A Kansas experiment gone awry
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked that states are the “laboratories of democracy,” and if that’s the case, then the lab in Kansas is being overseen by someone more akin to Victor Frankenstein than Albert Einstein, and he’s created one dumb and menacing monster.
Elected in the tea party wave of 2010, Gov. Sam Brownback, a far-right culture warrior who had previously been a U.S. senator and undertook a short-lived, quixotic bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, pushed massive income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 through a GOP-dominated legislature with the promise that the cuts would spur economic growth in the Sunflower State and the resulting gangbusters expansion would benefit one and all and fill state coffers to overflowing.
It’s largely proven to be the same old trickle-down dogma that George H.W. Bush denounced as “voodoo economics” way back in 1980. Sure, it’s increased the amount of change in the wallets of the well-heeled, but it’s also increased the tax burden on the middle class and has shot a massive hole in the Kansas budget, with the state taking in $338 million less than it had forecast for the 2014 fiscal year. As a result, it has had to dip into its reserve fund, which may run out of cash as soon as next year. The state’s debt has been downgraded by Moody’s, with the agency offering a vote of no-confidence in the fiscal management of Brownback and his allies.
And what of the promised economic growth? It hasn’t materialized, with Kansas lagging behind the national average and, it should be noted, also trailing New York, which has one of the country’s highest state income tax rates. Brownback has likened his tax cuts to “surgery,” and argued that it takes patience and waiting for the positive effects to manifest themselves. One has the feeling that Brownback’s wait will be as long as Vladimir and Estragon’s for Godot, or Linus’ for the Great Pumpkin in the “Peanuts” comic strip. The shambles that the Kansas budget has become has token a toll on Brownback’s political standing. Though it’s one of the reddest states in the nation – Barack Obama took only 38 percent of the vote there in 2012 and carried only two of its 105 counties – Brownback is lagging behind Democratic opponent Paul Davis in most polls, and a group of heavyweight moderate Republicans recently opted to endorse Davis rather than Brownback. The fact that the governor actively campaigned against some moderate Republicans in the state’s primary races surely didn’t help his standing with this group. But this revolt of the moderates is also an overdue reminder that Kansas, for all its dyed-in-the-wool conservatism, has also been a breeding ground of middle-of-the-road, adult Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Dole and Pennsylvania transplant Arlen Specter (admittedly, the latter changed his party affiliation three times in the course of his career, ending as a Democrat). They kept a careful eye on the ledger book, but they also knew that taxes are necessary to fund the services that help communities function smoothly and prosper.
Another Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., once said something that Brownback, and everyone else who believes that taxes can never be cut sufficiently, should heed: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”