Opinion

Kansas' experiment in concentrated conservatism keeps getting grimmer

There's a lot the matter with Kansas these days

Kansas is in the midst of a grim experiment putting crackpot supply-side economic theories into practice. While these economic anti-reforms will have devastating results for poor people in the state, in other respects Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislative allies have made the government more intrusive into the private lives of the state's citizens. April has provided some particularly egregious examples of this disastrous turn.

Kansas has been a Republican state for a long time. Since 1936, the only time the state has given its electoral votes to a Democratic candidate was to Lyndon Johnson in the massive landslide of 1964. Despite this, Kansas has historically not been a far-right state. Prominent Kansas Republicans have generally been moderates, like Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama's former secretary of health and human services, was the state's Democratic governor as recently as 2009.

But since the election of Brownback, Kansas has gone full Tea Party. Kansas Republicans have enacted massive upper-class tax cuts, with the idea that they would produce such an explosion of economic growth that the state would actually gain revenues. This makes no sense in theory and has been a catastrophe in practice. Revenues have cratered, while economic growth lags behind neighboring states. Spending on the poor has decreased, while the tax burden on the poor has increased. Needless to say, Kansas has rejected the Medicaid expansion offered by the Affordable Care Act, denying access to health care for many poor Kansans.

Kansas Republicans certainly have no intention of taking responsibility for this disaster, which means a search for scapegoats. The targets should not be surprising: poor people, women, and gay people.

Earlier this month, Brownback signed a bill that, among other things, prevents welfare recipients from spending government-provided funds on things poor people do not spend their money on, such as cruise ships. As Emily Badger of The Washington Post observes, this reflects a trend in Republican-governed states of placing burdens and restrictions on poor people that do not apply to any other recipients of government benefits — and for no good reason.

The demeaning of the poor doesn't end there. Recipients of funds from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program will have their daily withdrawals, using the provided ATM cards, limited to $25 a day, not only creating needless inconvenience, but effectively transferring money from the poorest citizens in the state to banks in the forms of additional fees.

Brownback rose to prominence as more of a social conservative than a fiscal conservative. So it's not surprising that Kansas is placing irrational legal burdens on women as well. Kansas passed a bill banning dilation and evacuation abortions (under the junk science name "dismemberment abortions.") The procedure is safe — so there is no health-related justification for banning it — and is the most common one used for second-trimester abortions, which women have a constitutional right to obtain.

Even worse, the ban does not contain exceptions for rape, incest, or most threats to a woman's health. The law puts women's health at risk by interfering with the judgment of doctors in order to punish women for exercising their constitutional rights in a way Kansas legislators disapprove of.

Brownback's attacks on basic justice and equality don't end there. In 2007, Sebelius issued an order banning discrimination against LGBT state employees. Earlier this year, Brownback rescinded the order, creating a new standard under which state employees could be fired simply because of their sexual orientation. Brownback defended the order using the traditionally disingenuous "special rights" language so often employed by those who favor legal protection for bigotry: "This Executive Order ensures that state employees enjoy the same civil rights as all Kansans without creating additional 'protected classes' as the previous order did."

This argument would make sense — if you think that gay and straight people are equally likely to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. In the actually existing world, Brownback's measure does not guarantee civil rights to all Kansans, opening the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians based on their sexual orientation.

Under Brownback, Kansas has offered a concentrated form of what most national Republicans claim to want. Tax cuts for the wealthy, tax increases and reduced benefits for the poor, arbitrary interference with the reproductive freedom of women, and increased discrimination against gays and lesbians. Voters next November should ask themselves whether they want this ghastly agenda to be repeated on a national scale.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly asserted that Kansas recently banned dilation and extraction abortions, but these were already illegal.

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