How Sam Brownback Gutted Kansas: Life Under a Right-Wing Zealot
WMDs in Iraq, death panels in Obamacare, widespread voter fraud in America, tax cuts that generate increased government revenue—these are all things that today’s soundbite conservative GOP base has fervently believed in which simply do not exist.
Belief in the first two have faded some with time, but in Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback, the second two are still going strong—even though Kansas is suffering a crippling budget deficit due to the simple fact that, whatever supply-side economics guru Art Laffer may claim, subtraction is not addition.
“Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” Brownback promised in 2012, when the tax cuts were first passed.
Brownback’s well-paid tax consultant, the legendary economist Laffer, promised Kansans that the cuts would pay for themselves in supercharged economic growth. At the time, a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showed that Laffer had things backward: over the previous decade, economic output per person had grown significantly faster in the nine states levying a “high rate” income tax than it had grown in the nine states with no income tax at all. Without the promised faster growth, there was simply no way that cutting taxes could bring in more revenue, they would only bring in mountains of debt, as Reagan had done nationally when he first took Laffer’s advice in 1981.
As Brownback’s tax-cutting fantasies predictably failed last year, there was a wave of hope that the state might change direction, by voting Brownback out. In March, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warned that “Kansas is a cautionary tale, not a model,” explaining that “As other states recover from the recent recession and turn toward the future, Kansas’ huge tax cuts have left that state’s schools and other public services stuck in the recession, and declining further — a serious threat to the state’s long-term economic vitality.
Meanwhile, promises of immediate economic improvement have utterly failed to materialize.” The damage was inescapable—in March, the State Supreme Court ruled, in Gannon vs. State of Kansas, that under Brownback (in part resulting from his tax cuts) state school funding cuts had violated the state constitution.
“The Kansas Legislature, not the courts, has the power of the purse,” Brownback saidwhen the case was previously decided by a lower court. So the Supreme Court went into considerable detail about why Brownback was wrong. Short version: The state constitution (not just in Kansas, but in many others states as well) sets broad standards that the legislature must meet, and it failed to do so.
Brownback also claimed, “Through today’s ruling, the courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan.” But reality was exactly the opposite, since Brownback himself had raised property taxes, even as he slashed income taxes. The funds he and his allies cut from budget were to compensate for wealth-based inequalities between school districts—inequalities reflected in property taxes. It was his income tax cuts that created the shortfall, which he then took out on the children of Kansas—a move that the court found to be unconstitutional, because it withheld state funds that would offset unequal resources available to wealthier districts.
The court explicitly said there were a broad range of remedies available, it was not dictating anything—certainly not a property tax increase: “Any cure will be measured by determining whether it sufficiently reduces the unreasonable, wealth-based disparity so the disparity then becomes constitutionally acceptable.”
In the end, Brownback’s blame-shifting game fooled just enough people to succeed: in November, he survived with just under 50% of the vote. That’s a far cry from what he once imagined—riding a Kansas miracle all the way to the White House. Nonetheless, ever since his re-election the crazy has only spread to more and more aspects of governance.
This past week drew national attention to two of those aspects in the form of new laws Brownback signed. The first law would defund the state courts if they rule against a 2014 law which was seen by many as retaliation for the Gannon decision. That law stripped the Supreme Court of supervisory functions established in the state constitution. Hence, Brownback and the legislature are defying the power of the court to decide constitutional law. This is the very opposite of the true meaning of “limited government”—government limited by the rule of law (as opposed to absolute government, limited by nothing.)
The second law gave the state attorney general, voter fraud crusader Kris Kobach, the power to prosecute voter fraud cases which he insists are there, but that local prosecutors have been unable to find. As the Wichita Eagle reported:
Kobach has said that voter fraud is common. But from 1997 to 2010, there were only two confirmed cases in Sedgwick County and 11 in the state.
“I’ve given numbers,” Kobach said. “Some people on the other side of this issue think that more than 200 cases of fraud over a 13-year period is not significant. I think two cases over that period is significant, because any fraud is unacceptable in our election system.”
