Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Public Shaming of a Governor: Kansans Should Continue to Turn Their Backs on Sam Brownback

Photo by Gage Skidmore
With an approval rating that has been as abysmally low as 15% in recent months and having been adorned with the title of “most unpopular governor in America,” Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has suffered some extensive public humiliation during his second term. Many, including myself, would argue that the humiliation is justified, and in fact, necessary for the long term viability of our state.

As humans, we have a host of social control mechanisms available for deflating the egos of individual members and smaller groups who put their own interests, ideals or narrow view of the world ahead of the larger group. Many of these mechanisms, such as gossiping, ridiculing, shunning, ostracizing and public debating have origins that reach far back into our hunter-gather past, yet remain effective to this day.

For example, having four former governors unite in a bipartisan manner to publicly denounce and even organize against a sitting governor’s policies and actions is a pretty strong form of public shaming. And other groups and individuals have increasingly stood up in a bipartisan manner across the state over the last six years to publicly call out Governor Brownback and his ultraconservative legislative allies, making their actions and agendas more transparent to the rest of the state.

As I’ve pointed out previously, this can be effective “[b]ecause our behaviors and actions, if visible to others and if viewed as “negative” relative to our friends/family, to our community and/or to society as a whole, can result in the application of social pressure intended to both a) stop the behaviors of the offenders and b) serve as a warning to others. And if these more benign forms of social control aren’t effective [including being booed at in public], group members may resort to shunning or even exiling the offenders from the group.”

The repudiation of the policies of the governor and his legislative allies in the recent primary elections resulted in the “exile” of many of these ultraconservatives from the collective, at least in terms of governing. And it’s quite likely that additional ultraconservatives will lose their seats in the general election. The relevancy of the governor and his allies with respect to the governing of our state has been diminished.

Partially as a result of these social control mechanisms, the governor has, it appears, recently attempted to “enter the fold” again. During the week of August 28th, Brownback seemingly reached out to educators, parents, local communities and other key stakeholders from across the state and nation to help provide ideas for a new school funding formula. With the State Board of Education Chairman on one side and the state’s Education Commissioner on the other, the governor publicly made this request during a school finance news conference.

But after the last six years, the governor has a pretty tough sell convincing us he’s sincere about doing what’s best for the students of Kansas and our long term future. He’s spent six years ignoring and dismissing input from educators and public education advocates, six years relying on advisors who have a blatant anti-public education agenda; six years supporting anti-public education and anti-teacher legislation and rhetoric (including calling school districts’ use of money “immoral”). After all of that, one out of the blue news conference isn’t enough to welcome him back in from the cold with open arms.

Nor does the evidence suggest the public shaming and ostracizing should stop. As part of the governor’s request for input on public school funding, he is still asserting that a new formula should insure more money is spent in the classroom. As I and others have previously pointed out, “narrowly defining ‘instruction’ and ‘shifting dollars to the classroom’ are code for reducing the overall funding for day to day public school operations and have been common talking points of Brownback and the ultraconservative legislators.”

The governor’s request also called for a formula that produces “predictable” funding. Sure, that sounds good in theory, but this has also been ultraconservative code for limiting public school funding. The reality is a funding formula must be structured to respond to changing district needs that occur not just through the beginning of the school year, but throughout the entire school year. Such changes may consist of increases in the number of students (including those with special needs, of a lower socio-economic status, etc.) and changes in local property tax valuations to name a few. There will always be a percentage of public education spending that won’t be known until the end of the school year, and the state must have the dollars available to meet those unknown district needs.

Speaking of the state having the revenue available to meet school funding needs (and other public services), the state’s tax revenues once again fell short of expectations with August’s collections coming in more than $10 million short. While the governor recently stated that tax policy change is a matter open to discussion, he hasn’t demonstrated any willingness to back down from his reckless march to zero income taxes. And the fact of the matter is, it’s not just the business LLC loophole that must be repealed. At least some of the other income tax cuts made during the governor’s first term are going to have to be rolled back for the state to recover.

Linked to the general lack of state revenue is the governor’s and his allies’ continued targeting of supreme court justices for removal during the upcoming judicial retention elections. Over the last decade, the supreme court has consistently ruled that the legislature must add more money to adequately and equitably fund public education per the state’s constitution. With the latest ruling on a school finance case, which could cost the state an additional $500 million a year in school funding, likely to occur at some point after the November elections, the ultraconservatives are working hard to change the makeup of the supreme court.

Nor has the governor distanced himself from some of the most anti-public education voices out there. Included among the groups he just reached out to for public education funding input are the same anti-public education groups he’s been listening to since he’s been in office – the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Policy Institute.

And finally, the governor’s request for input didn’t include any mention of public forums, town hall meetings, or similar public venues.  Per my understanding, he’s only requested input via email, which lacks the visibility and transparency of statewide public venues. This makes it much easier to control the eventual recommendations and associated messaging that eventually will follow from the process.

So I would argue the public shaming should continue. The governor hasn’t truly had a change of heart. He’s still playing the role of the trickster, trying to minimize the potential damage to the ultraconservative makeup of the legislature during the upcoming general elections, as well as change the makeup of the state’s Supreme Court.

In addition to the continued public shaming, Kansans need to work hard over the next two months to ensure a) as many of the remaining ultraconservatives as possible are exiled from the legislature in November and b) the makeup of the state Supreme Court doesn’t change. Kansas needs a moderate Republican and Democratic majority in the legislature capable of overriding the Governor’s vetoes, and a Supreme Court that will uphold the state’s constitution.

Once that’s done, once we’ve limited his governmental relevancy and completed his metaphorical exile him from the group, then we’ll see if he’s at least ready to change his actions, if not his heart. Or he may choose to metaphorically wander the political landscape in isolation, fading from relevance as his second term draws to a close.