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Conservative Shift Has Some Kansans Yearning For The Past

Karl and Twilla Eisele, of Wellsville, Kan., leave the old Brown School after voting on Nov. 6, 2012, in rural Wellsville, Kan. Recent elections have made the Kansas Legislature the most conservative in the state's history.
Charlie Riedel

Kansan journalist Jason Probst says the Kansas he knows has disappeared.

"The great state of Kansas passed away on March 31, 2013 after a long and difficult battle with extremism," he wrote in an editorial for The Hutchinson News.

His faux obituary, lamenting Kansas' embrace of conservatism, went viral. Tens of thousands of people read it. Many were fellow Kansans who wrote to Probst to say they, too, were disturbed by their state's dramatic swing to the right.

Along with much of the country, Kansas took a right turn in 2010, and now its conservative supermajority in the Legislature hopes to set an example for other red states.

Kansas ' Progressive Streak

Probst, 39, has lived his whole life in the Sunflower State. When he was a boy, Kansas was known for its centrist, pragmatic politics. That changed with the last election cycle, he says.

"This legislative session has just been one thing after another that seemed like it was undoing a lot of things that had been done in the state over the last hundred years," Probst tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.

Kansas has a long progressive tradition. The earliest Kansans fought off slaveholders to make their territory a free state (it was, indeed, a bloody fight). No woman had ever been elected to public office in the U.S. before Susanna Salter became mayor of Argonia.

The state also has a history of centrism, Probst says.

"We like to move ahead with what we have and try to do the best work we can without shaking things up, or moving too quickly, or getting too radical about things," he says.

However, change has accelerated, he says, and that's not what he knows as conservative Kansas.

The New 'Red-State Model'

The state moved quickly when it came to the governorship in 2010. Increased political spending helped former Sen. Sam Brownback beat a moderate Republican, turning the tide.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, shown delivering the State of the State address last month, is pushing to get rid of the state's income tax, which has some Republicans concerned.
Charlie Riedel / AP
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, shown delivering the State of the State address last month, is pushing to get rid of the state's income tax, which has some Republicans concerned.

Three of the previous five governors had been Democrats, including Kathleen Sebelius, who was elected twice before Obama called her up to his cabinet in 2009.

Now, Brownback has the most conservative legislature in state history. With the conservatives in full control, Brownback is leading the charge, and he says he wants Kansas to be on a " glide path" to zero income tax as a prescription for economic renewal.

He's calling his effort a " red-state model." If Kansas leads, the governor says, the other 49 states will follow.

Kansas isn't down to zero state income taxes yet, but in 2012 the state eliminated income tax for small businesses and substantially cut the tax rate for high-income individuals.

Brownback says the plan will create growth and attract investment, and he says signs of that are already emerging, like a spike in the number of LLC filings.

To continue moving the income tax down, Brownback wants to keep sales tax where it is. Cost-cutting measures he's planning for include "a mixture of consolidation within agencies, of funding core functions well, but looking at a number of other state functions and saying, 'If we don't need to do this, let's not do it.'"

Getting It Right

Economist Brad DeLong, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says Brownback's plan is flawed.

"That produces a relatively low-wage form of economic development. That's attractive to those who own companies, but not so attractive to people who don't own companies," he says.

He says Brownback's model is based on a formula that works in Texas and Florida. But Kansas has neither Texas's oil nor Florida's tourism, and even if it does work, Kansans might not like it when they start to see certain services disappear.

As for the "red-state model" — the idea that Kansas will lead and the rest will follow — DeLong says Kansas is too different from the rest of the country to be a good model.

For example, Kansas' biggest city has about 400,000 people, and there's an aging rural population that relies on farm subsidies from the government.

Brownback will have to make sure his red-state model works, or, DeLong says, "It will be a horrible warning."

"In a decade, people will say, 'Let's definitely not try that again. It produced a Kansas in which there were more people that worked, but they were very poorly paid, and social services were actually quite lousy,' " he says.

What Happened To Compromise?

Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, who served from 1995 to 2003, won by the largest margin in state history in his second term. Today, he's not sure his moderate Republican philosophy would stand a chance.

"I think there is a well-funded and very well-orchestrated effort right now to suggest that less government is gonna be better for everyone," he says.

Because of that, Graves says, moderates like him feel they've been left without a place. He went back to Kansas in 2012 to help campaign for moderate Republicans during the primary race.

"People who think a little bit more like I do have started to sort of shrink to the sidelines and just don't have the stomach or the willingness to really roll up their sleeves and fight back," he says.

Graves says his proudest achievements in office were the result of compromise — both across parties and within the Republican Party. That camaraderie seems far away today.

When newspaper writer Probst talks to his friends and neighbors, they're still the people he knew when he was growing up.

"But ... there's some kind of disconnect between that and how they vote and how they view the political climate that brings in that anger and the angst with people," he says.

That's just not the Kansas he says he remembers.

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