The regretful Republicans of Kansas have a message for the tax-cutting Republicans of Congress: Don’t follow our lead.
If states are, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously called them, the laboratories of democracy, then Kansas’s experiment in conservative tax reform set off an explosion of red ink. Steep cuts for businesses and individuals failed to produce a promised economic boom, and busted the state’s budget instead. Now, the GOP legislators that oversaw—and ultimately cancelled—that fiscal study are increasingly worried that Washington will ignore its central finding.
A tax-reform plan from the White House and Republican congressional leaders mirrors the structure of the legislation Kansas passed, and it’s been accompanied by the same confident assurances that it will “pay for itself” with economic growth. “That won’t work, so you better learn our lesson,” warned Kansas state Senator Barbara Bollier, a Republican who voted against the tax cuts originally and then fought to undo them earlier this year.
At the behest of conservative Governor Sam Brownback, Republican majorities in Kansas in 2012 set the state’s income tax on a “march to zero” and eliminated taxes on companies whose owners filed their taxes as individuals—a loophole exploited by thousands of businesses that resulted in plummeting revenue to the state’s coffers. Brownback, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, hailed the policy as “a real-live experiment” in conservative governance. But in the eyes of all but Brownback and his staunchest supporters, the test failed. Economic growth never materialized, and the state legislature could not summon the political will or overcome legal roadblocks to cut spending to match the lower revenue. With annual deficits in the hundreds of millions, Kansas has been mired in a perpetual budget crisis ever since.