Gov. Sam Brownback appreciates the state’s institutions of higher education well enough. Unfortunately, he is much fonder of income tax cuts.
Earlier this spring he made a high-profile tour of the Board of Regents universities, including Kansas State University, extolling their virtues and insisting that maintaining funding for higher education was essential. One house of the Legislature at the time wanted to cut higher education funding by 2.5 percent, the other by “only” 1.5 percent.
In the end, Gov. Brownback and fellow conservatives approved a 1.5 percent, across-the-board funding cut for higher education for each of the next two years.
As a result, funding for K-State will be cut by $11.8 million; funding for KSU Extension will be slashed by $7.15 million and funding for the College of Veterinary Medicine will be cut by more than $683,000. Other Regents institutions will suffer similar reductions.
The stage for this was set a year ago. That’s when the governor and fellow conservatives approved historic income tax cuts, including exempting 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses from income taxes. The stated purpose was to attract business and job growth, and that may well yet occur.
As a result, income tax revenue has shrunk and the state has had to scramble to pay its bills. The need for money to offset the loss of revenue from income taxes made the statewide sales tax a pivotal issue in recent legislative tax debates. In 2010, then-Gov. Mark Parkinson and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans pushed through a 1-cent increase to 6.3 percent with the promise that it would drop to 5.7 percent on July 1, 2013. That won’t happen because Gov. Brownback needs the sales tax to protect not just last year’s income tax cuts but additional income tax cuts.
When the governor and his allies boast about the tax plan that is expected to result in $777 million in revenue over the next five years, what they’re boasting about is maintaining almost all of the sales tax increase that lawmakers had vowed would last just three years. It’s worth noting that $777 million in revenue won’t come close to offsetting the more than $4.5 billion the state will not receive because of last year’s income tax cuts.
Yet scaling back the income tax cuts to a more modest level was not a consideration. They’re Gov. Brownback’s top priority. And, to be fair, many Kansans, especially the affluent, will benefit from them.
But the trade-offs include extending the burden of low-income Kansans for whom the sales tax is a considerable burden and, of course, reductions in countless state programs and services such as higher education funding.
Higher education is important to Gov. Brownback. It just can’t compete with his obsession with income tax cuts.