The last time we had anything like the recent wave of Republican takeovers of state governments was in 1994, when the GOP picked up ten net governorships and took control of fifteen new state legislative chambers. The officeholders who benefited from this shift were for the most part very lucky people, assuming their positions just as the Long Boom of the mid-to-late 1990s began to gain momentum. The resulting revenue bonanza made it easy for Republicans at the state level to keep tax cut promises without unpopular spending reductions. Remember that large group of GOP governors who backed George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000 as a “reformer with results?” They all, including Bush, owed a big debt of thanks to the drivers of the national economy, including Bill Clinton.
But the current batch of GOP landslide beneficiaries in the states are not quite so lucky, at least so far. While the economy has slowly picked up pace since the first cohort of them took office in 2011, it’s hardly roaring. And it’s not clear who’s in a worse position: veteran Republicans in budget trouble because of tax cuts already passed, or the 2015 freshmen who took office promising tax cuts they have no way to pay for without deep budget cuts. An additional complication is the revenue crisis facing states—most of them governed by Republicans—depending disproportionately on oil and gas severance taxes, which have been decimated by the recent fall in world oil prices.
Some high-profile Republican governors and legislative leaders are in a particularly deep hole of their own making, and are taking on the state version of the political “third rail” by attacking higher education spending.
There are plenty of reasons why higher ed is an unusually tough place to cut, varying from the power of alumni to football and basketball and the perceived economic payoff of a good state university system. Still, during the depths of the Great Recession, virtually all states cut higher ed subsidies, which non-coincidentally produced a large wave of tuition increases. But some cut more than others, and are doing less to replace lost funding now that the economy’s doing better. Only eight states failed to increase per student higher ed spending in Fiscal Year 2014: Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Louisiana, West Virginia and Wyoming. And now in 2015 it generates headlines when significant higher education cuts are proposed, as in Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Louisiana.
You may note that these are all states with highly ideological Republican state administrations and legislatures. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback narrowly survived a reelection challenge focused on his credit-damaging tax cuts and unpopular education cuts; now, with little to lose, he’s back for more. In North Carolina, a state often matched with Kansas as a deliberate conservative policy experiment station, state legislators (guided by a conservative think tank founded by highly influential billionaire Art Pope) are seeking shutdowns in ideologically unfavored parts of the university system.
And two Republican governors who are clearly running for president are distinguishing themselves in this areas as well. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal has fought with his own Republican state legislature over tax and education policy, and is now seeking heavy higher ed cuts to deal with a large budget shortfall attributed equally to his fiscal mismanagement and to lower oil prices. And Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, having signed a $541 million tax cut package last year, is now pursuing $300 million in higher ed cuts, amounting to 13% of state aid to the university system.
What makes the new round of cut proposals interesting, particularly in North Carolina and Wisconsin, is that they are being justified on culture-war grounds, not just a matter of fiscal priorities.
This is clearest in North Carolina, where the most discussed cuts involve “liberal” centers attached to the university system that engage in advocacy work (as noted by the New York Times’ Richard Fausset):
An advisory panel of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors has recommended closing three academic centers, including a poverty center and one dedicated to social change, inciting outrage among liberals who believe that conservatives in control of state government are targeting ideological opponents in academia.
Conservatives are cheering the move, seeing it as a corrective to a higher education system they believe has lent its imprimatur to groups that engage in partisan activism.
“They’re moving in the right direction, though I don’t think they went far enough,” said Francis X. De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh. “A lot of these centers were started up with a specific advocacy role in mind, as opposed to an educational role.”
The full name of the Civitas Institute, by the way, is the John William Pope Civitas Institute. There are persistent rumors that Republicans want to crown his hostile takeover of the state by making him president of the University of North Carolina. You’d think conservatives would let the recently deceased Hall of Fame coach and progressive Dean Smith get settled in his grave first, but you never know.
Meanwhile, Walker has given an ideological edge to his own higher ed cuts by seeking to modify the mission statement of the university system to make it clear its job is workforce development for the state’s fine corporations, not any liberal guff about “truth” or “service.” He’s since backed off on that proposal, but is at the same time making it clear he wants the cuts to lead to layoffs or longer hours for faculty, not tuition increases. His combative posture towards the academic circles long deplored by conservatives as a source of “liberal brainwashing” has fed a separate controversy over Walker’s lack of a college degree (he dropped out of Marquette University late in his senior year to take a job). Only one prominent Democrat—Howard Dean—has made an issue of this as a problem for Walker’s presidential aspirations, but dozens, maybe hundreds, of conservative voices have been raised in angry denunciation of “liberal elites” aligned with self-serving liberal academia.
So while Republicans might not be seeking higher ed cuts if they hadn’t made it necessary by their tax cut agendas, there are signs they are tempted to polarize the issue by making public colleges and universities culture-war enemies. If you hear prominent conservatives begin to refer to state universities as “government colleges,” you’ll know the time has come.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.