In 2010, former ultra-conservative Senator Sam Brownback was elected governor of Kansas. Then, with massive help from the Koch brothers (who are headquartered in Wichita), he engineered a Tea Party takeover of the legislature, which became the most conservative state legislature in the nation by purging virtually all of their moderate Republicans (the Democrats having been long vanquished).
With hard right conservatives in full political control of the state (and declaring that the reason that the GOP lost the presidency in 2012 was because Romney and the Republicans were not conservative enough), they implemented the right-wing experiment to end all experiments. The GOP may have been unable to push their agenda at the national level, but, by God, they were going to show what they could do to establish their conservative utopia in Kansas!
So what happens when the right-wing conservative fringe gets complete, unfettered control to try things their way?
They did exactly what hard-line social conservatives have been saying they wanted to do: they slashed funding for education by the largest amount in the state’s history (including eliminating arts programs entirely), and waged war against teacher’s unions. They privatized Medicaid and refused the ACA Medicaid expansion, leaving a large swath of the poor without health insurance. They defunded Planned Parenthood and enacted one of the strongest anti-abortion laws in the country (declaring that life begins at fertilization, and requiring doctors to warn their patients that abortions can lead to breast cancer, which is false).
Brownback welcomed religion into the state government, even writing the words “JESUS + Mary” at the top of the anti-abortion bill when he signed it. They passed gun laws that declared that Kansas did not have to observe federal gun laws under its “sovereign” status, prohibited all county and city governments from regulating firearms and ammunition, and allowing schools to arm teachers and principals.
And they also did exactly what hard-line fiscal conservatives have been saying they wanted to do: They cut taxes. Well, they cut taxes for the rich, and actually raised taxes for the poorest 20%. Brownback hired Arthur Laffer as a consultant on tax policy (you may recall Laffer as Reagan’s lead proponent of supply-side, trickle down economics, now discredited). The legislature then passed a state budget that even many Republicans balked at because it was too austere, which converted a previous $500 million budget surplus into a stunning $267 million deficit (state governments cannot run a budget deficit, unlike the federal government).
Laffer told more than 200 people at a small-business forum in Kansas that there is a war among states over tax policy and that nowhere is that revolution more powerful than in Kansas. He said Kansas’ tax cuts and political shifts will produce “enormous prosperity” for the state.
So how are things going so far? Did the Koch brother’s libertarian dream pan out?
Well, the draconian spending cuts inhibited growth in the state. While other states have recovered from the Bush recession, the Kansas economy has lagged behind. In May, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the bond rating for both the state and for its transportation department, citing “Kansas’ relatively sluggish recovery compared with its peers” and worrying about “an underfunded retirement system for which the state is not making required contributions.”
Not surprisingly, Brownback’s approval rating is so low he is in grave danger of losing re-election. Recently, more than 100 Republicans endorsed Brownback’s Democratic opponent for the governor’s seat, even though mass defections like this are rare in state politics.
Kansas is just the latest victim of the triumph of ideology over reality. Will we ever learn?