The Kansas Experiment


Chris Suellentrop in The New York Times Magazine:

In keeping with the state motto — ad astra per aspera, or ‘‘to the stars through difficulties’’ — Kansas politics have always been touched with a spirit of the avant-garde and the unorthodox, from popular sovereignty to prohibition and beyond. Today, thanks in large part to Brownback, the state is a petri dish for movement conservatism, a window into how the national Republican Party might govern if the opposition vanished. The 125 legislators of the House of Representatives include 97 Republicans; the Senate has an even greater percentage of Republicans, with only 8 Democrats among the 40 senators. With Brownback as governor, Kansas is in the midst of a self-described economic ‘‘experiment,’’ a project that, whatever you think of its merits, is one of the boldest and most ambitious agendas undertaken by any politician in America. Brownback calls it the ‘‘march to zero,’’ an attempt to wean his state’s government off the revenues of income taxes and to transition to a government that is financed entirely by what he calls consumption taxes — that is, sales taxes and, to a lesser extent, property taxes.

This fervor for budget-cutting is hardly unique to Kansas. At the federal level, the opposition party in the White House has kept the Republican majority in Congress from making much headway. But there are 23 states in the Union controlled entirely by Republicans, from statehouse to governor’s mansion — 24, if you count Nebraska’s technically nonpartisan, unicameral legislature — compared with just six (and Washington, D.C.) on the Democratic side. In these Republican states, the combination of the Great Recession with the anti-Obama elections of 2010 and 2014 has allowed legislators to make deeper cuts to the size and scope of government than has been possible in Washington for decades. In 2012, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, state governments spent $9 billion less than they did the previous year — the first such decline in 50 years. Many of these cuts have fallen on education. In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Tom Corbett cut funding for the state’s public universities by 20 percent, a compromise from his original proposal of 50 percent. Last month in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, backed by Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system.

As many tax-cutting states have found later on, the party’s deep-seated opposition to tax increases of any kind can make balancing the budget a high-wire act.

More here.