Iíve lived in the Midwest my entire adult life. By temperament, Iím a Midwesterner ó relatively pragmatic, optimistic within reason and generally kind (I hope). Iíve lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and ó for the past 37 years ó Kansas.
Traveling through this region, I see similarities and differences among the states and their cultures. The geography of the region reinforces the notion of space, whether in the rolling hills of Wisconsin or the flat expanses of downstate Illinois or western Kansas. Small towns differ, to be sure, but thereís a similar struggle and pride that pops up, town after town.
Through time, Midwestern states have been reasonably well-governed, although there is a range.
My initial intent for this column was to contrast Minnesota, a high-tax, high-service state with a Democratic governor to Kansas, a state with declining income taxes, declining services and a GOP governor. I expected Minnesota to shine, but while its economic performance has exceeded that of Kansas, the comparisons are more mixed than I anticipated.
Driving through Minneapolis, there is an overwhelming sense of energy and enterprise ó lots of building and increasing high-tech investments. Indeed, overall a new economic assessment by Governing magazine ranked Minnesota 15th in the nation, while Kansas came in at 38th. But in terms of jobs created, the two states were similar, although recent Kansas losses might have pushed the state a bit farther behind.
More generally, across our region, economic conditions generally have muddled along, with no state ranking higher than Minnesota (tied with Nebraska) and the rest of our neighboring states coming in between 20th and 30th.
The weakest states in the recent rankings all have their own stories, often revolving around the decline in energy prices. The strongest reflected a mix of relatively high tax (Massachusetts) and low tax (Colorado) states, although in general, higher taxes accompanied greater prosperity in our weak-oil economy.
What the most prosperous states have done, however, is to have vigorous discussions about tax and spending policies. And they have adjusted their policies when problems have emerged.
Minnesota income tax rates are relatively high and progressive, which have not kept high-income individuals from moving there. At the same time, Minnesotans pay no sales tax on food (compared to more than 9 percent in many Kansas communities), nor on over-the-counter drugs. And most clothing is exempted. Thus, families spending $10,000 on food, drugs and clothing during the course of a year pay approximately $900 less in Minnesota than in Kansas.
In short, Minnesota is a high-tax state, but its burdens fall disproportionately on the upper middle class and the wealthy. Equally significant, Minnesota legislators and its governor have had lengthy, substantive discussions about economic policy. For example, they are currently arguing about extending the Minneapolis light-rail system, debating its prospective distribution of costs and benefits.
Conversely, since 2012, Kansas tax policy has been made willy-nilly. The governor and the Legislature bought the Laffernomics promise of low-tax prosperity, passed a jury-rigged bill in 2012, and then subsequently increased sales taxes that disproportionately affect the least affluent. Astoundingly, there has been little serious deliberation about tax policies; rather, they have been hastily packaged at the end of legislative sessions.
Likewise, spending cuts have been ad hoc and theme-less, as funds are sliced here or there, time and again, to avoid deficits.
States all do things differently and sometimes make poor policy decisions, but Kansas has been especially reckless and thoughtless. Itís time we elect legislators who can have actual policy discussions and produce sensible legislation that seeks to benefit all our citizens.
Is making careful decisions too much to ask?
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.