Conservative Shift Has Some Kansans Yearning For The Past
Kansan journalist Jason Probst says the Kansas he knows has disappeared.
"The great state of Kansas passed away on March 31, 2013 after a long and difficult battle with extremism," he wrote in an editorial for The Hutchinson News.
His faux obituary, lamenting Kansas' embrace of conservatism, went viral. Tens of thousands of people read it. Many were fellow Kansans who wrote to Probst to say they, too, were disturbed by their state's dramatic swing to the right.
Along with much of the country, Kansas took a right turn in 2010, and now its conservative supermajority in the Legislature hopes to set an example for other red states.
Kansas' Progressive Streak
Probst, 39, has lived his whole life in the Sunflower State. When he was a boy, Kansas was known for its centrist, pragmatic politics. That changed with the last election cycle, he says.
"This legislative session has just been one thing after another that seemed like it was undoing a lot of things that had been done in the state over the last hundred years," Probst tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.
Kansas has a long progressive tradition. The earliest Kansans fought off slaveholders to make their territory a free state (it was, indeed, a bloody fight). No woman had ever been elected to public office in the U.S. before Susanna Salter became mayor of Argonia.
The state also has a history of centrism, Probst says.
"We like to move ahead with what we have and try to do the best work we can without shaking things up, or moving too quickly, or getting too radical about things," he says.
However, change has accelerated, he says, and that's not what he knows as conservative Kansas.
The New 'Red-State Model'
The state moved quickly when it came to the governorship in 2010. Increased political spending helped former Sen. Sam Brownback beat a moderate Republican, turning the tide.
Three of the previous five governors had been Democrats, including Kathleen Sebelius, who was elected twice before Obama called her up to his cabinet in 2009.
Now, Brownback has the most conservative legislature in state history. With the conservatives in full control, Brownback is leading the charge, and he says he wants Kansas to be on a "glide path" to zero income tax as a prescription for economic renewal.
He's calling his effort a "red-state model." If Kansas leads, the governor says, the other 49 states will follow.
Kansas isn't down to zero state income taxes yet, but in 2012 the state eliminated income tax for small businesses and substantially cut the tax rate for high-income individuals.
Brownback says the plan will create growth and attract investment, and he says signs of that are already emerging, like a spike in the number of LLC filings.
To continue moving the income tax down, Brownback wants to keep sales tax where it is. Cost-cutting measures he's planning for include "a mixture of consolidation within agencies, of funding core functions well, but looking at a number of other state functions and saying, 'If we don't need to do this, let's not do it.'"
Getting It Right
Economist Brad DeLong, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says Brownback's plan is flawed.
"That produces a relatively low-wage form of economic development. That's attractive to those who own companies, but not so attractive to people who don't own companies," he says.
He says Brownback's model is based on a formula that works in Texas and Florida. But Kansas has neither Texas's oil nor Florida's tourism, and even if it does work, Kansans might not like it when they start to see certain services disappear.
As for the "red-state model" — the idea that Kansas will lead and the rest will follow — DeLong says Kansas is too different from the rest of the country to be a good model.
For example, Kansas' biggest city has about 400,000 people, and there's an aging rural population that relies on farm subsidies from the government.
Brownback will have to make sure his red-state model works, or, DeLong says, "It will be a horrible warning."
"In a decade, people will say, 'Let's definitely not try that again. It produced a Kansas in which there were more people that worked, but they were very poorly paid, and social services were actually quite lousy,' " he says.
What Happened To Compromise?
Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, who served from 1995 to 2003, won by the largest margin in state history in his second term. Today, he's not sure his moderate Republican philosophy would stand a chance.
"I think there is a well-funded and very well-orchestrated effort right now to suggest that less government is gonna be better for everyone," he says.
Because of that, Graves says, moderates like him feel they've been left without a place. He went back to Kansas in 2012 to help campaign for moderate Republicans during the primary race.
"People who think a little bit more like I do have started to sort of shrink to the sidelines and just don't have the stomach or the willingness to really roll up their sleeves and fight back," he says.
Graves says his proudest achievements in office were the result of compromise — both across parties and within the Republican Party. That camaraderie seems far away today.
When newspaper writer Probst talks to his friends and neighbors, they're still the people he knew when he was growing up.
"But ... there's some kind of disconnect between that and how they vote and how they view the political climate that brings in that anger and the angst with people," he says.
