Now, Kansas's red ink has left the governor red- faced. Brownback is asking Republican state lawmakers to slow the income tax cuts over the next few years, raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, overhaul school funding, and divert money from the state's highway fund in order to balance the budget. It's not as if he's abandoning his conservative economic philosophy—he still wants to replace the state's income tax entirely with consumption taxes over time. And like any politician on the ropes, he is preaching patience. "These things take time," he said last month. He also acknowledged the toll his stumbles have taken on his image. "We're in Lent season, so I'm giving up worldly things, like popularity," he joked to a small crowd. Brownback has blamed the budget shortfall in part on automatic increases in education spending (a subject of a long-running court dispute), and he's cited a recent uptick in job growth as evidence that the tax cuts, on the whole, are working. "Kansas is on the rise, and the state of our state is strong," the governor proclaimed in an annual budget address in January.
Yet Brownback's latest proposals represent at least a partial retreat, and it's unclear how many of them the legislature will approve. "He’s trying to figure out how to save face. I think that’s the bottom line," Rochelle Chronister, a former Republican state chairwoman, told me. Chronister has led the GOP opposition to Brownback's agenda through the group she founded, Traditional Republicans for Common Sense. A separate anti-Brownback effort led more than 100 current and former Kansas GOP officials to endorse Brownback's Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, in the 2014 election. Brownback won anyway, 50 to 46 percent. "He’s lived and died by this philosophy," Chronister said of the governor, "and it’s becoming more and more obvious that it is not going to be successful."
Lori McMillan, a law professor at Topeka's Washburn University specializing in taxation, said Brownback's latest proposals were "band-aids" and an example of a "reactionary, by-the-seat-of-your-pants fiscal policy." The original tax plan went awry, tax analysts said, not merely because it slashed rates but because it wasn't paired with deeper structural changes to the budget. The exemption for businesses wasn't tailored narrowly enough to encourage job creation, and so people rushed to take advantage of it without actually boosting employment. "They used a lot of adjectives I’m sure they now regret, like 'immediate' and 'shot-in-the-arm' and 'adrenaline,'" said Joseph Henchman of the Tax Foundation. "Just cutting taxes, and so deeply, without really any plans for how the state will pay for the spending that it’s not cutting–that’s proven to be a big problem there."
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The state's predicament has drawn its share of national attention, and not only because it offers up an impossible-to-resist headline (What is the matter with Kansas?). But given how neatly Brownback's tax experiment fits into the Democratic argument against conservative budgeting, it's surprising that it hasn't drawn more coverage. That's particularly unusual because, inside Kansas, some of the blame has gone to the Koch Brothers—the favorite bogeymen of Beltway Democrats. Koch Industries is based in Wichita, and the family was a big supporter of Brownback's original tax plan. "We’ve given tax exemptions to the Koch Brothers without necessarily any outcome," said McMillan, who criticized the loophole for business owners. "Have the Koch Brothers created any more jobs? Was it meant for multibillionaires? The idea is going to be no."