The Pitch's guide to Kansas' shift from far right to very wrong 

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Brian Stauffer

Suicides are up in Kansas — way up.

An October report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment revealed that 505 Kansans killed themselves in 2012, a startling 31.5 percent jump from the 384 suicides committed in 2011.

That sobering increase can be attributed, in part, to ripple effects from the recession. Suicide numbers tend to climb in economically challenging times.

But the spike also correlates to state policy. From 2009 to 2012, Kansas cut 12.4 percent from its mental-health budget — the ninth-largest decrease in the nation over that period. In Sedgwick County, where 88 people took their lives in 2012, the community mental-health center has lost more than half its state funding since 2009.

The KDHE's report shines a morbid light on one of the consequences of a business-obsessed state ignoring the needs of its citizens: More people die.

Poke around Kansas and you'll see variations on this theme. Government agencies and institutions that are already squeezed end up starved by the state and further stretched, and citizens struggle to receive basic services. In Kansas, this isn't merely the product of a lousy national economy. It's the result of Gov. Sam Brownback and a willing state Legislature testing the crackpot tea-party idea that gutting government operations, while eliminating business and income taxes, makes Kansas a desirable place to live and work.

But life under Brownback is a bewildering existence, and some days that seems almost by political design. Every week, there's news of some new budgetary atrocity or comically backward piece of legislation being floated. Are guns really allowed in courthouses now? Are public schools actually so underfunded that the revenue formula is unconstitutional? What was that thing about outlawing all sustainable practices? Was that an Onion article? How are you even supposed to keep up with all this nonsense, let alone keep your head above the mudslide?

Before the clowns in the Kansas Legislature suit up for another season of high jinks in January, here's The Pitch's guide to all the depressing events occurring in the state. Remember: Brownback is up for re-election next year, and his approval rating is hovering around 35 percent. No flower blooms forever, not even in the Sunflower State.

K-12 EDUCATION

Here is all you really need to know about Brownback's tax policies: In 2012, he signed a five-year, $3.7 billion tax cut, with no plan to restore the state spending on education that had been cut by roughly $511 million from 2009 through 2012.

Kansas school districts sued the state over the budget, and a three-judge District Court panel unanimously ruled this past January that Kansas' spending on education was unconstitutionally low and must be increased by a minimum of about $400 million to meet standards. The court also noted that it "seems completely illogical that the state can argue that a reduction in education funding was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and the state's diminishing resources and at the same time cut taxes further."

Kansas senators, naturally, have challenged that ruling, proposing a constitutional amendment that would bar state courts from having oversight of such matters. The state also appealed the District Court's decision and took the case to the Kansas Supreme Court last month.

"The state is advancing technical arguments like judiciability and standing issue to avoid grappling with the simple fact that the schools are underfunded," says Alan Rupe, who represented the school districts in the Supreme Court hearing. "In doing so, they're clearly admitting that if they lose, there's no evidence to suggest Kansas education funding is adequate for our kids. The trial court panel — which, by the way, was assembled by the Kansas Legislature — listened to weeks of testimony and reviewed a lot of information and reached the conclusion that Kansas education is underfunded. There's no way around that, so the state is using these technical arguments as a last attempt to avoid the consequences of their constitutional failure."

You needn't look too far to see the effects of this reckless policy. The Shawnee Mission School District has eliminated 400 positions over the past three years. Early childhood education, new library books, all-day kindergarten and social workers for homeless students are now out of reach.

A Kansas Supreme Court decision on the case is expected in January. Some state lawmakers, meanwhile, have pledged to ignore the court if it doesn't find in the state's favor.

Sane lawmakers have expressed concern about the outcome. "I don't believe the state under the current tax law can sustain over the next five years," says Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican House member from Fairway who sits on the House Education Committee. She tells The Pitch: "If you add the ramifications of losing the court case, I don't think it's a sustainable plan. ... I don't have enough experience to know how we navigate the crisis, but I think such a crisis is on the horizon."

GUNS

Newtown, Aurora, the Navy Yard, LAX: It has been a horrifying couple of years for gun violence in America. But at least public outrage over these and other devastating events has opened up a discussion about U.S. gun laws.

That discussion in Kansas? Make the gun laws way looser! Sell more guns and let people take them to more places!

