Louis Brandeis once described the states as the “laboratories of democracy” — places where you can experiment with different policy options to see what works. The 2010 elections gave a handful of new Republican governors the chance to use their states as laboratories. So how are they doing?
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is one of the most notable mad scientists. He’s rapidly taken Kansas to the extreme right, implementing the conservative wish list on abortion, voting rights, and public assistance. His biggest experiment in his laboratory has been a series of major tax bills that shift the impact of taxes down the income spectrum, cutting income taxes and corporate taxes and leaning more heavily on sales taxes.
The only problem? The fiscal disaster his changes created:
“Kansas is now hundreds of millions of dollars short in revenue collection, its job growth has lagged the rest of the nation, and Moody’s has cut the state’s bond rating. ‘Governor Brownback came in here with an agenda to reduce the size of government, reduce taxes, and create a great economic boom,’ says University of Kansas professor Burdett Loomis. ‘Now there’s been a dramatic decline in revenues, no great increase in economic activity, and we’ve got red ink until the cows come home.’”
Brownback and his allies promised that the cost of the tax cuts would be more than made up for by new economic activity and new people moving to Kansas, but it turns out you can’t save the Economy Fairy just by clapping louder. The likely outcome is more cuts to schools and other state services — and maybe another lost job: Brownback’s own. Surprisingly for a strongly Republican state, Kansas is giving Brownback low approval ratings, and he’s polling dangerously close to his Democratic opponent.
Regardless of the facts, Brownback is happy with the results of the experiment: on yesterday’s edition of MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown,” Brownback insisted that his tax plan would bring economic growth eventually.
Brownback isn’t the only right-wing governor whose experiments are blowing up. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has tried a similar effort to push through major tax changes in his own state. And he’s run into similar revenue shortfalls and falling approval ratings. He had to give up on a plan to eliminate the income tax entirely and replace it with sales taxes, a proposal that would have amounted to a big upward redistribution.
North Carolina experienced a total Republican takeover between the 2010 and 2012 elections, giving Gov. Pat McCrory and a hard-right legislative majority led by House Speaker Thom Tillis (who is also running against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November) the chance to remake the state as an ideological dream. This included the predictable restrictions on abortion; it also meant showy symbolic moves like a ban on sharia law. McCrory, Tillis and conservative legislators pushed through tax changes similar to those pursued by Brownback (successfully) and Jindal (less successfully); those changes raised the tax impact on thousands of working-class families while cutting them on the very wealthiest. And, of course, state Republicans moved to consolidate their power with new district maps and new voting restrictions to limit voters’ ability to hold them accountable. The voting restrictions are now facing a federal court challenge.
And for some in the state, McCrory didn’t go far enough; the North Carolina state legislature overrode his veto of a gratuitously cruel bill to subject public assistance recipients to drug testing.
One of the signature dishes in North Carolina’s right-wing test kitchen was a set of cuts and changes to unemployment insurance. You’ll hear lots of praise of these changes, as conservatives insist they’re forcing people back to work, but as Dean Baker notes:
“the story is pretty clear. There is zero evidence that cutting unemployment benefits in North Carolina or the rest of the country did anything to spur job growth. There is much evidence that it led those who saw their benefits to end to give up looking for work and to drop out of the labor force.”
The attacks on voting rights and the pocketbooks of working-class North Carolinians were severe enough to spark a local counter-movement: the Moral Mondays protests, which rattled state legislators enough that they passed new laws to try and rein them in.
One of the nation’s biggest right-wing laboratories is in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry is trying to lure business with big talk about a Texas “miracle.” A great piece by Phillip Longman in the Washington Monthly undermines Perry’s claims, noting the state’s “Robin-Hood-in-reverse” regressive tax code, as well as “low rates of economic mobility [and] minimal public services.” Texas, Longman says, is “no longer gaining on the richest states in its per capita income, but rather getting comparatively poorer and poorer.” Its poverty rate and uninsured rate rank among the highest in the nation, and its protections for workers are minimal. Who exactly is this a miracle for, again?
Finally, no description of the failed experiments of conservative governors is complete without noting the sad record of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who went to great and campaign-finance-law-stretching lengths to gain and hold his office. He promised that his agenda would deliver economic growth and bountiful new jobs; the reality has fallen far short. As Marc Levine writes, not only have Walker’s policies not delivered the 250,000 jobs he claimed they would, they may have actually held back job growth in the state, as Wisconsin’s economy falls behind those of its neighbors.
So let’s go back and look at what these laboratories have produced. A simple comparison of the results with the stated hypotheses shows that these experiments haven’t succeeded. As Thom Tillis seeks a seat in the U.S. Senate and Walker, Jindal and Perry all look with one eye towards the White House, we should be asking: have these guys earned the promotion that they’re angling for?
Of course, judging all of these policies against their promised impact — Sam Brownback’s state revenues, North Carolina’s unemployment picture, Scott Walker’s jobs record — is just begging the question. Don’t look at what their experiments are supposed to produce, because you’re bound to be disappointed.
The advocates of the right-wing ideological agenda use job growth and higher revenues as a selling point, but it’s not actually relevant to their goals. The goal is to have government do less stuff for people on the lower end of the economic spectrum, and stay out of the way of the people on the higher end. That’s what they want to build in the laboratories of democracy.
When you put people like Sam Brownback in charge of your laboratory, don’t be surprised when they create a monster.