GODDARD, Kan. — Gail Jamison, a lifelong Republican, voted for Sam Brownback for governor in 2010 believing he would restore school funding that had been greatly reduced by the recession.
Four years later, she has joined with more than 100 prominent Republicans in publicly throwing their support behind Brownback’s Democratic opponent — because, she said, Brownback pursued a hefty tax cut for the rich that deprived schools of needed resources.
“I am shocked by what’s happened,” said Jamison, president of the Board of Education in this Wichita suburb. “I find it personally a very extreme stance.”
As he runs for reelection, Brownback is finding that what he once called a “real live experiment” in red-state governance is struggling to produce the benefits he had promised, spurring an increasingly competitive gubernatorial race against state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D). His troubles also provide a case study of what can happen when single-party control — now the norm in most states — combines with the sharp rightward shift of the Republican Party.
After his election, Brownback, who was a U.S. senator for 14 years and a 2008 presidential candidate, quickly moved to consolidate conservative power in the state by successfully challenging more moderate Republicans. Advised by Arthur Laffer, the father of supply-side economics, and supported by special interest groups backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, he pushed through legislation that cut taxes and spending, eliminated state jobs and denied far more applications for welfare assistance — not to mention that he tightened abortion regulations and loosened gun rules.
Brownback promised that the efforts would drive economic growth, create jobs and stabilize the Kansas budget. But the state is now reporting a more than $300 million revenue shortfall. The poverty rate increased. The state’s economy expanded a total of 2.3 percent in inflation-adjusted terms over the past two years, half the rate of its four neighbors. And Kansas’s credit rating has been downgraded.
In an interview on his way to Dodge City — where he would sign legislation creating a “National Day of the Cowboy” — Brownback said he regretted referring to his plans as an experiment. But he defended his tenure, saying it represented a Ronald Reagan-style approach to governance that eventually would rebuild Kansas’s economy after a long slide.
“I wish I could take that back, because I don’t consider this an experiment,” he said. “So many people on the left really want this to fail. . . . This is a long-term strategy to make us more competitive.”
Brownback said he has been a pragmatic conservative, nurturing the state’s wind-power industry — which has doubled in production during his term — and introducing a new approach to technical training in high schools.
In a second term, he said, he would focus more on aiding the poor and revamping prison policies. The pledge echoes moves by other conservative governors, including John Kasich of Ohio and Mike Pence of Indiana, as well as a growing number of GOP lawmakers such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), who worked for Brownback as legislative director in the mid-1990s.
“It’s one of the great opportunities for conservatives,” Brownback said, citing efforts that focus on education, work and family. “We’ve got to do more on child poverty. That’s one where we’ve worked at it, but we haven’t got the dial moved.”
But Brownback’s opponent says the governor has been too extreme for a state that has longed valued its moderate heritage and was home to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert J. Dole. Five of the past nine governors were Democrats.
“I think a lot of these policies are driven by ideology,” Davis said in an interview. “The governor likes to talk about creating a red-state model, but Kansans are not interested in being subjected to an ideological experiment which is designed to gain national headlines.”
Disappointment with Brownback’s tenure seems to be lifting Davis in the polls — and is helping to enrich his campaign coffers. An automated SurveyUSA poll released last week showed Davis ahead by a margin of 48 percent to 40 percent.
Meanwhile, campaign finance reports released Monday showed that Davis has raised $1.1 million for his campaign since January, about 50 percent more than Brownback. The governor has $1 million more in reserve.
For conservatives frustrated by the stalemate in Washington, Kansas and other right-leaning states have increasingly served as laboratories for political progress. Republicans now control 23 state governments, compared with just nine in 2009 — the most states run by one party since the 1950s. Democrats control 15, or two fewer than in 2009.
Often backed by Koch-supported groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity, Republican governors and legislators have introduced proposals to cut taxes and refashion state governments in a more conservative mold. But they have generally taken a more moderate route than Kansas.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich sliced personal income taxes by 10 percent while also raising the sales tax. In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin is seeking to cut income taxes by 5 percent on the condition that the state’s budget situation improves first.
“In most other Republican-controlled states, you haven’t had the super-majorities like you had in Kansas and you haven’t been as aggressive in pursuing the GOP agenda on steroids,” said Tim Storey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Brownback’s policies have deepened a split within the Kansas GOP. Moderate Republicans complain that the governor has pushed excessively right-wing policies, while some conservatives blame the state’s problems on not cutting spending enough.
“Most legislators have been squeamish about finishing the job,” said Dave Trabert, president of the conservative Kansas Policy Institute. “They need to bring down the cost of services.”
Trabert said Brownback’s policies are having a positive effect on the state after years of stagnation. “It’s beginning to lead to an increase in prosperity,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of time.”
In listing his achievements, Brownback cites growth in employment despite the continued contraction of the aviation industry in Wichita, summer programs that aim to boost reading scores and moves that stabilized the state’s public pension. The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent compared with 6.1 percent nationally.
The governor credits the ambitious package of tax cuts passed in 2012 with boosting the state’s economy, including ending income taxes for 200,000 small businesses and cutting tax rates for top earners. “We dropped taxes particularly on the job creators in the state,” he said.
But outside analysts say the results have been less than impressive. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) said that although other states have been able to recommit money to key programs such as education as economies and tax revenue have recovered, Kansas has been moving in the opposite direction.
Schools, for instance, have experienced a reduction in K-12 funding on a per-student basis. In 2008-09, Kansas spent $4,400 in base state aid per pupil. Last year, it was $3,838, according to the Kansas Legislative Research Department.
“The tax cuts made it very difficult for Kansas to recover from the recession in terms of school funding and funding for other services,” said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at CBPP. “In most states, school funding per pupil is up.”
To listen to school officials, teachers, parents and social service agencies talk about the cuts is to hear growing alarm about whether Kansas will be able to educate its children and help the poor as in the past.
In the Goddard school district, which serves more than 7,600 students west of Wichita, parents and teachers have described reduced hours for nurses, fewer coaches and teachers aides, higher fees, larger class sizes, fewer school buses and the delay of a much-anticipated pre-kindergarten program.
“I don’t like being experimented on and it’s made our lives a lot more difficult than it should have been,” said Christine Gable, a former special education teacher who lost her job in the recession. Her husband, Keith, is a fourth-grade teacher and they have children in the school system.
An hour away in Hutchinson, folks at the Interfaith Housing Service (IHS) say Brownback’s budget policy has imperiled a program they run to help low-income Americans save to buy a home or for more education.
“It really frustrates me that people don’t think of the small person,” said Amanda Johnson, 26, a stay-at-home mom whose husband, Gary, 33, earns $20,300 a year as a school custodian. The Johnsons slid into the IHS program just in time, but feel for families who are now unable. “People could really benefit from programs like these, but when they don’t get them, my heart breaks a little bit,” Amanda Johnson said.
One of their local commissioners, Republican Brad Dillon, has been so frustrated by Brownback’s policies that he is supporting Davis in the gubernatorial race.
“This effort to starve state government is now pressuring school governments and the social service agencies are having a much tougher time,” said Dillon, a Reno County commissioner who backed Brownback in 2010. “It just seems that he has this objective without understanding the consequences or caring about the consequences.”