Kansans skeptical of Brownback experiment
Last year, Gov. Sam Brownback went on national TV and boasted he was leading Kansas through "a real live experiment" in taxing and spending. Recent surveys suggest Kansans are skeptical, if not downright opposed, to where Brownback is taking them.
Three statewide surveys released in October give a current reading of what Kansans think of Brownback and his red-state strategy. Two were conducted by SurveyUSA for KWCH-TV in Wichita, and a third by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University.
These surveys indicate the Brownback experiment is out of sync with what Kansans say they want on a number of measures. For example, Brownback promoted an increase in the state sales tax rate that was scheduled to drop, but four in five survey respondents believe the sales tax should remain the same or be decreased.
Brownback successfully initiated cuts in state income tax rates. In contrast, two-thirds of the Kansans surveyed believe income taxes should remain the same or be increased. Under Brownback's income tax plan, those with higher-incomes receive the bigger tax cuts, while survey results showed more than half think taxes on top income earners should be increased.
The revenue shortfalls resulting from the Brownback tax experiment forced state lawmakers to cut spending for core state services, which again is out of line with most Kansans. For example, while two of every three Kansans surveyed think funding for K-12 schools should be increased, Brownback approved spending reductions for school aid $400 million to $500 million below that of 2008. The governor also approved multimillion dollar cuts in funding for colleges and state universities, while according to the surveys, seven of eight Kansans say such funding should stay the same or be increased.
The Brownback administration also initiated cutbacks in social services for the state's most vulnerable residents, again in opposition to what Kansans say should be done. More than half of those surveyed say state funding for social services should be increased, compared to 6 percent who say such funding should be decreased. The balance says funding should remain the same.
With Brownback's experiment so dramatically at odds with the preferences of Kansans, the governor's job approval has plunged. When he took office in 2011, Kansans gave him an approval rating of 55 percent, but his ratings began to drop later that year when the first news of his grand experiment began to surface.
Last month, 58 percent of the Kansans surveyed disapproved of the Brownback's job performance, 10 percent higher than a year ago. Thirty-five percent approved.
Fewer than one in four Kansans surveyed express a favorable opinion of Brownback, compared to nearly one-half who view him unfavorably, an extraordinarily low rating for an incumbent officeholder, most particularly one who has spent most of his 25-year government career in statewide elective office. The FHSU survey, conducted this past summer before any opposing candidate had emerged, asked: "If the 2014 election were held today, would you vote for Sam Brownback for governor?" Fifty-six percent of those responding said no.
Historically, Kansas voters have been tough on their governors. Forty-one individuals have been elected to the office of governor, and all but Joan Finney sought re-election. However, 19 of those 40 were defeated in primary or general elections, or earlier in party conventions.
In this predominantly Republican state, voters also have shown independence from partisan loyalties when electing a governor. In the last eight gubernatorial elections, voters favored four Democrats and four Republicans. In the last 19 gubernatorial elections, 11 Democrats and eight Republicans were elected.
While the real polls for governor come in the August and November 2014 elections, the recent surveys show Brownback faces a formidable task in convincing Kansans that his real live experiment with their future is sound.
H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.