Topeka, the state capital of Kansas, is fertile ground for radical, faith-based experiments. In the early 1900s, it was the site of a small Bible school that asked students to forsake all for intense sessions of prayer, Bible study and speaking in tongues. That school was the soil in which Pentecostalism germinated and became one of the fastest-growing faith traditions in the modern world.
Republicans have staged their own faith-based experiment in Kansas over the past few years. But things haven’t turned out so well. When the governor, Sam Brownback, took office in 2011, he and the GOP-controlled legislature believed that cutting taxes would ignite economic growth by attracting more people and businesses. The failure of this experiment was predictable, since cutting taxes doesn’t lead to growth. It just leads to less revenue. And the failures have been well documented. But unless you’ve been following Kansas politics the past few months, you have no idea how bad things are about to get. Brownback’s approval rating, which hovers in the 20s and is the worst among governors in the nation, is likely to sink even lower as a fiscal apocalypse descends on the state.
Between now and the close of the fiscal year on June 30, Kansas faces a budget shortfall of about $350 million. Taxes can’t be raised quickly enough to meet the gap. And anyway, Brownback has historically been opposed to raising them. What is be done?
“It’s going to be ugly”
Martin Hawver, a longtime observer of Kansas politics, has been grappling with that question in the column he writes. Hawver notes that more cuts to the state’s road-maintenance program are likely, but that’s the easy call. The rest of the cuts?
“It’s going to be ugly; there are services that Kansans just don’t want to do without,” Hawver writes. “There are the poor to be assisted, the ill to be treated, the children to be educated.”
Basic services to these groups will be gutted to pay for policies that blew a hole in the budget. That outcome has been certain since 2011, when Brownback took office and turned Kansas into a laboratory for testing the GOP’s faith-based economics. Specifically, he pushed for a lower personal income tax rate, which he got: it’s now 4.6 percent, versus 6.45 percent when he took office. He also successfully pushed for exempting some 330,000 businesses from the income tax.
These tax cuts, coupled with disinvestment in public institutions and services, have sent Kansas into an economic tailspin, which is why the budget hole is huge and growing. A report released in early December by the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department noted that the estimated 2016 growth of the gross state product “has been reduced to zero percent from the previous estimate of 2.0 percent.” And the story is the same across the economy. From September 2015 to September 2016, the labor force in Kansas decreased by 1 percent, while the U.S. labor force increased by 1.9 percent. Real weekly earnings increased nationally by 1.4 percent, while they fell in Kansas by .8 percent.
Hide the evidence
Facts may have limited power to move public opinion, or hold politicians accountable, in this post-truth era. But Brownback once had so much faith in his agenda that he embraced the idea of measuring it against data. Soon after he took office, he set up a council responsible for evaluating the state’s economic policies. One of its chief tasks was to publish a quarterly report that measured Kansas against the national and regional economies.
The reports were published online until Brownback’s reelection campaign in 2014. A copy of each report was still made available upon request after that until what turned out to be the final edition in May. The council announced this fall that the quarterly report cards had been axed.
“A lot of people were confused by them,” a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Commerce, Nicole Randall, reportedly said.
But the reports weren’t confusing. They were very clear. They told the story of economic policies that have methodically hollowed out Kansas and delivered exactly the opposite of what the governor promised. Those faith-based economic policies have been GOP orthodoxy for nearly four decades now, and they are largely the policies and priorities of the incoming administration. Under Donald Trump, they’ll have the same predictable results: greater inequality, bigger deficits and a withering of public institutions and of the state’s economic infrastructure.
The GOP’s success in Kansas, as elsewhere, hasn’t been in governance but in telling a story, spinning a fable. Its plot is this: there is a magical road to riches that requires none of the hard work or sacrifice of actually investing in people and creating better, more democratic institutions. It’s a matter of cutting their taxes, getting out of their way and letting the free market work its magic. People believe this story because it’s convenient.
Faith in the story should be shattered by the Kansas experiment — but won’t be. Even so, progressives and Democrats must keep pointing out what the GOP has done to the state. But along with the critique and the criticism, we need to ask, in this moment of reckoning at the outset of the Trump era: What is the progressive narrative about how positive change happens? What is the answer to the destructive yet powerfully alluring GOP fable of tax cuts and free markets?
The most important lesson of Kansas might not be the one we already knew, which is that Republican economic policies are devastating and fraudulent. It’s that we need a better way to explain an alternative path — a new story to make our case for a better world.