That was the thinking behind House Bill 2052, which is now the law of the land in Kansas. Citizens with concealed-carry permits can now take their guns into any public building — including schools, libraries and government offices — not protected by metal detectors or security guards. Employees in these public buildings are also permitted to take their guns to work.

Say your child attends one of Kansas' many underfunded public schools. Unless that school finds a stack of cash to pay for new metal detectors or the salaries of armed guards, any parent, guardian or administrator at the school with a concealed-carry license — more than 25,000 such licenses have been issued since the beginning of 2013 alone — is free to wander the halls with a gun in his or her jacket.

The onus is now on all these public entities — government hospitals, the University of Kansas, you name it — to figure out how to pay for and comply with the "adequate security measures" dictated by the bill. Most have requested temporary exemptions (from six months to four years) in order to evaluate their buildings and prepare for this costly new law. But short of some kind of reversal, everybody will have to be in compliance by 2017. This from the party that hates government regulation.

There are some Easter eggs hidden inside H.B. 2052. The personal information of those applying for concealed-carry licenses is now confidential and exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. Also, if licensed gun owners bring their guns into the few places left in Kansas where they're still prohibited, guess what? They can't be criminally prosecuted. A different bill, H.B. 2162, prohibits the use of state-appropriated money for "publicity or propaganda purposes relating to gun control."

"The practice of using taxpayer dollars to fund gun control support and lobby against your Second Amendment rights must be stopped," the NRA writes in a press release about the bill. "The NRA applauds Gov. Brownback for signing this important reform into law."

And in a bit of valedictory grandstanding, Brownback has also signed what has come to be called the Second Amendment Protection Act. This one exempts firearms manufactured in Kansas from federal regulation. So if the feds come into the state and try to enforce federal gun laws, well, then Kansas law enforcement could, in legal theory, arrest the feds.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder immediately threatened legal action against the state, just as everybody who has ever taken a social studies class knew he would.

"Kansas may not prevent federal employees and officials from carrying out their official responsibilities," Holder wrote to Brownback, declaring the obvious. "And a state certainly may not criminalize the exercise of federal responsibilities."

Brownback countered with a meaningless statement about how "the people of Kansas have expressed their sovereign will," forgetting to add, "but we still want farm subsidies!"

ENERGY

Probably the most hilarious bill the Kansas House brought to the floor in 2013 was H.B. 2366. It states: "No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development."

The gang that put forth this bill — the Orwellian-named Committee on Energy and Environment — is chaired by a man named Dennis Hedke. He's a Republican representative from Wichita. He's also a geophysicist who does contract work for dozens of — wait for it — oil and gas companies in the region.

"I can't see why," he told The Topeka Capital-Journal, when asked whether his nonpolitical career presented an obvious conflict of interest with his duties as an elected official. "I didn't think about that. It never really crossed my mind."

In an interview with Bloomberg, Hedke acknowledged that Kansas has no laws that relate to sustainable development. He considers his bill a preventive measure. He also told the Capital-Journal that he sponsored the bill because of concerns voiced by his constituents about sustainable development. Then he declined to identify any group or individual who had expressed those concerns.

What's remarkable about this is that people like Hedke are so happy being lap dogs for the oil and gas industry that they don't care if it makes them look corrupt and idiotic. They will continue to sponsor ludicrous legislation and bullshit the press as long as they can snuggle up with that Koch money every night.

Meanwhile, Kansas oil fields, which many big energy companies have invested in over the past few years, are not yielding the North Dakota–level returns that the state had hoped for. Shell announced in September that it would leave Kansas. Tug Hill Operating has also closed up shop for the foreseeable future. And a few weeks ago, about 52 counties in Kansas filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that they had been stiffed $7.6 million in aid meant to help soften the blow of declining oil and gas production.

As Bloomberg notes, if Kansas developed just a tiny fraction of its wind potential — 7,158 megawatts — by 2030, that enterprise would bring some $7.8 billion to the state. Good thing Kansas has men like Hedke to keep that clean cash out.

ABORTION

Brownback has promised to sign any anti-abortion bill that lands on his desk. Unfortunately, in 1973, the Supreme Court struck down state abortion bans. This means that states have to get creative in finding ways to make it difficult for women to make decisions about their own bodies.

