At least for a moment, Gov. Sam Brownback was delighted.
And that’s not something that seems to happen often for the Kansas Republican these days.
He was about to leave a gaggle of reporters pestering him with questions at a Christmas tree lighting on Wednesday when the topic of taxes came up.
It was enough to make him stop and keep talking.
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In recent weeks, the U.S. House and Senate have passed tax bills that would slash taxes on corporations and change the playing field for “pass-through” businesses like the ones that benefited from Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts.
“I’m delighted,” Brownback said. “I think they’re going to get a tax bill through. I think it’s going to be very stimulative to the economy.”
The federal tax debate has given Brownback a chance to re-litigate the key policy issue that has marked his time as governor.
Kansas cut taxes in a move Brownback celebrated as a “real-live experiment.” It was the move that could have cemented the legacy of a man who once ran for president.
The Kansas cuts slashed income tax rates and created an income tax exemption for the owners of limited liability companies and other pass-through businesses.
What followed were revenue shortfalls and budget cuts. School funding became even more difficult. Brownback’s standing among Kansas Republicans deteriorated.
Yet he continued to stand by the tax cuts. He bemoaned the policy’s death when the GOP-dominated Legislature rolled it back in June.
He was still championing his policy on a recent trip to Washington, saying “it actually worked for our target.”
“Our target wasn’t revenue, it was growth,” he said. “And it did that.”
He continued his defense of the policy this week as he waits in political limbo to see if he’ll be confirmed for a post in the Trump administration.
“There’s a lot of things that are different in it,” Brownback said of the federal legislation. “I think that the interest in trying to get taxes reduced on small business is the piece ... that worked well here for stimulating creation of small business and stimulating private sector jobs. Didn’t offset our falling commodity prices. But it did create record new businesses and we hit a record private sector employment.”
But Rep. J.R. Claeys, a conservative Salina Republican, said he didn’t think “the tax cuts, the way that they were implemented, worked at all.”
“I don’t see how that connects with the reality of the situation we’re in,” he said. “Things that work are replicated. Experiments that work are replicated. And I don’t think we’re being viewed as model on that particular issue.”
Congress shouldn’t be following the example set by Republicans in Kansas, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
“He is delusional in saying that the Kansas tax cuts worked,” Hensley said. “They were an absolute disaster. They didn’t grow the economy. It didn’t create the jobs he thought were going to be created and it was devastating to our general fund budget.”
Since the Kansas tax cuts took effect in January 2013 to January of this year, Kansas gained 46,200 private sector jobs.
Over that time, Kansas’ job growth was 4.2 percent, compared to Nebraska at 5.2 percent and Missouri at 8 percent, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
And during the same period of time, Kansas fell behind the nation in another measure of growth.
From the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2017, the nominal gross domestic product in Kansas grew by 4.6 percent, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
Nationally, that same growth measure was 15.8 percent.
“Any argument that Kansas outperformed has to be based on absolute fiction,” said Ken Kriz, a professor of public finance at Wichita State University who has studied Brownback’s tax cuts. “The only thing you can do is make up numbers to make any sense out of that statement. At best I think we did about what the average is. At worst, I think we lagged in several areas.”
When Brownback ran for re-election back in 2014, still fresh off the apparent legislative victory of passing the tax cuts, Brownback said his goal was to bring 100,000 new jobs to Kansas — 25,000 per year for the next four years.
Instead, from January 2015, when Brownback began his second term, to roughly the start of this year, the state had gained only 12,500 private sector jobs.
Stats like that haven’t dissuaded President Donald Trump from boasting about growth and the congressional push for tax changes.
“With your help, we can usher in a thrilling new era of opportunity and growth for this nation that we love so much,” Trump said Nov. 29 in St. Charles, Mo.
Count Kansas state Sen. Dinah Sykes among the doubters.
Sykes, a Lenexa Republican who ran against Brownback’s policies in the 2016 election, said she doesn’t support the federal legislation any more than she did Brownback’s tax program.
“It did not have the shot of adrenaline that we were promised,” Sykes said of the Kansas experiment. “And so I think even with their projection that they’re seeing that there’s a deficit, you’re going to see the agencies, everything cut, to mirror kind of what happened in Kansas.”