Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas is a career politician. He has served in the… (John Milburn/AP )
TOPEKA, KAN. — If you want to know what a Tea Party America might look like, there is no place like Kansas.
In the past year, three state agencies have been abolished and 2,050 jobs have been cut. Funding for schools, social services and the arts have been slashed. The new Republican governor rejected a $31.5 million federal grant for a new health-insurance exchange because he opposes President Obama’s health-care law. And that’s just the small stuff.
A new “Office of the Repealer” has been created to reduce the number of laws and regulations, and the Repealer is canvassing the state for more cut suggestions.
In the upcoming legislative session, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) plans to roll out proposals to change the way schools are funded, taxes are levied and state pensions are administered.
A year after voters vaulted hundreds of tea party candidates to power in Washington and in state capitals, the movement’s goals are being pursued aggressively in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas.
But in Kansas, as nowhere else in the country, tea party fervor is reshaping government. The same political forces of the Republican Party driving the confrontation over taxes and spending in Washington are now completely in charge in Kansas.
The GOP now controls the state’s House of Representatives with the biggest majority in half a century. Emboldened by this power shift, Brownback — the state’s former two-term U.S. senator — has embarked on his overhaul at a breathtaking pace.
“It’s a revolution in a cornfield,” said Arthur Laffer, the 71-year-old architect of supply-side economic theory and former economic adviser for President Ronald Reagan who is now working with the governor. “Brownback and his whole group there, it’s an amazing thing they’re doing. Truly revolutionary.”
Brownback, 55, declined to be interviewed for this article but has said he wants to turn his small farming state into a national showcase for the virtues of limited government.
“The states are to be the laboratory for democracy,” he said recently at a dinner at the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank in Wichita. “Why not here and why not us and why not now?”
The governor has said his main concerns are creating jobs, cutting taxes and bringing new businesses to the state, which has been losing population to domestic migration over the past decade and ranks near the bottom in private-sector job creation.
“We cannot continue on this path and hope we can move forward and win the future,” he said in the Wichita speech . “It won’t work. We have to change course, and we’re going to have to be aggressive about it or we are doomed to a slow decline.”
Brownback has shown little patience with anyone who might stand in the way of the revolution. Nine moderate Republicans in the state Senate who crossed Brownback face primary challengers in 2012. His administration has acquired a reputation for engaging even the smallest critics. The governor’s aides grabbed national attention after they went after a teenager who tweeted derogatory comments about Brownback during a visit to the statehouse. The governor later apologized for their behavior.
Moderate no more
For years, Kansas has been one of the most reliably Republican states in presidential elections. In the past 100 years, only three Democrats have won there — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 2008, John McCain beat Barack Obama 57 percent to 41 percent, winning all but three of the state’s 105 counties.
But at the state level, Kansans have routinely elected moderate Republican governors. More recently, the state elected Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, now President Obama’s secretary of health and human services.
Then came Brownback.
For most of his long political career, Brownback has been an unabashed social conservative and deeply religious man. He converted from evangelical Christianity to Roman Catholicism in 2002. He often speaks about how a brush with cancer deepened his religious views and influenced his political convictions.
During his tenure as governor, Brownback has pushed for stricter abortion controls, the expansion of faith-based programming and initiatives that promote healthy marriage and fatherhood.
“For 40 years, we had this moderate Republican-Democratic coalition running the state, and suddenly it’s pretty much gone,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Brownback defied even the GOP-led state legislature in cutting funding for the arts, which left Kansas as the only state without a state-funded arts commission. And his plan to shutter nine social service offices around the state created a firestorm and sent several localities scrambling for their checkbooks to keep the offices open.
He has been so single-minded in his pursuit of smaller government that some have accused him of being an autocrat. T-shirts emerged with the slogan “Welcome to Brownbackistan.”