What Topeka Tells Us: When the Budget Cuts Come, It’s Women and Children First

This week's power struggle over who would pay for prosecuting domestic violence crimes in Shawnee County, Kansas is both a reflection and a foreshadowing of how anti-tax, anti-government, religiously ideological leaders see their states and our country going. In short, when it comes to making cuts, it's women and children first.

This week, a power struggle ensued between Shawnee County, Kansas and Topeka city officials over who would prosecute domestic abuse cases revealing just how far anti-tax, anti-government ideology is apt to go, and just who it leaves most vulnerable.

It all started when the Shawnee County Commission cut the budget of county District Attorney Chad Taylor, which, Taylor argued, left him without sufficient resources to carry out his job. Taylor, in turn, said he would no longer prosecute cases of domestic violence occuring within the city limits of Topeka because he didn’t have the staff and it was the city’s job to take care of these cases. But Topeka’s mayor and city council disagreed so they repealed the city’s ordinance against domestic violence, leaving it to the discretion of Taylor as to whether, when and how many instances of abuse to prosecute.

This, of course, left women victims of violence unprotected and threatened the release of abusers onto the streets of Kansas’ capital city.

Today, after a huge public outcry both from within and outside of Kansas, led in large part by Kansas NOW, Taylor announced his office will again “commence the review and filing of misdemeanors decriminalized by the City of Topeka.”

This is a partial victory–the discretion of what cases and how many to prosecute remains in Taylor’s hands with a much-reduced budget, forcing Taylor, in his words, to work with “less staff, less resources, and severe constraints on our ability to effectively seek justice.”

To a large extent, Taylor is not to blame. According to the Topeka City-Journal:

Taylor originally announced that his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanors committed within Topeka after the Shawnee County Commission cut his 2012 budget by nearly $350,000. Taylor said the budget cut would limit his staff to prosecuting all felonies and those misdemeanor crimes committed in Shawnee County outside of the Topeka city limits.

“Over the past three years, my office has consistently demonstrated through actions our commitment to public safety,” Taylor said in a statement.

“When I assumed office as the Shawnee County District Attorney I inherited a backlog of over 4,000 unfiled, unreviewed cases. Within a year this backlog had been reviewed and over 500 new cases were filed.

But with an increase in criminal cases, including a 25 percent increase in adult criminal case filings, the gap between staff and budget just kept growing. Still, he maintains, “our office has worked diligently to combat domestic battery. Over the past three years, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office has increased misdemeanor domestic battery filings by over 80 percent and convictions by over 50 percent. All these changes were accomplished without any additional county budget funds and with a reduction in staff.”

That, however, obviously became untenable with this latest round of cuts.

“This situation should be recognized by any government that is considering cutting essential government services,” said Kari Ann Rinker, State Director of Kansas NOW. “It seems more often than not that the first area to be cut focuses on the most vulnerable.”

In Kansas,” she continued, “funding for women’s basic health needs has been attacked at the state level by our governor, and now locally in Topeka, at the same time that we are nationally fighting laws that would decimate federal funding for reproductive and sexual health care and fighting a bill, H.R. 358, that would let pregnant women in need of abortion die.”

This, sisters, is our future under the right-wing GOP/Tea Party leadership that governs so many states.  To be clear, several of those who voted to repeal the domestic violence ordinance in Topeka are Democrats.  But the state is controlled by–and the dire budget circumstances created by–the GOP-Tea Party dominated state legislature, led by Brownback, whose budgets have slashed everything from school funding, to psychatric care for children in need to women’s health clinics and beyond.

As I wrote in July, Kansas under Governor Sam Brownback is hardly the “heaven on earth” portrayed in the vision sold by anti-tax, anti-government religiously-ideological extremists of the kind Brownback exemplifies.

Kansans, for example, are becoming poorer. A U.S. Census Bureau study found that the rate of growth in poverty in Kansas outpaced that of the nation writ large.  In 2009, poverty in the state rose 3 percent, as opposed to 1 percent nationwide.  More than 365,000 Kansans live in poverty.

The share of Kansans living in extreme poverty also outpaced the national average, increasing by 1.1. percent as opposed to 0.7 percent for the nation as a whole.  The Census Bureau found there were 153,756 Kansans–5.6 percent of the population–living in extreme poverty in 2009.

The rate of increase in child poverty in Kansas was nearly double that of the United States as a whole. The share of children in Kansas living in poverty increased from 14 percent in 2008 to 17.2 percent in 2009, putting the number of Kansas children living in poverty at 118,029 in 2009. By contrast, child poverty rose 1.9 percent that same year across the country as a whole.

This week’s power play over who will be responsible for prosecuting abusers is but one example of what women and their children in every state are facing as budgets for child nutrition, child health, women’s health, police, teachers, and basic functions of government are cut to the bone so that billionaires like the Koch Brothers can keep that chump change they’d otherwise pay in taxes.

Rinker, like others, is simultaneously both tracking and fighting the onslaught of cuts at the state and local levels in Kansas and underscores that “it will be up to women’s advocates to do this monitoring because similar cuts are being made more and more often at the local level.”

“Grassroots activists,” she argues, “must make a lot of noise about this to protect our rights.” In fact, public officials admit having been overwhelmed by the number of complaints that came in from Kansas and across the country, telling Rinker that she and her colleagues could take full credit for the resumption of prosecutions by Taylor that came about in response to efforts by both the state and national offices of the National Organization for Women, along with CHANGE.org and others.

“We made them do what they are supposed to be doing,” Rinker said.  “Protecting people.”

So one answer is that advocacy works and that the collective advocacy of women and men throughout this country can promote social justice and ensure government accountability, at least to a certain extent.

Still, it is only a partial win. The state is governed by an anti-tax governor and legislature, the city of Topeka has not reversed its repeal of its domestic violence law, and Taylor still has too few resources to do his job.

The more important therefore question is: Why, in a country in which Presidential candidates constantly beat their chests about “exceptionalism” are we allowing a dangerous politico-religious ideology to undermine the fundamental rights and protections of our own citizens?


Follow Jodi on Twitter: @jljacobson