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Red-state radicalism hastens rural decline

5/5/2013

Republican radicalism thrives here in Kansas, the reddest of red states, and within our state, in the reddest counties, and our brand of red-state radicalism does not bode especially well for the future of rural Kansas.

The antics of Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp, who represents many of the state's rural residents, threaten the federal spending on which these Kansans heavily rely. And Gov. Sam Brownback's perilous experiment in eliminating the state income tax has placed state services in jeopardy and eventually will push more school funding onto property taxes, driving the high property tax burdens of rural residents even higher. Curiously, voters in the reddest counties of Kansas cheer the loudest for both Huelskamp and Brownback.

Recent news stories in the Kansas City Star and the Boston Globe highlight the hypocrisy of red-state radicalism. The Star found the fiercest critics of federal spending also were big-time "takers" of federal spending. The Star focused on Sumner County, part of the Wichita metropolitan area, and reported in 2010 "the U.S. government spent roughly $189 million in Sumner County, almost $7,900 for every man, woman and child who lives here. That's an estimated 40 (percent) to 50 percent more, on average, than each county resident paid in federal taxes."

The Globe reporter traveled to Hodgeman County in rural southwest Kansas and interviewed residents attending a public forum for Huelskamp and later at a downtown coffee klatch in the county seat of Jetmore. Those interviewed applauded their congressman for saying "no" to federal spending and refusing to compromise on spending even with leaders of his own party. His obstinance got him booted from the House Agriculture Committee last year, leaving Kansas without a representative on the committee for the first time in memory.

Hodgeman County might provide a useful prism for viewing federal spending in rural Kansas, as more than half of the state's 105 counties have fewer than 7,000 residents.

In 2010, for example, more than $21 million flowed from the U.S. treasury into Hodgeman County, providing on average $11,000 for each of the 1,916 county residents. Social Security and Medicare benefits represented more than half of the total; Medicaid alone another million. Direct payments for various agricultural subsidies totaled $2.5 million, not counting $3.1 million in payments through federally subsidized crop insurance and $765,000 in federal farm loans.

What exactly these residents paid in federal taxes is not readily available, but based on the findings of Sumner County, they likely paid roughly $2 in taxes for every $3 in benefits.

Hodgeman County residents pay an even smaller share of the sales and income taxes that provide for school funding, health care and transportation, among other state services. For example, Kansas taxpayers underwrote 80 percent of the $2.8 million general fund budget of the county school district in 2011-12, matched federal Medicaid funding in the county to the tune of more than $800,000 in 2010, and funded road projects in the county averaging $1.5 million annually during recent years. Most rural Kansans also have benefited from the long-term shift of state finance away from reliance on property taxes, but Hodgeman County residents still pay property taxes that average two and one-half times that of all Kansans, compared to 16 percent less in income taxes.

Brownback's radical plan to eliminate state income taxes is undoing state finance, and its effect eventually will reach the doorsteps of rural Kansans. In January, for example, when a state court ordered lawmakers to meet their constitutional obligation in funding education, Brownback responded that increased school funding would necessarily fall back on property taxpayers. That action would force the high property tax burden of most rural residents, such as those in Hodgeman County, ever higher.

In sum, the monies flowing through state and national treasuries into rural Kansas counties comprise roughly one-third of their local economies and sustain their communities. The "small government" radicalism of Huelskamp and Brownback and their allies will diminish the economic fortunes and quality of life of all Kansans, but its effect on rural Kansans will be the most severe.

H. Edward Flentje is a professor

at Wichita State University.

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