Category Archives: State Politics

Kansas Comes to its Senses

There’s a general consensus among professional observers of politics that the federal government is, to use the correct technical term, ate up with dumb ass. POTUS is potty, Congress is cuckoo, and partisanship has gone postal. Maybe so, but there are some hopeful signs down at the state level that all the insane-in-the-membrane political fever is breaking.

Case in point is Kansas. Five years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback led a mostly successful charge to fully implement the low tax, small government political agenda long lusted after by Milton Friedman fanboys, Laffer Curve libertarians, and Koch brothers conservatives. The basic plan was to free Kansas entrepreneurs from the shackles of onerous (or even any) taxation, and they’d use the extra dough to unleash innovation, create jobs and usher in a new era of prosperity and plenty for the Sunflower State.  It didn’t happen. They just stopped paying taxes. And the government went broke. Go figure.

What was truly looney about Kansas’ whole hog embrace of right-wing economic policy was not that they tried it. What the heck, you never know unless you try. Well, they tried. And tried. And tried. And the same thing happened every stinkin’ year—the government sank one level deeper into the budgetary doo-doo. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the Kansas government was clinically deranged.

For years, Brownback and his troops insisted things were going to get better. Any day now, the low tax economic miracle would arrive and, hoo-boy, wouldn’t those smug so-and-sos in the states surrounding Kansas be sorry they hadn’t followed suit. While Kansas government sank a full fathoms five into the financial ooze, those other states were foolishly taxing their citizens and throwing away that money on functioning public education systems, decent roads, and a modicum of fiduciary responsibility. Like any of that’s going to underpin economic growth. Suckers.

Unfortunately for Brownback the electorate got tired of waiting for his fiscal Godot to show up. After half-a-decade of watching its government madly clicking its Ruby Red supply-side slippers and leaving them all down at the heels, Kansans had finally had enough. Last election they bounced the Brownback/Tea Party wing of the GOP out on its behind and elected just enough moderate Republicans and Democrats to give common sense a fighting chance in the state legislature. And fight it did. The Kansas legislature passed legislation that, more or less, said, “the nut jobbery stops now.” Brownback vetoed it. The legislature—just—overrode the veto a couple of weeks ago.

The return of common sense was greeted glumly in some quarters. Some could of this could be chalked up to supply side true believers like Brownback, who kept begging everyone to keep chugging the Kool Aid because, seriously guys, just two more swallows we’ll all be piddling rainbows. It was celebrated by others, and not always in a sporting way. The schadenfreude squad was out in full force, and a lot of tut-tutting and told-you-sos could be heard coming from the neighborhood Keynesians. The lesson they are drawing is that you don’t boost an economy by destroying the state’s ability to provide the public goods and services that make it possible.

That’s a perfectly reasonable inference, but I seriously doubt Kansas’ experience will impart any universally agreed upon economic wisdom to the left or right. Conservatives will insist the underlying logic was sound, it was just the execution that was off. Maybe it would’ve worked if Kansas had not just cut taxes, but also stopped squandering the few dollars it did have on frou-frou like roads and teachers, and then cut all corporate regulation down to a single, voluntary “try not to kill anyone” rule of thumb. Liberals will likely infer the conservatives had the causal logic backwards. Clearly, if you cut taxes the economy tanks, ergo the best way to boost economic fortunes is to tax the snot out of everything. Thus we should start a vigorous program of taxing and spending and beggar government in the usual way. It’s tradition for chrissakes.

While it’s not likely to resolve partisan differences on economic policy, there is a political lesson that will—or at least should—be crystal clear from the Kansas experience. To wit: If you’ve got the chutzpah you can get away with promising the electorate caviar while feeding them horse shit. But you better be careful. By the third or fourth course, even some of the ideological faithful are going to start noticing those sturgeon’s eggs smack of horse flop. That tends to take the shine off a policy agenda and leave the voters with a very bad taste in their mouths.

And that, funnily enough, is about as hopeful a message as you’ll find in American politics these days. The big news from Kansas is not the epic failure of its self-proclaimed, “real live experiment” on the Republican Party’s most cherished economic prescription, though fail it did. The big news is that the electorate took note of the failure. Alternative-facts didn’t muscle out the actual evidence, and voters not only called BS they actually backed candidates for office—mostly moderate Republicans—whose prudence-to-piffle ratio promised a more centrist, reality-based notion of governance. This is not an occasion to get too misty eyed about the innate wisdom of the people. Let’s not forget this is the same group who for years happily noshed on Brownback’s equine butt pucks and trotted off to the polls to vote for seconds.

