It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

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