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Should we really be messing with Texas?

"Look out Texas, here comes Kansas!"

By MICHAEL SMITH

Insight Kansas

So said Gov. Sam Brownback in this year's State of the State address. The governor looks down south and sees Kansas' future.

Brownback particularly admires Texas' lack of a personal income tax: his goal for our state.

I am skeptical. Despite frozen weather, it is Minnesota that stands out in most quality-of-life surveys, finishing No. 3 in the recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

Which state should be our guide? Let's go to the numbers.

First come the costs. According to the Tax Foundation, in 2010, the total, per-capita state and local tax cost for Texans is $3,104, or 7.9 percent of income. Kansas' figures are $3,802 and 9.7 percent, and Minnesotans pay $4,727, or 10.8 percent. The average-income Minnesotan shells out $1,623 more in state and local taxes each year than her counterpart in Texas, with Kansas in between. Is it worth it?

Brownback promises Texas-sized tax cuts will grow our economy. By this logic, Minnesota's tax "burden" should be detrimental. The numbers tell a different story.

Minnesota's per-capita income, at $43,790 is a good deal higher than either Texas' ($39,142) or Kansas' ($39,389). And growth? From 2000 to 2010, per-capita income in Texas grew by 26 percent, narrowly edging out Minnesota's 24 percent. Kansas outshines both states, with a 31 percent growth rate.

Minnesota wins hands-down for per-capita income, Kansas for growth, and Texas for neither. In fact, the average Minnesotan takes home more money after paying state and local taxes: $39,063 in Minnesota, $36,038 in Texas and $35,587 in Kansas.

What does all this money buy?

One thing is health care, and the gap is vast. One in four Texans has no health insurance: At 24.6 percent, that is the highest percentage in the nation. Minnesota approaches the other end of the spectrum at 9 percent. Only Hawaii and Massachusetts have lower percentages of uninsured.

Kansas comes up in between, at 13 percent. Furthermore, Minnesotans literally live two and a half years longer than Kansas or Texans. Average life expectancy is 80.9 years for Minnesota, 78.4 years for Kansas and 78.3 for Texas.

Which state lights the way for schooling? According to the U.S. Census, 80.4 percent of Lone Star State residents graduated from high school, 26.1 percent hold bachelor's degrees or higher: both lower than national averages. Minnesota blows these numbers away: 91.6 percent high-school grads, 31.8 percent bachelor's or higher: among the nation's highest.

Kansas' numbers are respectable, too: 89.5 percent and 29.7 percent. On the other hand, Texas incarcerates a quarter million of its own people. For every 100,000 Texans, 632 are in prison. The comparable statistic for Kansas is just more than half that: 324 per 100,000.

Minnesota almost halves the numbers again: 183 per 100,000. On a per-capita basis, Texas has three and a half times as many of its own citizens in prisons as does Minnesota; twice as many as Kansas.

These numbers tell a starkly different story than this year's State of the State address. Gov. Brownback prefers to mess with Texas. As for me, when it comes to benchmarking state and local policy, I'll be listening for the news from Lake Wobegon.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor at Emporia State University.