But there’s still some glimmer of hope there. Voters did, eventually, notice that their government was inept on a colossal scale and, just, did something about it before their chief executive carted them all the way to crazy town. Hopefully that’s a lesson from Kansas the rest of the country can learn from.

 

Low Times for Higher Ed

According to Philip Arthur Fisher, twentieth century super-investor and all-around smarty pants, “the stock market is filled with individuals who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” These days it’s not just the stock market infested with such philistine philosophies. Fiduciary myopia, the propensity to be all penny eyed and pound mulish, dominates the public sector.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I know of an investment opportunity with a guaranteed annual return of 800 percent. Sure, it sounds like too-good-to-be-true Bernie Madoff bunkum. But it’s not a Ponzi swindle, it’s real. For every buck you put in, you get eight bucks back. Year. After. Year.  After. Year. You’d probably say sign me up for some of that action. So you’re clearly not an elected official, especially a state governor with a business background. Then you’d basically be saying, “A whole buck? Let’s make it 75 cents and save a quarter!” And then you could boast to the taxpayer about saving them four bits. Or, to put it another way, cost them two dollars.

The investment whereof I speak is higher education, which is being shorted big time by the wolves of Bawl Street. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that some public universities are essentially being privatized by the governments that own them.  This huge disinvestment in higher education–I’ll get to the numbers in a bit—has, no doubt, saved some governments some dough and cut the tax dunnage of the average Jane and Joe by a few pennies. But it’s costing the lot of them more than they can imagine.

Public universities are kind of astonishing institutions. Most people think of them as academies of advanced learning. And, yeah, they do a lot of educatin’. Right now, roughly three-quarters of students in college are enrolled in dear old State U or its equivalent. But public universities do a lot more. For instance, they are also in the bidness of bidness. In a single year public research universities will spin off more than 500 start-ups, apply for more than 10,000 patents, and generate untold billions in local business sales.

Public universities are also prodigious idea factories, with tons of useful stuff constantly percolating out of their R and D shops. The internet, for example, which was birthed in Leonard Kleinrock’s lab at UCLA. Other stuff we find useful that was significantly or primarily developed by public research universities include LEDs, ATMs, laser eye surgery, bar codes, and sonic toothbrushes. Whatever the problem or challenge society faces—anything from a need for a longer lasting lightbulb to better dental hygiene—you can bet your bippy some public university is all over the search for a solution.  They’ve developed new antibiotics, gene therapy and the wetsuit. They came up with the McRib sandwich fer cryin’ out lout (you’re welcome).

Oh yeah, they are also the closet thing American society has to an escalator to the middle class. The median mid-career salary of a graduate at a university like mine is eighty-two grand. True, on that salary you won’t be swilling cocktails at this weekend’s Mar-a-Largo crass bash. But that’ll get you a reasonably comfy middle-class billet. These days a college degree may be no golden ticket to easy street, but it’s still the closest thing to an all access pass to main street.

Add all this up and it’s clear that public universities are a good deal. Especially for the states that house them. The eight-to-one bang for buck ratio mentioned above is based on an economic analysis of the impact of the University of Nebraska. Now, NU is a big expense for the state – it dumps in north of a half-billion dollars annually into the university system, which is somewhere between eleven and twelve grand per student. The economic impact of that system, though, is roughly $4 billion – an 800-percent return. The university accounts for about 4 percent of state GDP, accounts for one out of every 36 jobs, provides most of the doctors and nurses, and it also houses the most sacred religious site in all of Husker Land – Memorial Stadium, a football temple that, no foolin’, becomes the state’s third largest city on football Saturdays.

Keep in mind that 800-percent return is just the economic impact. The social and cultural impact of educating a huge swath of citizenry, sparking innovation, launching careers, and generally opening eyes and minds is tougher to monetize. While I haven’t got an exact number to point to here, it’s safe to say that in technical terms the impact here is, like, mega-big.

