Barbara Shelly

Gov. Sam Brownback’s growth strategy goes up in flames

Kansas lawmakers watch as the vote is tallied to raise sales taxes and end the state’s longest legislative session.
Kansas lawmakers watch as the vote is tallied to raise sales taxes and end the state’s longest legislative session. Wichita Eagle

Unlike the Kansas Legislature, I took an early June vacation. And so I did not have a front-row seat for the drama of the extended legislative session — the after-dark voting, the tearful pleas from Gov. Sam Brownback, the razor-close votes to pass a tax bill that fills most of a budget hole but shifts even more of the cost of funding state government onto low- and-middle income Kansans.

Darn. I hate to miss the action.

Watching from a continent away, though, does lend a certain perspective. When you’re in Europe and someone shows you a devastating Doonesbury cartoon about Kansas, you know things are bad.

As Brownback plans to sign a bill Tuesday closing a budget hole by, among other things, hiking sales taxes, it is apparent that Kansas is in crisis mode, and the people in charge do not have a viable plan for getting out of it.

The governor’s growth strategy is in ruins. Growth was supposed to be the point of the steep income tax cuts passed in 2012 and 2013, remember? They were going to jump-start the economy, halt a decade of decline and move Kansas into the echelon of states that enjoy booming job growth.

The failed growth strategy relies on lower overall state income tax rates across the board, and full exemptions for businesses structured in certain ways. Thanks to the business tax breaks, thousands of Kansans received tax breaks without being asked for anything in return. The anticipated surge in business activity and hiring hasn’t materialized.

Quite the opposite. The tax cuts and the ongoing budget crisis they created are making Kansas’ business climate worse.

As every Republican politician will tell you, nothing is worse for business than uncertainty. And in Kansas, uncertainty is the only certainty.

The business tax cuts survived this year, but there is no guarantee they won’t have to be rolled back next year, or the year after that. The tax cuts have resulted in a structural, enduring budget deficit. As lawmakers have learned, there is nothing more to cut and no more palatable options for finding revenue.

Kansas school districts are in the same state of flux. A few of them ended their school years early to save money. Although just a handful of districts exercised that option, it sent a powerful message.

Brownback has spoken often of his wish to repopulate rural Kansas with young families. But why would people want to start businesses or move there with the local schools constantly buffeted by forces in Topeka?

Same with the universities. One of the most shocking moments of the legislative session came when the Brownback administration suggested that one way to close the budget gap would be to temporarily defund higher education.

It probably wasn’t a serious threat, but it was harmful. Kansas’ public universities are one of the state’s greatest selling points. How does the governor expect them to continue to attract the best and brightest students and faculty when word is out that state funding is in peril?

So if growth is not happening what is the point of sticking with these tax cuts? Some would say smaller government, but even that goal has limits. Brownback and the Legislature opted for another sales tax hike instead of deeper cuts.

Up until now, Kansas lawmakers have defended the tax cuts as “putting money in people’s pockets.” It will be harder to make that case once everyone starts paying more for food and other purchases.

So the Kansas tax cuts have not resulted in accelerated job growth. Or radically smaller government. Or more spending money for most Kansans. A few ideologues still defend the strategy — Brownback among them. But unswerving belief in a failed theory is a poor substitute for a workable plan to end a crisis.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. On Twitter @bshelly.

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