Kansas is coming apart at the seams.
The Legislature cannot figure out how to plug a more than $400 million budget gap, and tax proposal after tax proposal keeps getting voted down. Some school districts ended the school year early when they ran out of cash. The superintendent of the Skyline school district in Pratt even resigned so they wouldn’t have to pay him: no money left.
Emporia State University is known for our Teachers College, and today’s students are telling their professors they have second thoughts about teaching in Kansas. After all, the state has cut funding for education, removed their state-mandated right to dispute being fired, and even considered legislation that could put teachers in jail.
The Legislature is also on the verge of passing a bill to defund the state’s court system in the event that the state Supreme Court does not rule the way the legislators want regarding the control of lower-court judges.
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Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislative allies have quickly transformed a smoothly functioning, generally low-key government of moderate tax rates and middle-of-the-road politicians into a political and fiscal basket case, repeatedly ignoring warnings from experts.
Paraguay may be our only hope.
The small South American country has a close relationship with Kansas: a legacy of a Kennedy administration program called the Partnership of the Americas, which paired Latin American countries with U.S. states. Former Sen. Bob Dole was later a big supporter.
The partnership still exists today. Teachers, firefighters and others travel back and forth. There is an active Kansas Paraguay Partners group; college students from Paraguay study here, and some of ours study there. Kansas university professors have traveled there, too.
In 2014 and 2015, Gallup polling ranked Paraguay as the happiest country in the world. Paraguay had a particularly high percentage of people answering that they “experienced enjoyment; smiled or laughed; felt well-rested; and thought they were treated with respect.” Many also “said they had learned or did something interesting the day before.”
Yet Paraguay’s history features two futile wars that killed huge percentages of the country’s population. They suffered one of the longest-serving dictators of the late 20th century, a cruel man named Alfredo Stroess-ner who tortured his enemies and left behind a corrupt, bribery-driven political system that persists today. Smuggling is one of the country’s biggest industries, and Paraguay ranks 138th in the world for gross domestic product per person.
Like Kansas, Paraguay is completely landlocked and highly agricultural. The country’s budget is so mismanaged that no one knows how much its huge Itaipu Dam (shared with Brazil) cost to build. Paraguayans do not think there is anything odd about this. They are used to it.
If the Paraguay example serves, perhaps fiscal integrity, a competitive political system, a well-maintained infrastructure and a solid economy are not necessary for people to be happy.
There may be hope for Kansas after all.
Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.