While any honest crunching of numbers shows public universities to be a good deal, many state governments no longer consider them a good investment. Pretty much every state in the union has been dis-investing in higher education over the past decade, in some cases drastically.  Here at the University of Nebraska, for example, per-pupil state funding has dropped by a fifth in inflation-adjusted terms since the turn of the century, and higher education spending a proportion of the budget has been in a pretty linear nosedive for a couple of decades.

And public universities in Nebraska, comparatively speaking, are doing well. Nationally, states are spending about 20 percent less per-student than they were eight or nine years ago, and higher education spending as a proportion of state budgets has shrunk nearly a third over the past 15 or 20 years.  Some big flagship state universities already get so little support they are already effectively privatized. For example, only about 16 percent of the University of Michigan’s general fund budget is taxpayer supported.

State leaders are not exactly hiding what they’ve been up to with higher education budgets. Some of the squeeze was unavoidable (we had that whole Great Recession thing), but some governors wear their cheeseparing as a sort of ideological merit badge. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Susana Marinez in New Mexico, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska—there’s a long list of state leaders loudly and proudly pinching pennies in ways that inevitably lead to unburdening their constituents of untold pounds.

The most obvious effects of all this budget beggaring is program cuts and tuition increases—the two primary options public universities have to deal with eroding state support. The end result is not just that we’re producing an entire generation of loan drones, millennials whose social and economic opportunities are pretty severely constricted by debt taken on to pay for school. It also means that for many, college is just not an option. Economic diversity is shrinking at public universities, primarily because those on the lower end of the economic scale can’t afford it. We’re taking the most powerful engine of upward mobility our society has devised and restricting the fuel intake to two cylinders.

Now there is a legitimate debate to be had on whether the average Joe or Jane should be coughing up an extra few bucks so the kegger brigade down at the U can keep itself solvent. Fair enough. What about sonic toothbrushes, though, what are they worth to the average taxpayer? LEDs? The internet? The antibiotics that might save that same Joe and Jane? What about the dang doctor you need to administer those antibiotics? What about the thousands of indirectly supported jobs that help keep the economy humming? What about the football team for chrissake? (There, I said it).

The point is public universities are worth a lot more to the states that own them than people realize. That includes a lot of elected officials. This crowd often knows what higher education costs. They are often clueless about its real value.

Brittle House on the Prairie

Nebraska’s state government is a strange and wonderful thing. To start with, it is an institution rife with sexual innuendo owing to its unusually phallic domicile. Wikipedia says the state capital building thrusting skywards from downtown Lincoln is popularly known as the “Tower on the Plains.” Hah. Check out the picture above and you tell me what it looks like. That’s right, it does. Out here in flyover country we call it, “the penis on the prairie.” And swinging below this 400-foot high art deco putz is, no dicking around, a one testicle legislature.*

Nebraska is the only state in the union with a unicameral, non-partisan governing assembly. It is actually these traits rather than the over-compensating jumbo johnson architecture that makes it really, really different from Congress and every other state legislature. It contains no minority or majority party and no internecine rivalries between upper and lower chambers. It has only 49 members, meaning Nebraska has the fewest elected legislators of any state.

No political parties? No House-versus-Senate snit squads? Total membership in the Most Noble Order of Hot Air Traffickers limited to what will fit on the average bus? That all sounds pretty good to most people. But, does it work? As in, could it provide an example to Congress of how to do things better? Well, maybe. Especially if people will let it.

The Unicam has been an eighty-year experiment in a very different sort of way to run government. Sure, anyone can figure out who in the chamber is actually a Republican and who’s really a Democrat. They might run as non-partisan, but state senators generally make no secret of what party they boogie with. Still, while legislators are not scrubbed clean of all political loyalties when they enter the chamber, there seems to be little doubt the absence of the party whip has a certain liberating quality. Republicans have regularly voted for Democrats to be powerful committee chairs and vice versa. Lacking party caucuses, at least inside the chamber, there’s remarkably little of the sort of partisan Hatfields and McCoys irrational blood feuds so characteristic of contemporary governing institutions.

Instead, coalitions have tended to be fluid, forming around one issue only to dissolve and re-form around another. The closest thing to an institutionalized split is an urban-rural divide, but even that’s pretty blurry, with both types generally getting on with each other. Even if it’s not a Unicam utopia, it’s generally been a place with a damn sight more civility and comity than the slander factories often found polluting the commonweal with bluster and accusation under capitol domes.