That's just not the Kansas he says he remembers.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up in this hour, another critical week in Syria, we talk to our NPR correspondent; how tobacco companies make money, even as cigarette sales go down; and a conversation with musician Karl Hyde of the electronic duo Underworld about his first solo album.
First, though, a look at the state that gave you White Castle, the Jayhawkers, Dorothy and Toto, and now wants to give you something else: red state reform. We're talking about Kansas.
GOVERNOR SAM BROWNBACK: Let's show what lower taxes, more efficient use of government, more targeted government, let's show a reformed pension system, let's show these things to the country. And when they work, my belief is they will migrate nationally.
LYDEN: That's Kansas governor Sam Brownback. And he wants to explore what he calls the red-state model. The plan is not without its opponents. One political writer says it's time to write the state's obituary, and he did.
JASON PROBST: The great state of Kansas passed away on March 31, 2013 after a long and difficult battle with extremism.
LYDEN: And that's our cover story today: red or dead, the new Kansas experiment. When Jason Probst, almost 40, was a boy, Kansas was known for its centrist pragmatic politics. The saying was: When anything's going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas.
The first woman ever elected to public office, early fights against slavery - Kansas was a bellwether politically. But Probst, a former machinist who now writes for The Hutchinson News, says the last election cycle killed that pragmatism off.
PROBST: This legislative session has just been one thing after another that seemed like it was undoing a lot of things that had been done in the state over the last hundred years, a lot of progressive things.
LYDEN: A state once dotted with one-room schoolhouses gave rise to a series of inventors and creators. Then the whirlwind: outside political spending.
In 2012, PACs spent almost a million dollars in the last 10 days of primaries for the Republican state legislature, and there was more from third parties. Probst says it accelerated change, and that's not what he knows as conservative Kansas.
PROBST: We like to move ahead with what we have and try to do the best work we can without shaking things up or moving too quickly or getting too radical about things.
LYDEN: Governor Sam Brownback, a former senator and a conservative Republican with presidential ambitions, took over as governor in 2010. Because of all that political spending, moderate Republicans lost and Brownback now has the most conservative legislature in the state's history. The wind is at his back. But some Kansans, like Probst, see a pretty bleak future ahead. Let's go on with his litany.
PROBST: Kansas is survived by widespread poverty, low-wage jobs, poorly educated children, out-migration, lobbyist-funded legislators, a maniacal hatred of government, and children who dream of living anywhere else.
LYDEN: For a small-town newspaper, Probst's obituary for Kansas went viral. Tens of thousands of people read it, and many are fellow Kansans who wrote to Probst to say they, too, are disturbed by their state's dramatic swing to the right.
BOB BEATTY: A lot of emails that I received from people were people who said: I left the state to take care of an aging relative or to work. And I always planned to come back, but I'm not going to now.
LYDEN: Bob Beatty is a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka. He remembers the moment when he noticed the money beginning to flow into Kansas politics. He was home watching TV. It was late October 2008. Barack Obama was running for president. And in Kansas' 2nd District, a Democrat named Nancy Boyda was defending her seat in the House of Representatives.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...just like Obama. The Obama-Boyda team. Higher taxes, more spending, wrong for Kansas.
LYDEN: Nancy Boyda's face was superimposed over the familiar, circular Obama logo. You almost would've thought she was Obama's running mate, Beatty says.
BEATTY: Nancy Boyda spent two years trying to do what she thought people wanted her to do: Not vote party-line Democrat, but do what was best for her constituents for Kansas. She thought that that's how you get re-elected.
LYDEN: But Boyda was defeated, and that race became a focal point for the influence of outside money. More than a million dollars was spent on her race. And her opponent, a Republican, won by 4 percent and rode off to Washington that January.
BEATTY: In a sense, it became the sort of wild idea that it doesn't matter what she did. She was going to lose because she had a D next to her name.
LYDEN: D as in Democrat. And remember, we're talking pragmatic Kansas. Three of the last five governors have been Democrats. Kathleen Sebelius was elected governor twice before Obama called her up to the Cabinet in 2009. In the years since, though, there's been even more outside money, and the conservative Republicans reign ascendant.
BEATTY: In many cases, they make the argument that a vote for a Democrat in Kansas and even - and this is really interesting - even a vote for a moderate Republican in Kansas is essentially a vote for Barack Obama.
