The state’s mental hospitals at Osawatomie and Larned are among the more battered victims of Gov. Sam Brownback’s calculated abuse of state agencies. His trickle-down tax cuts – starve the poor, feed the rich – have left the hospitals with skeletal staffs and budgets perpetually red-lined. The Osawatomie hospital lost federal certification a year ago because it could no longer afford staff to ensure supervised care, or to meet minimal safety standards to protect patients.
Like many other agencies, the hospitals suffer because state funds have been diverted to finance tax breaks for businesses and the rich, leaving the government with operating deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The failure at Osawatomie is a special lesson in how the governor views the role of government in relation to public services. Most of us see the government as an agent to assist those in need, to help citizens have better lives, to help communities be more livable. This view holds that government provide an avenue for improvements in, among other things, public health, education, welfare and transportation.
Brownback and his loyal legions do not see it this way. They view government as an annoyance, except for the potential in sluicing public money into private pockets. The plight of the state’s mental hospitals is a prime example. Brownback’s secretary of Aging and Disability Services (the former state welfare department), suggests that the hospital be “privatized,” its services assumed by a for-profit corporation, a presumption that business is best left to business, rather than government.
It’s a time-worn ploy. The governor sets up an agency for failure by starving its budget, firing its employees, undercutting its mission. As the agency reels in a downward spiral, the governor or one of his lackeys expresses grave concern and notes that perhaps a private business – no doubt friendly to the governor – can save this pitiable agency from itself. This is how Medicaid in Kansas became KanCare, the state agency that once provided medical care for the poor but now, under private management (corporations that donated heavily to the governor’s campaigns), is a colossal failure.
Nonetheless, private businesses, the for-profit kind that donate to politicians, have an eye on state agencies as ready wellsprings for cash and heavy write-offs for their business ledgers. And the governor is ready with other agencies, priming them for failure as well. All it takes is another budget cut, another swipe at the under-served, and another lock-step legislature to go along with it all.
– JOHN MARSHALL