Local Columnists

Kansas budget problems cool enthusiasm for tax cuts in states, Congress

Gov. Sam Brownback promised a supply-side shot of tax-cut adrenaline in Kansas.
Gov. Sam Brownback promised a supply-side shot of tax-cut adrenaline in Kansas. The Associated Press

The Kansas Legislature reconvenes this week to grapple with a budget shortfall — again. The state’s severe revenue headaches, prompted largely by poorly designed tax cuts, have been well chronicled in this newspaper and need not be repeated in this space today.

Less noticed, though, is the impact the Kansas experiment has had on how Republicans and voters view tax cuts and what that might mean for the presidential campaign this fall.

Cutting taxes has been an article of deep faith for the GOP at least since 1980, when Ronald Reagan made income tax reductions the centerpiece of his White House campaign. George H.W. Bush called the tax cuts “voodoo economics,” but it didn’t work. Reagan won in a landslide.

Since that election, every Republican presidential candidate has proposed freezing or cutting federal taxes. Some — Bob Dole and John McCain come to mind — endorsed tax cuts reluctantly. Others were more enthusiastic. But all made tax reductions the centerpiece of their platforms.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who once ran for president, toured the country promising a supply-side shot of tax-cut adrenaline in Kansas.

We shouldn’t be surprised, of course. Cutting taxes is the easiest thing any politician will ever do. It’s like giving everyone a raise. Democrat Walter Mondale ran for president on a promise to increase taxes and lost. Badly.

So it’s interesting and a bit surprising that the ardor for tax cuts seems to have stalled among some Republicans. States have watched the Kansas nightmare (and a similar problem in Louisiana) and have decided tax cuts can be delayed or reconsidered. Even states that have cut taxes have used triggers or budget targets that must be met first.

And some states have actually raised taxes — Minnesota, for example, Mondale’s home state.

Donald Trump has proposed a tax cut for individuals and businesses. Like many of the things the candidate suggests, the facts are complicated. Some critics think the Trump tax plan would add $1 trillion a year to the deficit, an ocean of red ink that would make the Kansas shortfall look like child’s play.

He doesn’t think so. Cutting taxes is going to be great, he says.

But Trump doesn’t seem highly interested in tax reform. He talks about other issues at length — trade, foreign relations, immigration, even health care. Tax cuts don’t come up very much. They certainly don’t come up as they did when Reagan was a candidate.

Sen. Ted Cruz has a tax-cut plan, too. He wants to abolish the IRS and replace it with something that looks like a flat sales tax. Again, though, he seems more focused on other concerns.

Gov. John Kasich’s tax-cut approach is more traditional — like the other GOP candidates, he says “growth” will shrink the deficit — but few voters, when they think of Kasich at all, think of tax cuts first.

Some conservative writers have noticed the trend. They don’t walk away from tax cuts entirely — it’s part of their DNA, after all — but they’re interested in small, targeted reductions that help the middle class and the poor. That’s 90 degrees away from Kansas’ decision to shift the tax burden away from the wealthy and move it to the middle class and the poor.

So it’s possible the Kansas budget plan has worked, in reverse: It’s convinced politicians across the nation what not to do. It’s like the rest of the country is sticking pins in the state, trying to kill voodoo economics once and for all.