Welcome to “Brownbackistan”
HILLSBORO, Kan. — This is it, folks. This is the state — probably the only one outside of Texas — where we will truly learn if conservatism “works.” And this is the state that probably gives you the clearest clue where Gov. Tom Corbett would take the state of Pennsylvania if he were left completely unfettered.
This is, as it happens, my home state, so I know that it’s spent the last decade, particularly, seeming to represent — to liberals at least — the worst excesses of the Republican conservative coalition. The state school board tried to put evolution on trial. Fred Phelps lives here. George Tiller was murdered here. It’s the reason “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” became one of the more famous political questions of the aughts. It’s not a fantastic track record.
But until recently, that uber-conservative reputation seemed overblown. Yes, Republicans were ascendant, but the state seemed to be divided into three parties: Conservative Republicans, Moderate Republicans and Democrats. And that gave Democrats a fighting chance: HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was twice elected governor here before President Obama plucked her for his cabinet. And her politics weren’t radically different from her moderate Republican predecessor, Bill Graves. Then Sam Brownback — probably previously best known for being Rick Santorum’s virtual clone in the Senate — was elected governor, and things got radical. These days, my remaining Kansas liberal friends have a new name for my home state: “Brownbackistan.”
Rolling Stone offered a good summary of the damage done last month, but here are some of the highlights of what Brownback and his allies have accomplished in the state:
- The legislature passed new abortion regulations making it much more difficult for clinics to operate in the state.
- Cracked down on unions.
- Hiked sales taxes, which disproportionately affect the poor, while lowering the income tax — yes, giving the rich a tax break paid for by people who can barely make the rent. The ultimate goal? Ending the income tax altogether.
- Tried ending all state funding for the arts.
- Radically cut funding for social services, closing offices across the state that served the state’s poor and needy.
- Cut higher education by $44 million over two years, and K-12 public education so deeply a state court ordered him to restore $440 million to that part of the state budget.
I could keep going, but you get the idea: Every idea that’s ever been on the wishlist of the right-wing fringe is now Business as Usual in the state of Kansas. (That’s not particularly surprising, since the state is the home of the billionaire Koch Brothers who have emerged as such potent players in conservative Republican politics. They dominate their political backyard every bit as much as you’d expect them to.)
Which makes the state an interesting test. If, as Brownback and his allies suggest, businesses elbow each other aside to come to Kansas and start hiring locals, Democrats might be forced to concede defeat and come up with a new agenda, using new means. Just as likely, though, Brownback’s actions have made the state a stupider, meaner, more difficult place to live.
So what does all this have to do with Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania? Well, this: Despite their professed love of federalism, it’s increasingly clear that the Republican Party has a unifying agenda that is advanced in each of the 50 state legislatures, perhaps circumventing the challenges it might face trying to pass its agenda at the federal level.
More plainly: The same Koch Brothers who gave Sam Brownback $20,000 for his campaign also donated $5,000 to Corbett. Think they expect that funding to result in action? Yeah, me too.
Corbett, though, is hemmed in for the moment by his own deep unpopularity, as well as the self-interest of a million well-organized groups in Harrisburg. If he gains re-election, though, watch out. The day could be near when we refer to Pennsylvania as “Corbettistan.”