dodged a hard, top-to-bottom look at agency staffing, avoided outsourcing some government functions and knuckled under to powerful "special interests" like state employees' unions.

The Kansas Policy Institute is a little more than "pro-growth." It's a free-market, ALEC-loving incubator of Koch-approved policies, funded by dark money from Donors Trust -- which Karoli has been writing about for years.

And Wichita, Kansas is the home base for Koch Industries, in case you didn't know. That's one reason why it was so important for them to buy some favorable tax policies.

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