Like all soundbite conservatives, what Kobach’s “principled” stand against voter fraud deliberately ignores is the trade-off of costs: a small handful of actual voter fraud cases may exist and be prosecuted, but thousands of perfectly legal voters will be prevented from voting by over-eager “voter integrity” measures. Publicly, Kobach may studiously ignore this cost, but ultimately, it’s the whole point, as the Pennsylvania Republican House Leader Mike Turzai bragged about in 2012, listing a string of legislative accomplishments, including “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
There’s another problem with Kobach’s soundbite conservative insistence on clearcut good vs. evil: Even in cases where apparent fraud has been uncovered, investigations usually turn up confusion and misinformation rather than malicious intent. Actual prosecutable cases are extremely rare. For example, U.S. Attorney David Iglesias set up a taskforce in New Mexico in September 2004, involving state, local and federal law enforcement, including the FBI. As he explained to Bill Moyers in 2007, “We looked at well over 100 cases … Upon reviewing the evidence and looking at the FBI reports, and actually talking to the FBI agent in charge of this, I concluded, as did the public integrity section at main Justice [Department] and at the local FBI office, that we didn’t have any prosecutable cases.”
As Salon reported that same year, “In 2004, state Republicans pressured Iglesias to file charges in the case of a 13-year-old boy who was illegally registered to vote. The boy had been registered without his or his parents’ knowledge, and Iglesias declined to indict anyone.” This was all part of a hidden agenda within the Department of Justice to make voter fraud into a major partisan issue favoring the GOP. Iglesias was one of several attorneys fired in what became known as the US Attorneys scandal, precisely because he failed to deliver the headline prosecutions that his bosses wanted. Despite all the effort, Salon noted, “between the fall of 2002 and the fall of 2005, there were only 95 defendants charged with federal election-fraud-related crimes in the whole country.”
With the new law, which he pushed hard for, Kobach is trying to do a state-level repeat of what the Bush DOJ did: force cases to be made where none exist, always assuming evil intent, officially ignoring the negative consequences of spreading fear among legal voters, all in an effort to suppress their votes.
This connects with another new election law which the national press has failed to focus on, but also plays a key role in the Brownback/Kobach scheme. The second bill did several things. First, it movedcity and school board elections to the fall of odd-numbered years. As the Wichita Eagle reported:
The change is projected to double turnout in local elections. Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, noted that turnout in this spring’s election in Wichita hovered around 16 percent despite a mayoral race and a ballot measure about marijuana.
The change has been largely opposed by local elected officials and school boards across the state.
“When did we stop listening to local governments? When did we start deciding that we know best?” asked Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield.
Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board, contended in Wichita that the date change was “not being done to increase voter participation. It’s being done for control. Plain and simple.”
“If they were really concerned about voter turnout, they would change August primaries,” Rogers said.
During the House debate, Republicans contended the bill would make local officials more accountable by boosting turnout. Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, called low turnout “the ultimate voter suppression tool.”
To really understand what’s going on here, you have to realize that it was local school board officials who were behind the Gannon lawsuit, and related actions. Brownback’s allies—contemptuous of local control, a hallowed “conservative principle” in other contexts—clearly want those officials accountable to their political operations, which are much more powerful in the head-to-head battles that the shift in election schedules will make possible
And what about their professed interest in increasing democratic participation? Well, there’s just a slight problem with that. Another feature of the new law is decidedly anti-democratic:
The bill also would permanently eliminate the presidential primary. That would help enshrine the caucus system, which requires candidates to pay their political party $10,000 in order to participate.
Republicans say primaries, which come at a cost of $3 million to the state, are too expensive.
Kansas has not held a primary since 1992. Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, called the elimination of the presidential primary ill-advised, contending that primaries engage more voters. He said that 2016, a year in which both parties have open races for the presidency, would be an ideal time for Kansas to hold a primary.
But Brownback and Kobach won’t be able to control the primary process, so who needs it?
These three recent laws represent breathtaking power-grabs in their own right, but as indicated, they have an intertwining backstory, and are part of a much broader landscape in which Brownback and his allies are pursuing an unprecedented concentration of unaccountable political power, the very opposite of the true meaning of “limited government,” the sort of principled ideal that they love to invoke, without having any idea what it actually means. This in turn provides a significant hint of what the battle in Kansas is really all about.
