Ask any fiscal expert, and Kansas’s budget crisis demanded a reckoning—either with its tax code or its longterm spending structure. But its government wasn’t up to it. Aligned with conservatives in the Senate, Brownback steadfastly refused to consider a direct reversal of the original tax plan, insisting that the state continue on its path toward replacing the income tax entirely with consumption taxes. The most he would do was freeze the rates, and the result was a plan that will place an even heavier tax burden on the poor, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Hensley said that when state and local sales taxes are combined, Kansas will have the highest tax on food in the nation in some areas of the state. Brownback, who had hired the economist Arthur Laffer to help craft his original tax plan, had been touting the state’s economic recovery to argue that his fiscal vision was starting to work. But a report released Friday found that Kansas had lost nearly 4,000 jobs in May, trailing both the national trend and neighboring Missouri, which added 6,600 jobs.
Lori McMillan, a tax expert and law professor at Washburn University, told me during the middle of the impasse that Kansas lawmakers seemed “paralyzed” by the crisis and the many unpalatable choices they faced. By the time it was finally over, Brownback appeared—at least to his many critics—to be in denial. As described by the Wichita Eagle, the governor refused to acknowledge that he had signed a tax increase. “Look at the totality of the picture,” he said, referring to the far deeper tax cuts he had signed in previous years. “When you look at that, it is a tax cut.”
Nobody else saw it that way. “Not only is this a tax increase, it is the largest tax increase in state history,” Hensley responded in a statement. When I called up Will Upton, the state-affairs manager for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, he described the budget that Brownback signed in almost exactly the same words. Norquist serves as something of an arbiter of tax increases among conservatives, and he’s famously said his goal is to shrink government to a size where you can “drown it in a bathtub.” The problem in Kansas, Upton said, is that while Brownback had succeeded in shrinking the tax burden, he did little to shrink spending.
When the tax cuts were first enacted, Upton said, Democrats and moderate Republicans succeeded in removing provisions that would have softened the fiscal blow. And when Republicans tried to close the budget gap this year, Brownback blamed Medicaid, education, and the state’s pension system as the drivers of the deficit, but there was little effort made to address them. “No one’s really looked at long-term reform yet. They throw up their hands and say, ‘We tried.’ No, they didn’t really try,” Upton said. “The governor needs to learn, and I think a lot of the people in the legislature needs to learn, when you cut taxes in the manner that they have, you need to also cut spending.”