Dave Helling

What Congress can learn from Sam Brownback: Kansas tax cuts were bad policy and bad politics

Gov. Sam Brownback saw a 35-point drop in favorability, in one of the most Republican states in the nation.
Gov. Sam Brownback saw a 35-point drop in favorability, in one of the most Republican states in the nation. File photo

Flat-earthers around the nation continue to resist comparisons between the tax cut plan now being discussed in Washington and the disastrous shot-of-adrenaline 2013 tax cuts in Kansas.

Their arguments fall into two categories: 1) The tax cuts actually worked, and 2) the national GOP plan is nothing like the Kansas cuts.

The first claim is easily dismissed. Missouri jobs have grown at nearly twice the rate of Kansas jobs since 2012. The nation’s growth rate is almost double the Kansas rate during the same time frame.

You’ll hear a lot of dog-ate-my-homework excuses and look-over-here distractions, but credit downgrades don’t lie. The Kansas economy has underperformed since the tax cuts took effect.

The second claim is equally suspect. The GOP tax plan (as yet unwritten) may include different numbers than the Kansas cuts, but the theory is identical: an Arthur Lafferesque cut in corporate rates and top individual rates, designed to trickle down to the middle class.

But let’s say you’re a Republican who still believes, against all evidence, that massive tax cuts are good policy. Are they good politics?

The conventional wisdom says yes. The president and the GOP, we’re told, need a victory to show governing ability before the 2018 mid-term elections. Cutting everyone’s taxes is the easiest way to do that.

The evidence is more complicated. Again, Kansas tells the story.

In a poll taken in February 2010, before his campaign for governor, Sam Brownback’s favorable rating was 58 percent. Only 34 percent saw him unfavorably.

Six years later, in the fall of 2016, the governor’s favorable rating had plunged to 23 percent — a 35-point drop in one of the most Republican states in the nation.

What caused such a collapse?

It wasn’t scandal. The Brownback administration may have struggled with basic governance, but it has been relatively scandal-free. And it wasn’t a poor economy, either. Despite lagging nearby states, Kansas is close to full employment today.

And it wasn’t journalism, despite complaints to the contrary.

The only possible explanation is Kansans’ anger and frustration with the tax cuts, which were the centerpiece of Brownback’s administration.

A similar fate is possible if the GOP pushes through tax cuts nationally, and they fail spectacularly, as the Kansas cuts did.

Washington is talking about a $1.5 trillion tax cut over 10 years. But because most of the money will go to corporations and high-earners, middle-income wage earners won’t notice the tax cut in their paychecks, where it counts politically.

A $38,000 wage-earner might see an extra $40 or so a month, with some of the break consumed by higher health insurance costs. Take-home pay will hardly budge.

Brownback never understood this. Kansans weren’t clamoring for a tax cut in 2012 because they knew it wouldn’t dramatically increase their take-home income. As a result, he got little credit when the cuts took effect.

Instead, they blamed him for subsequent spending cuts in education and transportation. Asked to choose between good schools and roads or an extra $10 a week, Kansans preferred the former. Its legislators voted accordingly last spring.

Similarly, America’s voters will likely blame the GOP if their tax cuts fail to goose the economy, and Congress ends up cutting Medicare or Social Security. That, too, is a Kansas lesson.

President Donald Trump and his acolytes in Congress should study the Kansas experiment. Again.