If the national battle-lines are red vs. blue, Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal, the battle-lines in Kansas are quite different, and even a bit blurry, but one way major cleavage is between two different notions of conservatism. The soundbite conservative one represented by Brownback and Kobach—typified by fanatical devotion to “principles” despite what logic, evidence, or common sense might say to the contrary—is the bitter enemy of the one represented by the two most prominent Kansas Republicans of the 20th century, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert Dole, who among other things believed that “fiscal conservatism” meant paying for things the government did for people—balancing budgets, rather than cutting taxes on the wealthy and blaming everyone else when deficits inevitably explode.
Laffer’s promise that cutting taxes would increase revenue typified the triumph of conservatives who defined themselves by fidelity to “principles” that could not be questioned. He promised that his approach would solve all problems—there was no need to think about trade-offs, or costs, because everything would be better, automatically, given enough time. This refusal to think in terms of trade-offs, to seriously consider the costs of paths not taken, lies at the very heart of the difference between Eisenhower/Dole conservatives and the sort of soundbite conservatives who dominate the GOP today. Likewise, Kobach made his reputation spreading fears of widespread voter fraud—a problem that no one has been able to find in the real world—while ignoring the the massive trade-off costs: the impact his actions have in preventing legitimate votes from being cast.
Eisenhower and Dole represent conservatism as a sensibility and orientation, epitomized by Dole’s speech accepting the GOP nomination for President in 1996, when he said, “Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action,” to which Bill Clinton responded—quite successfully—by promising to build a bridge to the future. This sort of conservatism tries to update itself—but not too fast, a tricky balancing act which Clinton expertly upset.
But Eisenhower found it even easier to dismiss the other sort of conservatism, the soundbite sort which tries to cloak itself in high-sounding “eternal principles.” When his brother Edgar wrote to him, echoing complaints that he was too accommodating of the changes brought in by the New Deal, Eisenhower wrote back:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Times have obviously changed. The stupid men Eisenhower dismissed represent the other strand of conservatism, and they dominate organized conservatism today. Ronald Reagan represented the tipping point. He talked like the stupid “principled” crowd—pushing trickle-down economics with his massive debt-exploding tax cuts, for example. But when reality pushed back too hard, Reagan switched back into Eisenhower mode, which explains why he raised taxes repeatedly in later years—although he did shift more of the tax burden onto middle class and working class Americans in the process. Reagan never stopped talking like a “principled” conservative, but he never governed long as anything but a pragmatist, although a very ideological one.
Post-Reagan organized conservatism is dominated by his rhetorical fantasy side, despite the fact that this feeds the rise of “the stupid party,” as Bobby Jindal called it, milliseconds before joining. But most everyday conservatives—like those on Kansas school boards—remain much closer to Eisenhower and Dole than they are to the clowns running the GOP at the highest levels. These are the two most important factions at war in Kansas today, and you can clearly see their battle lines in the bills and battles that I’ve touched on above.
Conservatives like Eisenhower, Dole and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who created the first modern welfare state in the 1870s and '80s, are men who live in history, and respect its reality, even as they seek to shape it. But the soundbite conservatives live in fantasy, and attack the first sort for their “lack of principles.” They live by “principles” that are really just soundbites. You can tell that by noticing how quickly those principles change, or even disappear, when needed—like the support for voter participation when the subject shifts from school board elections to presidential primaries.
Newt Gingrich epitomizes this wing, and once attacked Dole as the “tax collector of the welfare state,” a barb that could have been used against Eisenhower just as well—had he not been so deeply respected and popular. Brownback and Kobach come from Gingrich’s wing of conservatism, and right now they’re winning in the world of Kansas politics, but it’s deeply doubtful that they can keep winning long, and it’s not just because Brownback’s “principled belief” in cutting taxes to increase revenue is at war with basic math, and is destroying the state budget, with the state constitution next in line—though that is big part of it.
But the deeper problem is the self-deception that riddles the “principled” wing through and through. Those at the top of the food chain can make out like bandits using principles like that. The rest of us, not so much. We have to live with the results, you see. That goes for Eisenhower/Dole conservatives as well as everybody else. Sooner or later, they may figure that out. Even in Kansas, that adds up to a majority, eventually. A day of reckoning will ultimately come.