Sam Brownback came to KU last week and rhapsodized about his tax-cut legislation at the Business School’s annual Chandler Lecture. “We are trying to create a pro-growth environment,” he said, as he defended the large and highly weighted (to partnerships, trusts, sole proprietors, etc.) tax cuts enacted last May.
Like some poker pro, the governor has pushed most of the state’s chips into the pot, banking on the power of tax cuts to help us attract new investment to Kansas. In his homey metaphor, “I want to win our [economic] league.” This goal of regional domination might have meant more before Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12.
The entire tax-cut philosophy rests on shaky ground, but state taxes unquestionably play some role in business decisions. Still, the quality of the workforce, the strength of schools, good transportation and various amenities are also significant. Indeed, any state seeking to attract new business must be seen as an attractive destination.
And there’s the rub.
Over the past two years, the Brownback-Kobach Adminis-tration, which is definitely how the outside world views Kansas government, has done a tremendous job of making the state appear unattractive to exactly the kind of high-quality, financially sound firms and start-ups that would provide a powerful wave of good new jobs.
Most recently, we have experienced the fatuous “birther” controversy, which Secretary of State Kris Kobach and his Kansas Objections Board needlessly fueled to the point of legitimizing a trivial complaint that could have been dismissed with no fanfare. Rather, Kobach and his wingmen, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, extended the agony by seeking further documentation, only to have the request withdrawn. Across the country, the news stories and editorials were withering in their criticism.
In this case, Kobach won further adulation from his right-wing base, always valuable in some forthcoming primary election, while conveniently not being forced to make a pro-Obama decision that might alienate his most fervent supporters.
So, Kobach was a winner, Obama was a winner, to an extent, and Kansas again became the butt of national — even international — jokes. Blessed by the presence at the hearing of Orly Taitz, the so-called “queen of the birthers,” Kansas was once more painted with the broad brush strokes of political weirdness and intolerance.
Such a portrait, of course, is just what the state needs in the wake of two decades of creationist controversies, unending Westboro Baptist Church pro-tests, a governor whose administration monitors a student’s Twitter account and a secretary of state who flies around the country amping up a nasty, ego-satisfying campaign against any presence of illegal immigrants.
That’s not all. Remember the governor’s ill-conceived “marriage summit” and his $75,000 contract with discredited economics guru Alfred Laffer? Or, more recently, Kobach’s sterling anti-immigrant, anti-sharia-law stances at the GOP Convention?
All these incendiary statements, false steps and flat-out blunders encourage the thought that perhaps there has been a cagey plot to make prospective employers, along with thousands of well-qualified professionals recruited by NBAF and the KU Cancer Center, think long and hard about putting down roots in Kansas.
In contrast, as illustrated by Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” argument, it is good schools, lively cities, safe suburbs and thriving arts communities that attract the most innovative firms and the most accomplished professionals.
Who knows? Maybe cutting taxes to the bone will prove a great boon to the Kansas economy. But this narrow policy choice must navigate upstream against an unceasing flow of national news that makes the state look spiteful and stupid. I’m not sure we can lower taxes enough to overwhelm the torrent of negative stories that shows no sign of drying up.
Burdett A. Loomis is a political science professor at the University of Kansas.