Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: House speaker to public workers – drop dead

Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick
Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick AP

“Government employees produce nothing. They’re a net consumer. And you got that cost forever and ever and ever because they’re on the KPERS plan, they’re on all the government insurance and everything.”

One would expect such a comment from overstimulated, needy and anonymous Internet trolls who don’t have to stand behind their blather.

Or from ideological zombies who mindlessly chant Koch-Rand libertarianism and trickle-down economics.

So it’s startling, offensive and just plain unacceptable for it to come from the speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives. But it’s what Rep. Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said.

That “fact” of public life, as Merrick sees it, must come as a surprise to public school teachers, law enforcement people, firefighters, professors and other workers at state universities, highway engineers, public health doctors and nurses, attorneys in Kris Kobach’s Secretary of State Office, the people who fetch Gov. Sam Brownback’s coffee and drive and fly him around, clerks in 105 county courthouses, building inspectors and thousands of others, including the people who clean the speaker’s Capitol office, at least those not aware of his unfavorable opinion of their efforts.

They hold useful jobs, earn money, spend it in the private-sector economy and pay taxes. That’s not productive?

Merrick’s declaration was to Eagle reporter Bryan Lowry in a (recorded) interview. One of Merrick’s press representatives was there, so presumably she was included in Merrick’s unqualified condemnation of “government employees.”

Political conservatives have no monopoly on desiring more efficient government and preferring reasonable taxes, and everyone gripes when taxes go up. But only the most radical think of all government as an enemy that must be destroyed and all government employees as people unable or unwilling to find useful work. And only the most careless of thinkers would argue that providing education, security, transportation, safer food and drugs, and most of the other things that our taxes pay for is somehow nonproductive. That’s a dangerous way of looking at public life and democracy.

Merrick’s comment was by way of explaining why he would not support rolling back the reckless income tax cuts that he helped Brownback put together in 2012. Passing those cuts set the state on an unsustainable economic course that will require Brownback and the Legislature convening in January to cut $279 million in state spending before July and $436 million for the new fiscal year starting then, and more in later years. They will not be cutting budgets; they will be cutting programs and people.

Apparently those decisions will not weigh heavily on the conscience of people like Merrick, who deceive themselves that government employees produce nothing of value and whose absence, therefore, will be of no consequence to anyone. But making up that shortfall through cuts, as opposed to rolling back the tax cuts, will have some hidden effects and some obvious effects, both kinds painful. And Kansans will suffer from them.

Reasonable Kansans know that you need not destroy government because you are naturally and appropriately wary of it. That visceral wariness came packaged with the sense of personal responsibility and individualism that seeded the state in the 19th century. How did we get from that place of healthy balance to Merrick’s distorted view? And how will we recover from such ignorance before it’s too late?

Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.