LYDEN: With the conservatives in full control of the Kansas legislature, Governor Brownback is leading the charge, and he says he wants Kansas to be on a glide path to zero income tax as a prescription for economic renewal. He's enacted the biggest tax cut in the state's history already - in this new Kansas that he calls the red-state model. If Kansas leads, the governor says, the other 49 states will follow. We asked him to share more of that thinking.
BROWNBACK: The thinking is that this will create growth, and it already has. We are at zero on small business income. And so anybody listening to this show that's a person of small business, move to Kansas. No taxes. And that's already - we've had a record number of filings of LLCs in the state of Kansas with that move.
And plus, we've taken our overall top income tax rate down to 4.9, and I want to take it to zero as a way of attracting investment, growth. And we're starting to see that happening. Most of this is anecdotal that we're getting now, because that just went into effect the first of this year. But the LLC filings, that even happened last year.
LYDEN: But your own House of Representatives has given you some pushback on this. The thinking by even pro-business conservatives is that something is going to have to offset the loss in income tax, and sales tax might also be a turnoff to business.
BROWNBACK: Well, I mean, that's - you've got to deal with it. Our state is heavily dependent upon the state income tax, but nearly 40 percent when I became governor. See, you've got to work it down over time. You've got to become more efficient with your government. Our state - number of state employees is down about 7 percent. You're going to have to get your resources somewhere to fund the central core functions of government. And you need to do them well.
And what I'm suggesting is that state sales tax stay where it is rather than going down .6 cents. And that you use that sales tax to further ride the income tax rates down.
LYDEN: Governor Brownback, your state's fiscal calendar begins in July. And if Kansas keeps spending at the same rate, somewhere around seven or $800 million are expected to be the shortfall. How do you plan to balance that?
BROWNBACK: Through a mixture of consolidation within agencies, of funding core functions well, but looking at a number of other state functions and saying, if we don't need to do this, let's not do it. It's going to be on savings, better efficiency. Growth is critical. You got to have growth taking place, and that's what the tax cut was to stimulate. And then to maintain the sales tax at its current level rather than having it go down .6 percent, as was scheduled to take place the middle of this year.
LYDEN: But economists like Brad DeLong, a California academic looking at the Kansas model, says Brownback's tax cuts are a flawed plan.
BRAD DELONG: That produces a relatively low-wage form of economic development that's attractive to those who own companies, but not so attractive to people who don't own companies.
LYDEN: He says Governor Brownback's plan is based on a formula that works in Texas and Florida. But Kansas has neither Texas' oil nor Florida's tourism. And even if it does work, Kansans might not like it when they start to see their basic services disappear.
As for the red-state model, the idea that Kansas will lead and the rest of the states will follow, DeLong says Kansas is too different from the rest of the country to be a good model. Kansas' biggest city, Wichita, is 400,000. And there's an aging rural population that relies on farm subsidies from the government. Brownback will have to make sure his red-state model works, DeLong says.
DELONG: Or it'll be a horrible warning. You know, that in a decade, people will say let's definitely not try that again. It produced a Kansas in which there were more people at work, but they were very poorly paid, and social services were actually quite lousy.
LYDEN: And Kansans have prided themselves on their kind of solid entrepreneurship. Bill Graves is from a prominent trucking family in Salina. He says that recognition helped him get elected to office. He served as governor from 1995 to 2003. He was very popular. In his second term, he won by the largest margin in state history. Today, he's not sure his moderate Republican philosophy would stand a chance.
BILL GRAVES: I think there is a well-funded and very well-orchestrated effort right now to suggest that less government is going to be better for everyone.
LYDEN: And because of that, he says, moderate Republicans like Governor Graves feel they've been left without a place.
GRAVES: People that think a little bit more like I do have started to sort of shrink to the sidelines and just don't have the stomach or the willingness to really, you know, roll up their sleeves and fight back.
LYDEN: Bill Graves told us that his proudest achievements in office as governor were the results of compromise, both across party lines and within the Republican Party. Not the reality today.
When newspaper writer Jason Probst talks to his friends and neighbors, they're still the people he knew when he was growing up.
PROBST: But there's something that happens or there's some kind of disconnect between that and then how they vote and how they view the political climate that brings in that anger and the angst with people.
LYDEN: And that's just not the Kansas he says he remembers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.