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Kansas tax policy on the road to nowhere

As the Kansas Legislature reconvenes this coming week, a fight over the sales tax is the focus of attention. During a meeting with reporters during the legislative recess, Gov. Sam Brownback promoted his proposed cancelation of a temporary sales tax to cover the state's revenue shortfall by stating that legislators will have to "come around to reality" and accept the tax increase.  

He's right in that someone needs to face reality in Topeka.

Brownback's comment is just the latest in a pattern of smoke and mirrors, deception and downright deceit that have led up to this manufactured crisis.   With the state Senate at odds with the House last year on a tax plan the governor's office asked moderate Senate leaders to pass the conservative tax plan on the table so as to move the process forward and on to a conference committee, which would supposedly iron out a compromise.  At least that's how the process usually works.  

But before a conference committee could be convened the governor's ally, House Speaker Mike O'Neal, abruptly cut off debate and called in the votes of House Republicans to concur with the Senate plan.  Senate leaders were thus rewarded for their show of goodwill towards the governor with a figurative knife in their backs.

On signing day for the mammoth tax cuts, Brownback beamed and announced that Kansans had made a choice between growing the government and growing the private sector, and saluted the choice of the latter. This disingenuous statement ignored the fact that approximately 70 percent of all state expenditures go to public education. That's right. This isn't Washington, where all discretionary spending of the federal government amounts to less than a third of the total budget, and education only a fraction of that.  Kansas state government is largely an education enterprise.

A more accurate characterization of Brownback's plan would have been to describe the policy choice as one between public education and tax cuts for the Koch brothers and other wealthy Kansans. Education was the big loser.

Since the bill's signing the dire predictions of budgetary red ink from non-partisan groups such as the Legislature's own research department have rapidly materialized. While legislators and school administrators struggle with how to fund a shrinking education footprint in our state Kansas has been signaled out for bipartisan criticism of its tax plan.  Governing Magazine recently retained experts Joe Henchman of the conservative Tax Foundation and Nick Johnson of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to analyze the tax policies of the 50 states. The duo concurred in singling out the Kansas tax plan as the nation's worst.

They were particularly critical of the plan's centerpiece, the elimination of taxes on owners of sole proprietorships, limited liability partnerships and sub-chapter S corporations. These individuals will now pay no business or individual state income tax.  Henchman called the plan "an incentive to game the tax system without doing anything productive for the economy."                

During the legislative recess Brownback has toured the state's regent institutions where he has cynically tried to portray himself as the leader in Topeka resisting cuts in education funding. The governor feels he needs to at least pay lip service to the concerns of higher ed.  

He apparently isn't worried about political pushback from the K-12 education lobby after aggressively moving to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights. Ditto for cities and counties. The Kansas League of Municipalities and Kansas Association of Counties don't donate to political campaigns.  So if local governments want to promote a sales tax issue to fund a special project such as a river walk, a jail expansion, recreation or aquatic center, big brother in Topeka can simply elbow local officials aside.

Meanwhile the governor, according to a recent article in the Kansas City Star, "appears increasingly detached from the fiscal realities he has imposed on his state ... treading perilously close to delusion."      

Yes, the artificial fiscal crisis Kansas currently faces is of the governor's own making.  And he will eventually have to, in his words, "come around to reality."

Alan Jilka is former mayor of Salina.