I have been called many things for my commentary on Kansas politics over the past four years, but rarely have I been labeled a Republican.
I now publicly confess that I am indeed a lifelong, card-carrying Republican, born and raised in Republican territory, rural Harper County, Kansas, in the small farming community of Bluff City.
My affiliation with the Republican Party led to my work with Republican officeholders in Kansas, both as a cabinet officer for Govs. Bob Bennett and Mike Hayden, and as a legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Jim Pearson. I have admired the leader-ship of Republicans at the national level such as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan as well as Kansas’ own Alf Landon and Bob Dole.
Given this background, I have watched the current crop of Republican lawmakers in Kansas radically depart from what have been core principles of Republicans. Their actions prompt me to ask: What exactly do Kansas Republicans believe?
For example, I thought Republicans believed in balancing the budget. Eisenhower showed that the national budget could be balanced, an action that has rarely repeated since his time. Bennett and Hayden exercised fiscal discipline and carefully kept state spending in line with revenues while maintaining healthy balances.
In contrast, current state law-makers proudly enacted reckless tax cuts, reducing revenues while allowing spending to grow. Before leaving town a couple weeks ago, they approved a budget that by their own account spends $320 million more than is taken in during the current budget cycle.
Their action ignored news that revenues are already $93 million short of projections for the year and will likely drop even further. Their financial mismanagement triggered a downgrade in the state’s credit rating and may see fund balances plunge to near zero within the year.
I also thought Republicans believed in fair and balanced taxation. Republican presidents, as well as Kansas governors, supported progressive income taxes throughout the 20th century.
Republican Alf Landon campaigned for a state income tax in 1932 “not just as another tax” but as a way to reduce reliance on the property tax. As governor, he initiated a tax policy that moderated tax rates and balanced the tax burden among taxpayers and has been embraced by a long line of Republican governors and legislative leaders.
That all changed in 2011 when ALEC tax-cut guru Arthur Laffer came to Kansas. Republican lawmakers, led by the governor, now want to eliminate the income tax and shift the tax burden onto sales and property taxpayers. These lawmakers have adopted a tax policy that places more of the tax burden onto lower income Kansans while dramatically reducing taxes for the wealthy.
Finally, I thought Republicans believed in Reagan’s ideal of a “big tent” political party, one with room for a diversity of views, attractive to independent-minded voters and with leaders who embrace Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not speak ill of any Republican.”
The Kansas Republican Party has abandoned the big-tent philosophy and largely relinquished its soul to a few ideological groups. The views of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, Kansans for Life and the Kansas Rifle Association have more influence in what Republican state officeholders believe today than long-standing party principles. These groups control the party’s agenda by targeting dissenters in primary elections and then disciplining those elected with single-issue scorecards and litmus tests.
And Gov. Sam Brownback has led Republicans in violating Reagan’s 11th Commandment by joining with political allies and campaigning against legislators of his own party.
These Republican office-holders have turned their backs on their party’s history and on those who have shaped that history. This year’s elections promise to be a watershed opportunity for Kansas voters to embrace or reject this radical “red-state” experiment with their future.