© Josh Sager – April 2015
Earlier this month, it was announced that two Kansas school districts would be shutting down early this year simply due to budget shortfalls. Last week, four additional school districts decided to follow the first twos’ example and shut down early in order to make budget. While many may be quick to blame these school districts for their decision to shut down early, the sad fact is that they are simply reacting to a far greater problem in the state.
Right-wing extremists in Kansas have eviscerated the state tax code, creating these education budget shortfalls, and forcing the schools to react. The money to operate these schools at full capacity, for a full school year, is simply not in the budget and districts are left with virtually alternative but to reduce class hours for the school year.
Put simply, these school districts are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine who are signaling a potentially lethal problem. They are a concrete manifestation of the inverted Robin Hood beliefs held by the modern right wing and a prelude to our future, where the rich are allowed to opt out of funding the social contract and the poor are left without basic services.
Right-Wing “Small Government”
When the right wing talks about promoting “small government conservatism” a significant percentage of the population supports them reflexively without actually understanding what they are talking about. Ironically, these are the people who will be harmed the most from the right-wing ideology when it is implemented.
At a basic level, the modern “small government” ideology has two prongs: First, it promotes low taxes—particularly for the rich and corporations—under the assumption that this will generate growth; and second, it promotes minimal spending on social programs (ex. schools, fire/police, welfare, etc.) and infrastructure (ex. roads, bridges, etc.). In short, this ideology champions a regressive vision, where tax cuts for the rich are paid for by reducing spending that benefits the rest of society.
The school closures in Kansas are just one example of this ideology in action.
Since the rise of the Tea Party, conservative anti-tax extremists (even more so than the average right-wing Kansan) have gained virtually uncontested control over the Kansas state government and have done everything in their power to create a “small government” utopia. The Brownback administration has cut taxes to the bone—reducing 2-year general revenue estimates by up to $1 billion across the state—by reducing the state income tax by 25% across the board, eliminating taxes on certain types of business altogether, and setting into motion a plan to reduce the top marginal income tax rate from 6.45% to 3.9%.
These cuts have been incredibly regressive and have sometimes involved offsetting the lost revenue from cutting high-income rates by reducing or eliminating low-income deductions. The following graph from CBPP illustrates this transfer perfectly:
Because Kansas has a balanced budget requirement, the revenue that is lost by cutting these taxes must be made up through decreased spending. Modern conservatism is intensely anti-intellectual and considers itself a mortal enemy of the teachers unions, so cutting public education is an easy choice for them. After all, they and their donors make enough money to send their children to expensive private schools, so there is no real personal consequence to them for eviscerating your kid’s public school.
While education may be the first target for cuts, it is by no means the last. Public assistance to the poor is an easy second target, followed by public works operations, then public safety and regulators, and finally to public infrastructure (ex. libraries and roads). What remains after these cuts is then often privatized and profitized, or simply transformed to be less burdensome on the rich.
Basically, if a service primarily benefits the poor and middle classes while only marginally benefitting the rich, you can expect it to be cut, privatized, or transitioned to being funded through “fines and fees” that only users pay. Conversely, if a program only benefits the rich or corporate interests (ex. business subsidies), you can be fairly certain that it will weather these rounds of cuts with only minimal consequences.
Unfortunately, this ideology hits the non-wealthy in both directions—they don’t get their taxes cut significantly yet they also end up with a poorly-maintained public infrastructure and minimal package of public services. This impacts society across generations, as the decaying education system in these areas isn’t prepared to provide the education necessary for social advancement or economic improvement. The poor are trapped in a cycle of neglect and poverty, while the middle class have an increasingly difficult time holding onto whatever wealth they have accrued over the years. On the other end of the spectrum however, the rich get endlessly richer and the politicians grow fat and secure off of “campaign donations” healthy salaries/benefits, and high incumbency rates.
Unless they overturn these right wing economic policies and purge the extremists who pushed them through, Kansas will continue its downward spiral until it becomes little more than an embarrassing object lesson for the rest of the nation. If this happens, it will already be too late for many students to get a proper education, and Kansans will feel the impact of this deficit for decades to come.