Kansas vs. California: Red Takes on Blue, Beef Tackles Tofu (Forbes.com) June 24, 2013Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
Republicans and Democrats in our nation’s capital are busy playing Check and Balance, better known as politics as usual. With jobs and the economy still the number one issue on Americans’ minds, the Republican House is pre-occupied with bills about abortion and the repeal of Obamacare, passing legislation that everyone knows is dead on arrival in the Senate. And so things go, or don’t go, in Washington.
But a more interesting playing field for red and blue politics can be found in state capitals across the country. States have long been recognized as “laboratories of democracy,” according to the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, where “novel social and economic experiments [can be tried] without risk to the rest of the country.” And such experimentation is far more likely when a state is dominated by one political party as are both of my “home” states, Kansas and California.
In fact, I submit that California (my current home state for 35+ years) and Kansas (where I was raised and lived for 25 years) are, respectively, the blue and red point-counterpoint states of the nation. I don’t just mean the obvious cultural differences: tofu or beef, the waves of the Pacific versus amber waves of grain, tourists flocking to Yosemite or to see the world’s largest ball of twine. Appropriately, California’s state motto is “Eureka” (we found it!), while the Kansas state flag more modestly offers up “ad astra per aspera” (to the stars through difficulties).
The really interesting difference between California and Kansas now is that the former has, by some accounts, become the model of blue state governance (high taxes, high regulation), while the latter is focused on shaping the mold for red state governance (low taxes, high freedom). Even as California raised its tax rates, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is driving his state toward zero income tax, aiming to stimulate economic growth. It’s clearly a tale not only of two states but of two models of governance.
California has been heading into troubled waters for nearly a decade. After attracting far more people into the state than it lost, that trend reversed domestically (excluding immigrants) in 1990, and altogether (including immigrants) by 2005. It has the lowest bond rating and the highest energy costs of any state, and is tied for the highest unemployment rate. Its environmental regulations exceed federal standards and those of every other state, and CEO Magazine has rated it the worst place to do business 8 years running. But the blue state icing on this cake was Jerry Brown’s leadership of a successful ballot initiative last fall to raise income tax rates (the highest in the nation) and thereby balance the budget with revenue instead of expense cuts. This whole package—high regulation, high taxes–is the supposed blue state success.
Meanwhile, Kansas governor Sam Brownback has undertaken what one observer has called “what may be the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation.” Not to be outdone by Texas or other red states, Brownback seeks to eliminate the personal income tax altogether, cap state spending growth at 2% a year, overhaul spending on education, convert the state pension system to a defined-contribution plan, and place Medicaid enrollees into a private system of managed care. His newly created Office of the Repealer actively searches for government regulations that can be eliminated. Brownback openly touts his approach as a conservative, red state model, proclaiming in his January State of the State address that “when our country seems adrift, Kansas leads. In any era when many believe that America has lost its way, Kansas knows its way.” The expectation, of course, is that new businesses will be attracted to Kansas and that jobs and the economy will grow well beyond what a blue state model would produce.
Brown versus Brownback. Red state-blue state. It is too soon to say which experiment will produce the better outcome, but it is a far more interesting and potentially important ideological battle than what we see in Washington, D.C. at the moment. Stay tuned to the market test of jobs and economic growth that should point to a winner in this red state-blue state governance battle.