In upcoming elections, Kansas voters should hold their lawmakers accountable for the state’s current financial mess, that is, the stream of unbalanced budgets, unfair taxes and unprecedented new debt. Revenue projections released earlier this week document the mess now has reached catastrophic proportions.
As a guide to Kansas voters, this column tracks the five main actions taken by majority lawmakers in their descent into financial chaos.
The first step into chaos began four years ago, in 2012, with the forced vote on a hugely flawed tax bill (Senate Sub for HB 2117) in the Kansas House of Representatives. The bill passed with a minimum of votes required and cut income taxes benefiting primarily the wealthiest Kansans by $1 billion a year without any cuts in spending. More than 300,000 business owners were exempted from taxation while modest tax benefits for lower-income residents were eliminated.
The folly of the 2012 bill quickly became apparent, and state representatives tried to rectify the situation with another tax bill (HB 2059) in 2013. A sales tax increase and reduced income-tax deductions were adopted with a projection of $400 million a year in new tax revenues. But lawmakers continued to have faith that income taxes could be eliminated by writing new future income tax cuts of $750 million a year into the same bill.
The governor then claimed “the sun is shining,” but three acts of financial desperation in the 2015 legislative session tell a different story.
First, again by the bare minimum of 63 votes, representatives authorized state officials to borrow $1 billion with the intention of propping up the state pension fund (SB 228). A small piece of this record-high pension debt was used to pay for current-year tax cuts, and Kansas taxpayers were placed on the hook for paying off the debt for the next 30 years.
Next, in an omnibus appropriation bill (House Sub for SB 112), lawmakers suspended all debt limits on borrowing by the Kansas Department of Transportation and at the same time authorized even larger sweeps of highway funds to salvage the 2012 tax cuts. The Brownback administration, of course, obliged with record-breaking highway debt and sweeps approaching $500 million in this budget year.
Finally in 2015, lawmakers adopted with the bare minimum of 63 votes another futile attempt to save the 2012 tax cuts (Senate Sub for HB 2109), raising taxes in the range of $400 million to $550 million a year. Sales taxes were increased once again; cigarette taxes were boosted; the cuts in income tax rates promised in 2013 were scaled back; and most individual income tax deductions were eliminated.
So, where do state finances stand after this descent into chaos? The state is broke, flat broke, lunging from one financial crisis to the next. Sales tax rates now make Kansas’ tax on food the highest in the nation. More highway funds are being swept, and highway maintenance and improvement projects are being deferred; pension payments are delayed; and universities are forced to make mid-year cuts. More cuts in core services appear likely. The promised adrenaline shot on the Kansas economy looks more like a heavy dose of sedatives as the state consistently trails the region and the nation in economic growth.
Most Kansas voters understand the 2012 tax experiment has failed miserably and the steps taken to rescue the experiment have produced more deficit spending, less-fair taxes and historic levels of long-term debt.
Every legislative seat will be on the ballot in August and November, and voters now have time to identify those incumbent lawmakers most responsible for creating this continuing mess. Check out voting records and insist on answers. Demand accountability at the polls.
Now is the time to find these apprentices in state finance and tell them on Election Day: “You’re fired.”
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.