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|Coming to a theater near you: A sadly inadequate explanation for this fiscal meltdown.||
What really is the matter with Kansas?
by Jack Cashill
Yes, Dorothy, there is a good deal the matter with Kansas. No state that borders Kansas is governed as insanely. No nearby state faces anything like the Kansas fiscal crisis, and no one in the media cares to say why.
Certainly not Thomas Frank, a soft-core Marxist and a hard-core bunko artist. Rarely has a book so utterly preposterous sold as many copies as has his international bestseller, What’s The Matter With Kansas? If you have not read the book, the movie version is coming soon to a theater near you—I wish I were kidding.
In fact, the causes of Kansas’ malfunction skew roughly 180 degrees—is it possible to skew more?—from the causes Frank cited and continues to cite in his silly movie.
What’s the matter with Kansas, as Frank sees it, is that “deregulated capitalism” has “crushed” local business, driven agriculture to a “state of near collapse,” and in general transformed what was once a “worker’s paradise” into a land of “sterility and decay.”
How did this come to pass? In Frank’s retelling, moderate Republicans exploited the “cranks, conspiracists and calamity howlers” that comprise the state’s simple-minded conservative base and tricked them—against their best interests—into cutting taxes, slashing regulations, and laying waste to what was once the “garden of the world.”
If one could be institutionalized for media malpractice, Frank would be in 24-hour lockdown. In reality, state spending in Kansas has outpaced income growth for three decades. The numbers don’t lie: In the three years prior to the current recession, the years during which Frank was allegedly paying attention, state general fund spending increased 8.6 percent, 9.6 percent, and 8.6 percent respectively, lavish growth even by blue-state standards.
To raise this kind of dough, Kansas jacked up personal and corporate income taxes more than any state in the region save Nebraska, which at least used the money to balance the state budget.
Kansas has a top personal income tax rate of 6.45 percent. Worse, this rate kicks in at just $30,000 per year, which means that just about every adult not flipping burgers pays the top rate. The Kansas max is nearly 10 percent higher than Missouri’s and nearly 50 percent higher than in Colorado, a state full of “cool” people with ski chalets and thus immune to progressive barbs.
But here is the rub: Despite its high taxes, Kansas is now staring down the barrel of a $500 million annual deficit. And the dynamics that led to this debacle are undemocratic enough to make Gov. Mark Parkinson think about turning Republican. Again.
In Kansas, the great gobbler of tax money goes by the shorthand, K-12, which sounds like a Russian nuclear sub, but is actually something scarier—the public educational establishment. This most sacred of Kansas cows consumes a full 51 percent of the state general fund, and the cost would be higher still were it not for the scores of thousands of students who have opted out for home-schooling or private and parochial schools.
Although Frank may not have noticed, the state added a cool billion dollars to the K-12 budget since 2003, a 50 percent increase for a school population that has flat-lined. Kansas now spends more than $11,000 a pupil, the highest figure in the region, nearly 20 percent higher than the cost per pupil in Missouri.
However fat and sacred it may be, the K-12 bovine does not offer much in the way of yield. Since the forced feeding began, test scores have gone nowhere and reading scores have actually gone down.
As to how the state came to bankrupt itself, the reasons are doubly unique to Kansas. One distinction, as cited by the public policy group Americans for Prosperity, is that educational funding control “has been removed from the Legislature and placed in the hands of the Kansas Supreme Court.”
A second distinction, as cited by KU law professor Steven Ware, is that “Kansas is the only state in the union that gives the members of its bar majority control over the selection of state supreme court justices.” In Kansas, citizens don’t get to vote on Supreme Court judges, and state senators don’t get to confirm.
This unholy syllogism ends with a damning synthesis. When the Supreme Court controls school funding, and the bar controls the Supreme Court, the bar effectively controls school funding.
In other words, the fiscally conservative population of Kansas is being ruled by a cabal of largely liberal attorneys accountable to exactly no one. No taxpayers in any other state ever have faced such a double-barreled subversion of constitutional government.
An expensive testament to that subversion is the 2005 Supreme Court decision, Montoy v. Kansas, which followed several years of jockeying by the Supreme Court, its trial lawyer buddies and their educational allies.
As it happened, Team Montoy wanted more Kansas money than the taxpayers or their representatives were willing to give. Frustrated by the democratic process, they scurried to their pals on the Supreme Court and cried that the Legislature was violating the state constitution by not making “suitable” provision to fund public education.
The fact that Kansas was second in the country in the equitable distribution of state funding and 10th in test scores impressed the good justices not at all. Nor did the fact that the state had cut its high school drop-out rate in half and increased its percent of college graduates by more than 50 percent just since 1980.
Too parochial perhaps to remember the disastrous reign of Judge Russell Clark in KC, or too indifferent, the good justices obliged Team Montoy and decided that “suitable” meant 853 million tax dollars per year over and above the billions the state was already spending. The Legislature would simply have to pillage the peasants a little more—about 740 additional dollars per household each year—and pay up.
This decision so strayed from precedent that conservatives in the legislature thought of forcing a constitutional showdown and taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that did not happen.
The media dependably chastened the holdouts as anti-education. Fifth columnists softened up the moderate Republicans. Kathleen Sebelius, who was governor at that time, rallied eager Democrat legislators for surrender, and the state began its happily progressive descent into fiscal chaos.
What’s The Matter With Kansas? will be playing at the otherwise excellent Tivoli Theater in Westport from March 12 on. Critic Roger Ebert assures us that the point of the film—with which he agrees—is that “conservatives in the heartland have persuaded themselves to vote against their own economic and social well-being.”
Oh, OK, sure Roger. I am going to be out of town next month. If anyone goes to see the film, please let me know whether it mentions Montoy.
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