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Living in the ‘Land of Oz’

Instead of the tea party experiment which was supposed to lead to a Republican success story conservatives promised a few years ago, Kansas now has a $400 million budget shortfall


Tomas Mega

There is an inherent risk in anything experimental: you may not get the anticipated results. Experiments involving science rely on the application of the scientific method, testing hypotheses and eventually altering or modifying assumptions as dictated by empirical or measurable outcomes.

Political experiments, like the one undertaken by the lawmakers of the state of Kansas, are far trickier. Driven by ideology and even demagoguery, political experiments are habitually obsessive and subjective; regardless of whether they come from conservatives or liberals. Politicians detest the thought of modifying or altering an ideology based on outcomes. That would mean they are wrong, and few have the stomach for such an admission.

This is where Republican dominated Kansas finds itself today. Instead of the tea party experiment which was suppose to lead to a Republican success story conservatives promised a few years ago, Kansas now has a $400 million budget shortfall. All of this is the result of a Republican plan to radically overhaul the state’s tax system and double down on that tired, theoretical yet cherished Republican economic philosophy; supply side economics. The trickle-down effects of supply side economics, where economic benefits provided to the wealthy filter down and help society as a whole, have yet to materialize. According to a recent report, Kansas lost nearly 4,000 jobs in May, trailing both the national trend and neighboring Missouri, which added 6,600 jobs.

The cure for this mess that Kansas finds itself is even more sickening to Republicans than the disease: enactment of a $384 million revenue-generating bill by hiking the state sales tax and a host of other levies. Republicans raising taxes in one of the most conservative states in America is heretical.

It all began with the election in 2011 of Republican Sam Brownback as governor. He signed into law one of the largest tax cuts in Kansas history, cutting individual tax rates and eliminating taxes on nearly 200,000 businesses. Since then, he and the Republican state legislature have passed laws restricting bank withdrawals of welfare recipients to no more than twenty-five dollars per day and prohibiting those recipients from using their welfare benefits to get tattoos or take vacations on cruise ships. Kansas also put a limit on the amount of time a family can spend on welfare, ending benefits at thirty-six months. Under President Bill Clintons’ sweeping welfare reform of 1996, federal law prohibits families from receiving more than sixty months of welfare payments.

While Kansas is the first state to put a limit on the amount of money welfare recipients can withdraw from their bank daily, other states have enacted restrictions on the poor who receive state benefits. Louisiana law bars recipients from spending benefit money on amusement parks, nail salons and jewellery stores in addition to cruise ships or any establishment “in which children younger than eighteen are not admitted.” If a benefit recipient is caught violating the Louisiana law, they can lose their benefits for a year for the first violation. A third offense carries permanent disqualification from receiving state assistance. Even liberal Massachusetts prohibits welfare recipients from spending on jewellery and vacations.

Liberals argue that the Kansas crackdown on welfare recipients is a solution searching for a problem, and only serves to stigmatize welfare recipients by creating the impression that they are cheating the system. To qualify for welfare in the state, a family has to be living in deep poverty. That is true for welfare recipients in most states in America. The maximum amount a family of three in Kansas can receive in benefits is $429 a month and most receive much less. Of those classified as poor in Kansas, only twenty-six percent receive benefits.

What all of this does is make conservatives feel good. The poor are easy targets and they tend not to vote Republican. If you are poor, there must be something wrong with you and surely, you must be cheating the system. Evidently, conservatives still hold tightly to Ronald Reagan’s quip about “welfare queens driving Cadillac’s.”

Where conservatives got it wrong in Kansas was their failure to cut spending in the big-ticket areas popular with their constituency; schools, retirement funds, healthcare, state jobs – areas that would indeed affect their base support and not just the poor. However, that is politically untenable, even for Republicans. If you are going to cut taxes in such a drastic way as was done in Kansas, you have to cut spending in areas popular with those who blame the poor for their ills. Picking on the supposed spending habits of the poor just isn’t going to get it done. Will Upton, the state affairs manager for national anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, seems to agree. “The problem in Kansas,” says Upton, “is that while Brownback succeeded in shrinking the tax burden, he did little to shrink spending.”

Kansas has always been popular in American folklore. In the iconic American television western drama “Gunsmoke,” Matt Dillon, the tough, no-nonsense U. S. Marshall of Dodge City, was fond of telling the bad guys to “Get out of Dodge.” In the 1939 blockbuster movie “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy, portrayed by Judy Garland, finds herself and her little dog Toto in the strange Land of Oz after a tornado whips through her Kansas home and carries them off. Clutching the dog, Dorothy looks around in disbelief and proclaims; “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” For many Republicans, their tea party experiment in Kansas must leave them feeling they too are living in the Land of Oz.

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