State lawmakers who ended Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment were pragmatic but not conservative. So said my colleague Michael Smith recently in writing on “the myth of conservative Kansas.”
I disagree. Those lawmakers and the voters who elected them were indeed pragmatists in the best Kansas tradition, but also fundamentally conservative in the true meaning of that word.
True conservatives abhor reckless experimentation, distrust absolute power, and see historical experience as a crucial guide in making public policy.
Brownback and the far-right faction of Republicans who commandeered the executive and legislative branches of Kansas state government from 2011 through 2015 were not genuine conservatives as they claim. They were ideologues with a radical agenda.
They experimented carelessly with state taxes, grabbed for control of the Kansas Supreme Court, and unraveled school finance. In each instance, these right-wing lawmakers ignored history — turning their backs on the judgement and conservative character of Kansas voters and those elected by these voters over recent generations.
Voters eventually saw through this ideological charade and rejected it at the ballot box in 2016.
First, voters halted the fanatical drive to eliminate the state income tax. Kansas conservatives had historically sought to restrain spending in line with revenues, maintain state balances, keep taxes fair and tax rates low, pay bills on time, exercise caution in the use of debt, and preserve state credit. The tax experiment took Kansas in exactly the opposite direction — four years of unbalanced budgets, a depleted state treasury, unfair taxes, record debt, and credit downgrades.
In 2016, voters elected a new class of lawmakers who restored a fair and balanced tax structure and moved Kansas back onto a more conservative fiscal course. These lawmakers also understood that all the damage done by the experimenters could not be repaired in one legislative session.
Second, voters rebuffed plans to pack the Kansas Supreme Court. The governor and his right-wing allies had unleashed a crescendo of political attacks on the Court prior to the election of 2016. They threatened the Court with budget cuts and impeachment procedures and tried to undermine court administration. They sought to abandon merit selection of Supreme Court justices put in place by voters nearly 60 years earlier to deter gubernatorial abuse of power.
Conservative voters rejected the blatant power grab. They retained all five Supreme Court justices on the 2016 ballot and demonstrated their long-standing preference for an independent judiciary as a check on executive and legislative powers.
Third, in 2016 voters elected a majority of state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, who believed in public schools and reasonable school funding. Prior to the election of 2010 Kansas legislators and governors had repeatedly cooperated with state courts in resolving constitutional challenges to state funding for public schools and refining procedures for that funding. In 2013, far-right lawmakers led by the governor disregarded historical precedents and discarded those procedures with no plan for replacing them. They enacted temporary block grants that shortchanged schools. Their transient fix was declared unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court.
The newly elected majority of lawmakers looked to past experience in responding to the court order. They reinstated earlier procedures for school funding, refined them in response to the court, and adopted a conservative level of funding for schools. Their actions are now under review by the Court.
Once Kansas voters realized what ideological Republicans were up to, they changed course. They opted for pragmatism and conservatism in charting the state’s future.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.