On the eve of another session of the Kansas Legislature, it may help to recall that state government wasn’t always so wretchedly mismanaged. Until recently the legislature, state agencies and even the executive branch had been the domain of men and women who understood a fundamental truth in our political culture: that in a modern industrial society, all individual effort must be braced by a government that guarantees opportunities for those who want to work, food for those who would otherwise starve, pensions for the old and medical care for the sick.
This is what had moved earlier generations in Kansas government. It is what inspired decades of reform and advancement, of adding to that list of essentials. Responsible people believed that government should make life more rewarding for all citizens, not just a few of them.
The past six years under Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislature of lemmings have been a special inferno for most Kansans and for the agencies that were to serve them.
Massive tax cuts for business and the wealthy have left the state treasury bone dry and bleeding red ink. Agencies for transportation, education, social welfare, health care and public safety have been starved, their staffs throttled with layoffs and vacancies. The agriculture department for this magnificent farm state has been dismantled and shrink-wrapped, its pieces shipped off to a barren corner in Manhattan, far from the seat of government.
The Kansas economy gasps for air as our neighbors breathe freely with new jobs, fat paychecks, full employment and proficient industries. The Kansas high brackets and deep pockets and thousands of select businesses are forgiven their taxes. Meanwhile, communities shuffle along, wondering whether more teachers will be lost and how their schools will make ends meet. Cities and counties, plundered of their revenue, their return on local taxes, continue to spin in futility. Once these communities looked to
Washington for aid, for understanding, for at least a return on their local effort; but the Congress, regressed to the pitiable status of a sheltered workshop, is lost in a self-imposed wilderness. The White House, all but vacant, awaits a new president who considers it little more than temporary lodging, a pied-à-terre. Kansas has demanded a smaller federal government, one that is tough on the penniless, the laggards, the welfare-seekers and subsidy addicts, midland beggars like Kansas. If the campaign promises hold, we’ll get it. Washington will remain the nation’s soup kitchen, but only for those who aren’t hungry, a capital for the haves and have-mores.
Kansas? In many states, the Affordable Care Act offered avenues to health insurance including attention to the indigent, but not here. Many states have revenue sharing, aid to cities and counties; no more in Kansas. In most states, debt is hardly a major concern; in Kansas, the bonded debt has nearly tripled (to $4.5 billion) in the past three years.
The government’s operating deficit of $350 million does not include an estimated $580 million revenue decline in the new year. Our governor looks the other way, blames Obama, China, the media, whatever. Legislators offer a pathetic shrug.
Nearer to home, The Salina Journal closed the year with its Christmas Fund reports, limitless tales of local poverty and misfortune, of the working poor who face yet another bleak winter; of a government that once helped, but no longer.
The money for fighting poverty has been sluiced away to the one percenters. In Kansas, supply-side economics is a stream of overdrafts, with trickle-down the lonely cadence of foreclosure. For six years, since the governor’s glorious pronouncement for his Glide Path to Zero income taxes, the state budget and economy have been in free fall, and for six years, his dutiful Republican super majorities in the legislature have back-slapped and celebrated this economic “shot of adrenalin” with all the acuity of rubes come home to the barnyard.
The recent elections have cleared Topeka of a few rank cretins and given optimists hope for improvement. But the rolls remain thick with those whose silence endorsed the governor’s lies, or who backed his ham-fisted assaults on education, the poor, the sick and the elderly, or who (like the senate president) helped to purge dissenting Republicans and celebrated the governor’s lunatic economics one bill and one resolution after the next. Some have changed their stories, spiffed up their talking points, promised to “listen” or “address the problem,” to “fix” the damage, as though someone else had been responsible.
We’ll see. Brownback is still governor and Kris Kobach, our Secretary of State, remains hard at work, rooting about in search of immigrants to roust, or voters to charge with fraud, or elections to manipulate with cyberware – that is, when he isn’t bleating for Donald Trump. Brownback is still in charge and Kobach is there in the wings, coiled and tense, his tail buzzing.
Nonetheless we still have a government, what’s left of one, and the people still have a voice. If we use it, if we summon power of our own, government may work again, and hope may be within our grasp.