Over the past few years, two states–Kansas and Louisiana–have become testbeds for the most extreme conservative policies on offer in the US. Other states have Tea Party governors or a number of Tea Party legislators, but none have gone as far down the “small government, privatize everything” road as these two.
As the saying goes, the chickens are coming home to roost.
The government of Kansas initiated large tax cuts a few years ago. The state has been going bankrupt ever since. The bottom line is that tax revenues are not sufficient to pay for the state’s various financial obligations, and while cutting taxes to stimulate growth is a popular conservative policy idea, in practice it simply doesn’t work. It’s nothing but trickle-down economics, which has never worked anywhere it’s been attempted, and has only managed to produce greater income and wealth inequality.
In an effort to stem the bleeding, school budgets were cut. Then, a court declared that the state has no right to do this, and ordered increased funding instead, citing the state’s constitutional obligation to provide an education to all of Kansas’ children. Since balancing the budget was the whole point, an increase in education spending was out of the question. So, the state legislature–which is fully on-board with Governor Brownback’s budget-slashing agenda–is now working to make it easier to impeach Kansas’ judges. The only reason this is happening is because the Republican Governor and legislature are unhappy with having their efforts backstopped by the judiciary. If it can be made easy to fire judges, the other two branches of the state government will have a free hand to run the budget however they like. Judges who won’t play along can be dismissed.
Back in the fall of 2014, Rolling Stone ran a good piece on the disintegration of Kansas under a Tea Party administration:
Back in 2011, Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era godfather of supply-side economics, brought to Wichita by Brownback as a paid consultant, sounded like an exiled Marxist theoretician who’d lived to see a junta leader finally turn his words into deeds. “Brownback and his whole group there, it’s an amazing thing they’re doing,” Laffer gushed to The Washington Post that December. “It’s a revolution in a cornfield.” Veteran Kansas political reporter John Gramlich, a more impartial observer, described Brownback as being in pursuit of “what may be the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation,” not only cutting taxes but also slashing spending on education, social services and the arts, and, later, privatizing the entire state Medicaid system. Brownback himself went around the country telling anyone who’d listen that Kansas could be seen as a sort of test case, in which unfettered libertarian economic policy could be held up and compared right alongside the socialistic overreach of the Obama administration, and may the best theory of government win. “We’ll see how it works,” he bragged on Morning Joe in 2012. “We’ll have a real live experiment.”
That word, “experiment,” has come to haunt Brownback as the data rolls in. The governor promised his “pro-growth tax policy” would act “like a shot of adrenaline in the heart of the Kansas economy,” but, instead, state revenues plummeted by nearly $700 million in a single fiscal year, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s credit rating, and job growth sagged behind all four of Kansas’ neighbors. Brownback wound up nixing a planned sales-tax cut to make up for some of the shortfall, but not before he’d enacted what his opponents call the largest cuts in education spending in the history of Kansas.
By any measure, these policies have been disastrous. Though intended to create growth, Kansas’ growth in the aftermath of massive tax cuts has been modest at best. All this grand experiment has done is widen inequality in the state, and damage its long-term prospects by sacrificing education and infrastructure.
Despite all this, Brownback and his legislature aren’t done. They intend to balance the budget no matter what must be cut, and will dismantle the state’s court system if that’s what it takes to push their agenda through. Growth isn’t the issue and it never was–slashing the government to the point of complete uselessness is the goal.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, state budget crises have become such a big problem that public defenders–a Constitutionally-guaranteed right–are about to go unfunded.
The state public defender indicated that 24 of the 42 local public defender offices will become insolvent and restrict services in the next few months. Many already have broken down. Public defenders in 13 of Louisiana’s 42 judicial districts are already restricting services.
For example, the Lafayette Parish public defender has laid off 35 of its 52 attorneys, and imposed salary cuts of 20 percent on those who remain. The constitutional guarantee of speedy trial is gone and death penalty cases are grinding to a halt. The remaining public defenders face caseloads of 1,000 felonies a year, a rate more than five times as high as recent Texas legislature mandated caseload study which concluded that public defenders should represent no more than 175 felonies a year.
New Orleans public defenders have been refusing to represent the most serious cases since January.
Their budget has been cut from $9.5 million to $6 million in the past four years.
That office, which represents 85 percent of those charged in criminal court, has already laid off lawyers, and cannot replaced the many lawyers who have resigned because of a hiring freeze. The office handles 10,000 misdemeanors and 8,000 felonies a year.
One public defender wrote in the Washington Post that brand new lawyers have to handle cases with life sentences, carry double the number of cases that the American Bar Association recommends, do not have the time to even see their clients and are forced to plead people out to felony convictions on the day they meet them.
This funding crisis in the context of an overall budget debacle spearheaded by Tea Party darling Bobby Jindal, who recently departed as the state’s governor, leaving behind a massive deficit of nearly a billion dollars that’s expected to double in the following year.
Again, like Brownback, far from being discouraged, Jindal is offering his sage executive advice to anyone who will listen.
The former Louisiana governor said that voters are simply reacting to “the perceived deficiencies of the incumbent.”
“After seven years of the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced ‘no drama Obama,’ voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences,” Jindal wrote. “Middle-class incomes are stagnant, and radical Islam is on the march across the Middle East. No wonder voters are responding to someone who promises to make America great again. You can draw a straight line between a president who dismisses domestic terrorist attacks as incidents of workplace violence and a candidate who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country.”
Considering the absolute mess he left behind in Louisiana, one wonders why Jindal should be taken seriously on any matter of importance.
It’s 2016: an election year. These are the sorts of policies on offer from the GOP. Unfortunately, Tea Party politicians have been particularly popular in states that aren’t particularly wealthy, meaning already vulnerable populations are seeing their prospects dwindle as a result of careless budget-slashing of public services coupled with favor-trading for the rich.
If and when you vote in this year’s elections, keep in mind what the Republicans on the ticket stand for. Donald Trump aside, the Tea Party is more and more coming to define the GOP’s economic vision for America, and it’s far from a dream–it’s a nightmare made real.
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