In 1932, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis opined, “A single courageous State may… serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Kansas has taken that laboratory spirit seriously with a new effort that could cure what ails most economies or combust like a volatile chemical combination.
Since his 2010 campaign, Gov. Sam Brownback has made clear that cutting taxes is a priority. He believes that lowering taxes is always the best prompt for fiscal growth, promoting Texas’ recent history as a model. Brownback ignores Texas’ high property and sales taxes, nationally fourth highest and 14th highest respectively. Kansas’ effort is a significant adaptation of the Texas model, not the sincerest flattery. The Kansas Legislature has experimenting with how low you can push taxes in Brownback’s mindset.
Brownback’s more conservative allies in the Kansas House of Representatives have decided if tax cuts are good, bigger tax cuts are better. Abiding that belief, they hoodwinked the Kansas Senate. The Senate, serving as a bulwark against the most aggressive elements of the Brownback-House agenda, also thinks tax cuts are good -— but not if they’re as deep as the House preferred. Under guidance from the governor, the Senate passed a deep tax-cut bill to begin the process of negotiation with the House. While the Senate was getting a conference committee together for negotiations, the House decided to double-cross the Senate by passing the Senate’s deep tax-cut bill unchanged. Legal and legitimate according to the letter of parliamentary procedure? Yes. Inappropriate and destructive in a legislature built on trust and compromise? Yes.
Re-enter Sam Brownback. The governor immediately said he would sign the bill unless he got a milder bill that kept a portion of the tax cuts. The admission was a public statement that the governor was worried that the cuts actually went too deep, or else he would have immediately decided to sign it the bill. Bickering between the House and Senate kept the Legislature from sending a compromise bill to Cedar Crest, and the governor signed the bill last week.
Had the governor steered a compromise bill to passage, he may have cemented a legacy as one of Kansas’ most successful governors. Brownback would have gotten his tax cuts, and he could have soothed ill feelings that have emerged between the Legislature’s polar alliance and center-right. Showing a bold vision with a willingness to compromise when necessary to broker deals could have built a bridge within the Republican Party and overcome the only barrier — internecine squabbling — that keeps the GOP from mandate-level control over Kansas politics. Instead, Brown-back has fed the belief that the double-cross was his idea in the first place and that he will do anything to get his way regardless of ethics, procedure or the state’s long-term health.
The cuts present the biggest experiment in decades of Kan-sas politics. While advocates remain unstintingly confident that a new age of job growth and economic fortune is imminent, critics wonder where the state will find the money to fund schools and social welfare programs. Over the course of six years, the Legislature estimates, the state treasury will shrink by nearly $1 billion — about one-sixth of the general fund.
Proponents claim the tax cuts will self-finance. Texas’s economic boom is shown as a model, despite big differences between its economic model and the new Kansas plan. If Texas’ fortunes are not replicated in Kansas, then a struggling state will be on the brink of collapse. More than just an experiment, the tax cut package that emerged from the Kansas Legislature is a cosmic roll of the policy dice. Seven come eleven.
Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.