What’s it going to be, Kansas?
Lawmakers are poised to make a huge decision about the state’s future. Will they cut taxes again to the tune of $191 million next year? Or will they recognize that years of tax cuts under former Gov. Sam Brownback now require lawmakers to do the responsible thing and fund state government to protect vulnerable kids and provide at least adequate levels of services?
It is, as they say, a fork-in-the-road moment.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Didn’t the state just make this decision?” The answer is a resounding yes. In November, Kansans swept Democrat Laura Kelly into office over Republican Kris Kobach. That election, which Kelly won by 5 percentage points, offers clear guidance on the current sentiments of Kansans.
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Weary of the devastating impact of Brownback’s tax policies, voters rejected Kobach’s call for deep tax cuts. They embraced Kelly’s promise to fully fund public schools, protect vulnerable children and expand Medicaid to cover thousands of Kansans.
Voters chose to go with a Democratic leader, despite the state’s Republican heritage in a year when the Republican president of the United States enthusiastically backed the GOP candidate for Kansas governor.
But the voters’ message apparently has been lost in the halls of the Capitol. The Kansas Senate is preparing to vote on a tax-cut bill that would cost the state $191 million next year. Republicans say the cut is intended to return a so-called “windfall” that’s the result of federal tax law changes.
Make no mistake: While some of that money would go to everyday Kansans, most of it is slated to go to the rich and to corporations that are already benefiting from the Republican tax-cut bill that President Donald Trump signed in 2017. No one knows exactly how big the windfall will be.
The tax-cut proposal is rife with political overtones. Its chief proponent, Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita, is hinting at a run for the U.S. Senate. Passing a tax cut would give her a handy talking point in her campaign.
But her vision also conveniently overlooks the reality that Kansas government finds itself facing these days. Kelly has said numerous times that the state is in even worse shape than she thought. “The problems,” she told an audience in December, “are broad, and they are deep.”
The evidence backing that up is abundant. Two examples popped into the headlines in recent days. Kelly has called for the hiring of more than 300 workers to staff the overwhelmed Medicaid application center to reduce wait times for the poor and elderly and properly compensate caregivers and nursing homes.
This work was supposed to be done by Maximus, the private company that Brownback hired to run the clearinghouse. But given the magnitude of the mess, Kelly has concluded the state must step back in.
Also in the news is the “terrifying” portrait of life inside Kansas prisons beset by staffing shortages and violence. The shortages have plagued the system for years, and many state officials acknowledge the need for more funding.
Then there’s the highway system robbed of hundreds of millions of dollars and the state pension system and higher education.
The list is long. So what will it be, Kansas?