There are two groups that aren’t too thrilled with these shockingly high lawmaker kumbaya levels. The first is, believe it or not, political scientists. For my crowd it’s mostly an issue of representation and accountability. We’ve repeatedly proven that the sum total of an average voter’s (accurate) political knowledge can be written in large letters on one side of a Starbucks receipt. And have room to spare. What most voters do know about politics, though, is that Republicans and Democrats are different—one is more righty, one is more lefty. Party labels, then, provide voters with a quick, semi-informed basis on which to vote and hold government accountable.

Take away those party labels and people do not suddenly say, “ah crap, I better start reading detailed policy proposals and looking up voting records so I can sort these suckers out.” Nope. Lacking a party label, voters simply search for something else easy to latch onto, which like as not is candidate name. Recognize it? More likely to vote for it. Dudes also seem to get more voter love, so having some manly-man moniker like Duke Studmuffin is probably more of an asset than something like Lucy Limp-Lemon. Out here in Nebraska something recognizably German or Danish is probably a good vote-getter. Something sporting tildes dancing merrily above multiple syllables probably not so much. Being a good old fashioned “Al” is likely a plus. On the other hand, “al-Harambi” isn’t likely to get the vote machines ringing. As a rule, political scientists generally view picking lawmakers on the basis of last name diphthong counts as a poor basis for representative democracy. So until every citizen enthusiastically signs up for Intro to American Politics at the local U, professional scholars of government would prefer party labels on the ballot.

The other group that really wants party labels put back is, not surprisingly, political parties. Or more specifically, the Republican Party. The GOP quite correctly surmises that if the Unicam was partisan it would rule the roost and could get down to the serious business of turning Nebraska into Kansas. Nebraska is a very red state and the number of senators with a known Republican Party affiliation is well north of 30, while known Democrats are not even half that. What drives the GOP bats is the fact that this huge majority often doesn’t do them much good. Senators regularly and routinely wander away from the party line, bouncing back and forth depending on the issue. Republicans have supported expanding Medicaid, ending the death penalty, allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and all manner of other insults and heresies to Republican Party orthodoxy.

In Congress and pretty much every other state, punishment for such partisan backsliding is likely to be certain and swift. It’s a lot harder to primary a party apostate, though, when there’s no party primary. It must gripe them no end, but Republicans in Nebraska have discovered that political scientists are essentially correct—no party labels means most voters are never quite sure what their representatives have been up to. And, at least in Nebraska, that’s turned out to be not necessarily a bad thing. Freed from the hammer of party discipline, senators have been much more likely to pay something approaching reasoned and thoughtful attention to the issues at hand. Fancy that.

This much displeases party grandees, especially our governor the Very Republican Pete Ricketts. Corralling any legislature is hard enough, but feline flocking a non-partisan assembly into lockstep fealty to a party agenda has proven dang near impossible. Ricketts and the GOP are certainly putting in the effort, though, and they seem to be making some headway. They are aided by two things—Ricketts is bona fide billionaire and the legislature is term limited. This means the guv’s deep pockets can help recruit and promote the candidacies of sworn party supplicants, and as senators regularly get term limited out there are plenty of open seats for them to run for. If you’ve got a big enough group of devout partisans with more loyalty to the governor than to the institution in which they serve, chances are you can start to approximate the ideological follies common in every other legislature.

And, sure enough, the little house on the prairie is starting to wobble from this concentrated attempt to make it more partisan. In the most recent session there was a lot more obvious partisanship than usual in selecting committee chairs. The legislature spent an inordinate amount of time debating rules changes that would allow smaller majorities to ram through legislation. Partisan elbows went out in the selection of committee chairs. Levels of irritation, if not outright animosity, have ratcheted up a bit. The Unicam has shuffled closer to the norm of lawmaking by partisan prattle and pretense.

And that’s a shame. What the Unicam has shown is that a non-partisan representative legislature can work, and work well, within the political system of the United States. Rather than trying to get rid of it, it might be a better idea to emulate it. Could that really happen? Sure. If only some people had the balls to let it.

*the “one testicle legislature” label was, as far as I’m aware, coined by Dan Moser, former local NPR personality and very funny guy. You should follow him: @danmoser1961.