Last Sunday, in the early morning hours, state lawmakers temporarily closed the books on the financial debacle created one year ago when Governor Sam Brownback signed a seriously flawed bill that dramatically cut state income taxes. The machinations of Republican leaders to clean up the mess during the 99-day legislative session will play heavily in the re-election campaigns of Brownback and for 125 Kansas House seats in August and November of 2014.
The clean-up required lawmakers to increase taxes by $2.1 billion over the next five years to pay for the elimination of income taxes on most businesses in addition to rate reductions for other income taxpayers. To pay for these tax cuts that primarily benefit higher-income Kansans, sales taxpayers will bear a $1.1 billion increase, and income taxpayers will see a $975 million increase through reduced deductions.
Beyond shifting the state and local tax burden onto lower-income Kansans, Republican leaders ignored the pleas of those who resisted placing services for family members with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the hands of out-of-state insurance corporations. Nor did they seriously consider expanding Medicaid to cover 200,000 low-income adults and children at minimal cost to the state.
On the budget side, core services are being pared, highway funds are being raided, one-time fee funds are being diverted, and debt is being increased to pay for Brownback’s perilous tax experiment. Even with these cutbacks and tax increases of $2.1 billion over the next five years, state government will be on an unsustainable course, steadily depleting its balances to the point of being in the red at the end of the period.
Brownback and legislative leaders got most of what they wanted and do deserve credit for bringing their self-imposed gridlock to a close. Surprisingly, they turned to moderate House Republicans for support on the tax bill and gave assurances that moderates would not be targeted in 2014, as they were in 2010 and 2012. Even so, most lawmakers were holding their noses while voting for tax increases coupled with budget cuts.
Cracks also appeared in the rock-solid, “small government” coalition of Brownback, the Kansas Chamber, and Americans for Prosperity. While Brownback was pulling out all the stops by cajoling lawmakers to extend the temporary sales tax, AFP was mobilizing its network with a media blitz that opposed the extension and called for deeper cuts in state spending. At the same time Chamber officials departed from their libertarian script, quietly telling moderates not to worry about being targeted in 2014 for voting for tax increases.
If moderate Republican legislators plan to rely on the assurances of Brownback and the Chamber in their 2014 campaigns, they may want to recall what happened to their state senate counterparts in 2012 and run for other cover. House moderates helped to deny two crown jewels highly treasured by the libertarian coalition, that is, constitutional amendments on school finance and court appointments. Coalition members can be expected to patch over their differences, conduct a full-court press on these measures during the 2014 legislative session, and target anyone who stands in their way.
Page 2 of 2 - Brownback continues to travel across the country touting his radical red-state model of governance. Based on the governor’s low approval ratings, however, Kansans remain highly skeptical of his claims. By moving Kansas even further toward a highly regressive tax structure and diminished state services, the governor and his allies now face a more daunting task of convincing Kansans the state is on the right track.
Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.