TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback cited voters’ frustration with the state’s budget as one the main reasons several of his allies in the Legislature lost their seats in the recent primary.
“This last election cycle, I think a lot of it was about budget frustration,” Brownback told reporters at an informal news conference in his office Friday. “We had contraction in the Kansas economy, and everybody’s been frustrated with that. I certainly have been.”
The governor defended the income tax cuts he ushered into law in 2012, which many economists blame for the state’s budget problems, and said people should look at the state’s budget difficulties “in the regional context.”
He said surrounding states, such as Oklahoma, also have faced budget problems this past year and pointed to the dips in commodity markets as the primary driver of the state’s budget woes rather than tax policy.
“That’s not to say we shouldn’t look at things, because we should. And I’ll work with the Legislature on items,” said Brownback, who likely will face a more moderate-leaning Legislature next year that likely will be less sympathetic to his tax and budget policies.
He pushed back on the idea the election would necessarily lead to a rollback of the income tax cuts, arguing many challengers who won earlier this month campaigned against the sales tax increase the Legislature passed in 2015 to cover a budget gap.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said if you talk to any person in the state about politics for five minutes, “they know that the tax experiment and the budget are tied.”
He said Brownback is living in a “make-believe world” when it comes to the budget.
“The first thing he needs to do is come back to reality,” Ward said. “You can’t fix problems unless you acknowledge problems. ... I don’t think the governor’s anywhere near that today. Hopefully by January he will rejoin us in reality and begin the repairs that need to be done.”
Ed Berger, a moderate who defeated Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, in the primary, said when he knocked on doors in Hutchinson he encountered “general frustration with the budget and the fact that you had a significant (sales) tax increase and that still wasn’t enough to make ends meet.”
Brownback’s budget director has asked state agencies to submit data on what a 5-percent across-the-board cut to their budgets would entail. Brownback called it a common practice.
“We’ve done this in good times and difficult times,” Brownback said when asked how confident he was that the state would be able to pay for its budget without additional cuts. “But we have had a very difficult budget year this past year, and (tax) receipts continue to lag what the consensus revenue estimates were.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Brownback appears to be “inching toward” accepting people are upset with his tax and budget policies, “but he’s of course not there yet.”
“If those tax cuts get taken back, then that’s a huge blow to his entire governorship,” Beatty said. “It looks as if he’s very much wanting to leave office with those in place ... and it looks like he’s going to be looking in every single corner of the state for ways to find money except (repealing) those tax cuts.”
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said excluding the tax cuts as a cause of the state’s budget problems “is a pretty big omission.”
“You just kind of do the math,” Smith said. “You’ve got tax receipts and you’ve got expenditures. ... It’s not rocket science.”
Smith said the only way Brownback, who has experienced dismal approval ratings for the past year, can regain the public’s trust is to admit that.
“There comes a time when you’ve got to admit you’ve made a mistake,” Smith said. “There comes a time when you’ve got to say, ‘I screwed up.’ ”
Brownback said the criticism he’s faced over the budget has taken an emotional toll.
“It’s difficult but, you know, you keep trying to do what you can to make things better for the people and for the state,” Brownback said.
The governor lamented “there’s been very little coverage of the positive sides” of his tax policies, which he claimed were leading to the creation of new businesses.
Some analysts have argued the new business filings since the tax cuts took effect actually represent people changing their filing status to benefit from the law, which exempts the owners of limited liability companies and other pass-through businesses from paying income tax on their profits.
Roger Elliott, a moderate who won the Republican primary in Wichita’s 87th House District, disagreed with the governor that the income tax cuts were unrelated to the state’s budget problems. He said the state needs to roll back the exemption for business owners, which could bring in more than $200 million in revenue.
Elliott called the state’s job growth puny. The state has seen only a 0.2-percent increase in total nonfarm jobs between June 2015 and June 2016.
Brownback said the slow job growth was a result of the state’s low unemployment numbers and the state has open jobs that it can’t fill.