Sam Brownback's White Whale


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Little did Kansas voters know that in reelecting Sam Brownback they were actually voting for a vengeful old sea captain obsessed with one issue above all others – eliminating the state’s personal income tax.

How else to explain the governor’s insistence on continuing his ruinous path, despite the dictates of reality and reason? His zeal for cutting the personal income tax will cost Kansas $5 billion in lost revenue over the next seven years. The governor’s recent budget proposes cutting K-12 operational spending by $127.4 million this year alone, to say nothing of the draconian cuts he implemented over his first term. Per-pupil spending in the state is $861 less than it was in 2008, according to a recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The governor has already been forced to reduce spending by  4 percent across the board for state agencies this year (on top of other cuts), and he has raided the highway fund to the tune of $421 million. The reserve fund is almost empty. The state’s credit is in tatters.

Brownback has been forced to delay further income tax cuts planned for this year. He has also been forced to raise taxes, though not the ones you would think: his budget proposal would increase the excise tax on cigarettes by nearly 300 percent, from $0.79 to $2.29 per pack, and taxes on liquor would rise from 8 percent to 12 percent. As former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said recently, “I’m not sure there’s enough smokers and drinkers in Kansas to balance these enormous cuts.” Furthermore, the governor’s regressive tax hikes would increase the burden on the same Kansans hurt the most by his economic stewardship.

The governor’s plan has succeeded in uniting state lawmakers in opposition. “These changes to tax policy proposed by Governor Brownback do nothing to address the systematic problem created by his irresponsible tax polices and fiscal mismanagement,” House Minority Leader Tom Borroughs complained. Sen. Laura Kelly groused that “People are being asked to take politically difficult votes on proposals that don’t solve the problem.”

Faced with this reality, Brownback and his first mate, supply-side Svengali and economist-for-hire Art Laffer, have resorted to the time-honored strategy of obfuscation. When a reporter pointed out that the governor’s plan to delay income taxes was a copy of his opponent’s plan from the gubernatorial election – a proposal that Brownback’s campaign derided as “appalling” – Brownback’s revenue secretary testily responded that, while Davis’s plan would have halted tax cuts forever, the governor’s proposal would still allow for tax cuts to go forward if growth in state tax receipts exceeded 103 percent of tax receipts in the previous fiscal year. Since the state is forecasting budget deficits through 2019, this is disingenuous at best.     

The governor’s budget director has tried to claim that the governor has not cut spending at all. “I know many people have different words for efficiencies. I do not believe these to be cuts,” he said, referring to the $1.38 billion in spending reductions in the governor’s proposed budget. Somehow I don’t think the kids in overcrowed classrooms and pensioners uncertain about their retirement plans would agree.

Laffer, in a recent interview, said that while he was not surprised by the state’s yawning deficits, he was at a loss as to why they occurred – this, despite a PhD in economics from Stanford University. He does feel bad, however – not for the Kansans hurt by budget cuts, but for Brownback. “I feel sorry for the governor,” he lamented, “but he did the right thing.”

Brownback, confronted with terrible revenue projections soon after his reelection, denied having any advanced knowledge that things were so bad. “I knew what the public knew,” he claimed, which is quite a troubling admission.

And let’s not forget Orwellian attempts to distort reality with misleading information. For example, the graph below looks great for Kansas job growth, until you look at the y-axis and see the state has added about 60,000 jobs in the last four years, trailing job growth in neighboring Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma and Colorado. 

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In his state of the state speech, Gov. Brownback vowed to continue the “march toward zero,” referring to his quest to eliminate state income taxes. But maybe the march is toward zero money for crucial state services, zero new jobs created through his austerity economy, and zero prospects for Kansas schoolchildren.

A wise public servant would acknowledge his error and reverse the policies that have led to so much economic harm. But Sam Brownback has become a 19th century salty dog chasing the white whale of eliminating his state’s income tax. No matter that he has lost his leg and thousands of kids have lost their shot at a decent future. He and Art Laffer, say “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” 

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