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When television cameras zoomed in on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in the middle of the Kansas-Wichita State NCAA basketball game a thunderous chorus of boos broke out. Viewers gained a rare glimpse of the politics behind March Madness. (Photo: AP)

The Politics of the NCAA Sweet Sixteen

David Morris

When television cameras zoomed in on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in the middle of the Kansas-Wichita State NCAA basketball game a thunderous chorus of boos broke out. Viewers gained a rare glimpse of the politics behind March Madness. The announcers pointedly ignored the boos.

Viewers might have been better served if the announcers had offered some context for the crowd’s hostility.  Both the University of Kansas and Wichita State are public universities. Brownback and the Republican dominated legislature have savaged state university budgets, resulting in rising tuition and more burdensome student debt.

In fact, twelve of the Sweet Sixteen teams are state universities. (Three are Catholic schools.  Duke is the only non-religious private school.) Eleven play in states totally controlled by Republicans. (UCLA is the only team in a totally blue state.)  In virtually all of these state spending on state universities has been slashed. Between 2008 and 2014 per capita state spending for state universities, adjusted for inflation, has shrunk by more than 40 percent in Arizona, almost 30 percent in Michigan, about 25 percent in Utah and Wisconsin.  And in 2015, even though their state economies have significantly improved, many red states are seeking to further punish their state universities. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, has just proposed a budget that would decrease spending on public universities by $300 million over the next two years, the steepest reduction in state history.

The largely student crowds at NCAA games may also be upset that their states justify cutting spending on state universities in order to reduce state deficits when the deficits have been caused almost entirely by tax reductions that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has steered more than $2 billion in tax cuts through the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature. By one estimate the state of Kansas lost $803 million in 2014 because of 2012 tax cuts and the cumulative revenue loss will exceed $5 billion by 2019.

While the vast majority of NCAA teams in the Sweet Sixteen play in red states, almost all play in blue cities: Chapel Hill, Durham, Lexington, Louisville, Madison, Tucson, Lansing, Wichita, South Bend, Norman. And many of them are blue in large part because of how their students and recent graduates vote. Responding to the needs of their constituents, blue city councils have tried to lift their income, sometimes by increasing the local minimum wage.  But when they try, red state legislatures often step in and strip them of their authority to do so.

In 2007, when Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin raised the local minimum wage, the legislature passed a bill to preempt its right to do so but the effort failed when Democratic Governor Jim Doyle vetoed the bill.  In 2011, however, Republican Governor Walker signed a bill abolishing any Wisconsin city from enacting a local minimum wage higher than the state’s. That bill became a template used by more than a dozen other red states, most recently Oklahoma, to enact their own preemption statutes.

For the next week, we can concentrate on basketball and marvel at the remarkable athletes playing their hearts out and set politics aside.  But perhaps, maybe during the commercials, we can reflect on the fact that the vast majority of these games are being played by teams from public universities in states whose governments are hostile to public universities and whose policies increase the already considerable financial burden on the students at these universities.


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David Morris

David Morris

David Morris is Vice President and director of the New Rules Project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which is based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. focusing on local economic and social development. His five non-fiction books range from an exploration of Chilean economic and political history to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods. For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays have appeared in many print and online publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Smithsonian, Journal of Commerce, Salon, Alternet, Common Dreams, and the Huffington Post. David has been a development consultant to local, state, and federal governments in the U.S. and abroad and to private businesses as large as IBM and investor-owned electric utilities and as small as microbreweries and local retail.

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