An Incomplete Look at the Koch Brothers' Influence in Arizona

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The Koch Brothers, Charles and David, have been very much in Arizona news lately, something they and their associates don't much like. They prefer to operate by stealth, under cover of dark money. Despite their wishes, a number of Koch-related dots have surfaced lately, loosely connected to one another. Let's see if some patterns emerge.

The Koch Brothers helped fund University of Arizona's Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, aka the Freedom Center. They put a million dollars, maybe a little more, into the libertarian-inflected outpost. It's not such a big deal by itself. A university center can't hire its own professors or create its own degree program like a full-fledged department, meaning its influence within the institution of higher education is minimal.

The Freedom Center created a high school course, Philosophy 101: Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship. It is being taught in a few school districts, charters and private schools — though it may be taught in one less district now that Tucson Unified decided the course will not be taught next year, unless the board decides to authorize it after further study. That being said, high school students are famously resistant to internalizing what they learn in class. With the course only being offered at a few schools, it's not like Arizona will have legions of students turning into born again libertarians after a yearlong indoctrination. Then again, the ultimate goal stated by the Templeton Foundation which funds the effort is to have the course reach a quarter of the state's high school students. With numbers like that, the course could have significant sway on the thinking of Arizona's youth.

In Arizona's 2017 state budget, which was quite stingy with university spending, the legislature included $2 million for the Freedom Center and another $3 million for ASU's similarly inclined School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. That taxpayer money on top of private donations from the Koch Brothers and other like-minded donors will help extend the influence of the two libertarian-infused outposts, though it's hard to say how much.

The Freedom Center is using some of its newfound state money to create a new department, the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. Unlike the Center, it can hire professors and create degree programs, expanding its reach and making it a far more powerful force within the university.

State funding of public K-12 schools and universities is being used to spread the Koch Brothers libertarian doctrine, which is ironic, since the brothers aren't fans of "government schools" or state funding of education. They demonstrated their dislike of education funding when they poured $1.8 million into the successful fight to defeat a 2012 ballot measure which would have increased sales tax to add a billion dollars to K-12 funding. That money would have helped purchase educational equipment and supplies and give teachers a much-needed raise, but taxes are always supposed to go down, not up, in the Koch's world, and less funding for "government schools" means less government interference in people's lives. The brothers weren't alone in the effort. Then-state treasurer Doug Ducey led the vigorous, well funded campaign against the measure.

In 2014, Ducey ran for governor. The Koch Brothers put up $1.4 million to help his successful campaign.

Governor Ducey likes to call himself the Education Governor, yet K-12 schools remain grossly underfunded, well below the 2008 level, which already put us in the national cellar in terms of per student funding. Currently, though Ducey is known as a supporter of business, he opposes a push by business leaders to add a billion dollars to school funding through an increase in the sales tax. The savvy businessmen and businesswomen believe the extra funding will be good for kids and for the Arizona economy, but Ducey is sticking to his No New Taxes pledge, which must endear him to the brothers who helped fund his election. And they have to be pleased with the $5 million Ducey included in the 2017 budget to fund the libertarian outposts at UA and ASU. Most likely, Ducey will add similar funding to the 2018 budget. I'm sure he can expect help from the Koch Brothers for his 2018 campaign. There may even be a little extra cash thrown in to reward him for a job well done.

Last year I read Jane Mayer's book, Dark Money, about the Kochs and other conservative billionaires who use their fortunes to move the country in their political and ideological direction. Right now, I'm rereading it, slowly, carefully. It's more frightening on the second read. The few dots I wrote about here are in keeping with the decades long, carefully thought out national campaign to move the country far to the right, and they're only the dots which have bobbed to the surface lately. We'll be seeing much more of the Koch Brothers as we move into election season if we're paying attention.

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