Kansas lawmakers are pretty good at this.

The thing to remember about anti-abortion laws in Kansas is that they are basically written by an extremely powerful special-interest group called Kansans for Life. Every year, Kansans for Life devises an agenda for the legislative session, and the lawmakers in its pocket — they are legion — then dutifully push it through. For the vast majority of Republicans in the state, opposing a Kansans for Life–backed bill would be political suicide.

The group has chipped away at abortion rights in small but meaningful ways in recent years. In 2011, Brownback inked bills requiring minors to get signed consent from both parents and prohibiting private insurance companies from covering abortions. The so-called "conscience bill," signed during the 2012 session, allows doctors to refuse to prescribe, and pharmacists to refuse to dispense, birth-control pills and morning-after pills (such as Plan B) or any other care that they "reasonably believe may result in the termination of a pregnancy." So if you live in an isolated part of the state and your doctor is an asshole, you've got some phone calls, some research and a long drive ahead of you if you want any control over your reproductive system.

In the 2013 session, Kansas lawmakers changed the tax code in 12 areas, increasing the financial burden on abortion seekers and providers. Abortion providers are also prohibited now from volunteering in public schools in the state of Kansas. Under appeal is another law, signed by Brownback, that requires Planned Parenthood to include on its website a warning that a fetus can feel pain by the 20th week of pregnancy (a claim with zero medical evidence to support it) and a note indicating a link between abortions and breast cancer. ("Inconclusive," is how the American Cancer Society charitably characterizes this second claim.)

There are a few clues out there as to what we may expect from Kansans for Life in 2014. Executive Director Mary Kay Culp has suggested that the group will pursue a provision requiring doctors of patients who are considering abortions to point out the features of the fetus on an ultrasound. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook of Shawnee has lately been crusading against in-vitro fertilization. And the "heartbeat bill," which could ban abortions as early as 18 days after conception, is likely to return to the House floor.

There is some good news: Phill Kline (former Kansas attorney general and Johnson County district attorney) is no longer allowed to practice law in Kansas.

HIGHER ED

Railing against academia is a time-honored tradition among conservative politicians. All those liberal professors, gathering their facts in their libraries, not generating enough quarterly profits, not thinking enough with their guts. But in a culturally spartan place like Kansas, the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University are among the primary reasons that people bother sticking around. And the University of Kansas Medical Center has a growing national profile. These institutions are not just socially valuable, though. They're also big employers, and their financial viability is very important to the state.

You wouldn't imagine that fiscally minded Republicans would want to mess with such reliable cash cows. Yet Kansas Republicans have put a higher premium on cutting income taxes, and the money required to do that has to come from somewhere.

So earlier this year, Brownback signed a bill cutting 1.5 percent from the state's general fund for higher education. He also gave a high-five to a bizarre system for making these cuts based on employee salaries, which added to the reductions. As The Kansas City Star put it: "If a school spent more on salaries than previously estimated, the Legislature cut the school's budget by the amount of the overage. And if a school spent less on salaries, the Legislature cut that school's budget by the amount of the shortfall. Universities and colleges couldn't win."

At the University of Kansas Medical Center, that sets up a loss of $8 million over the next two years.

"Essentially, this penalizes us for being frugal and planning our finances to anticipate future needs," Dr. Doug Girod, KU Med executive vice chancellor, wrote in a memo to his staff.

Overall, the cuts bleed $36.4 million from higher education over the next two years. "These cuts impact all aspects of public higher education including the 32 public institutions, the Board of Regents office, student financial aid, and adult-education programs," the Kansas Board of Regents wrote in a statement. "At a time when more Kansans are turning to higher education to improve their lives, these cuts will be devastating."

Brownback has said that when the legislative session reconvenes in January, he will lobby to restore the cuts made to higher education, though he passed on vetoing them in 2012. Playing bad cop to his unlikely good cop are the legislators who make up the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees. As part of their process of considering a restoration of funding, a gang of those officials recently conducted a "fact-finding mission" of six of the state's universities, a saber-rattling tour designed to remind colleges just where the power in the state lies.

"It really looked as if a lot of the questions were written in such a way to give the budget committee justification to cut university budgets more," Rep. John Wilson, a Kansas Democrat, told the Star.

No kidding.

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