The mailer, from the Republican Governors Association, seems ominous.
“Paul Davis voted to raise sales tax permanently,” it claims.
Few debates this election season have been more confusing — and at times misleading — than the dust-up over Kansas tax policy. The RGA piece is further proof that claims made by postcard should always be discounted.
As a member of the Kansas House in 2010, Davis, now the Democratic candidate for governor, was one of 64 votes for a sales tax increase in the state. The plan called for raising the levy by a penny per dollar, from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent, for three years. After that, it would drop to 5.7 percent permanently.
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The plan passed and was signed into law. The RGA now says it “hurt our families.”
What the group doesn’t tell you is that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback used the revenue from the sales tax hike to balance Kansas’ budget. In fact, it’s likely the sales tax increase helped the state avoid a bigger budget crisis a few years later after lawmakers dramatically cut income taxes.
How do we know? Because Republicans never revoked the 2010 sales tax increase. In 2013, when the tax was supposed to fall back to 5.7 percent, GOP lawmakers set the levy at a higher 6.15 percent and made it permanent.
Somehow, these facts never made it to the RGA. Yet they were clear enough to the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which criticized lawmakers in 2013 for not allowing the sales tax to fully sunset.
Most Kansas voters have focused this year on the results of Brownback’s income tax cuts for individuals and small businesses. What they may miss is a more important and subtle reality: Brownback isn’t cutting the state’s tax burden as much as he is shifting it — from income to sales.
It’s a popular idea in conservative circles. Louisiana and North Carolina have considered this approach. Missouri has thought about it. Some states without an income tax rely heavily on sales taxes to fund services.
Economist Arthur Laffer, who has advised Brownback, is blunt. “Pro-growth policies should favor sales over income taxes where possible,” he wrote last year for USA Today.
Sales taxes are regressive. They tend to hurt the poor more. Income tax cuts tend to favor wealthier taxpayers.
The wisdom of the Kansas tax shift is an important discussion that is worth having. You won’t find the necessary facts in the RGA mailer — or on anything else — in your mailbox this fall.