Legislators are preparing to give Kansans some much-needed tax relief in 2023, and that is triggering the Brownback and Laffer derangement syndrome that struck the media about a decade ago. Much of what was written about Governor Sam Brownback’s tax relief effort was inaccurate or skewed to fit political agendas, and that is still true today, as evidenced by a recent column in the Kansas Reflector.
The pearl-clutching opens with lots of hyperbole – “Teachers fled. Prisoners rioted. State agencies crumbled” – and fails to accurately the reasons for budget deficits. But giving credit where merited, the author got one thing right, criticizing Art Laffer for his insensitive portrayal of the Sunflower State.
Laffer told the Washington Post, “When your biggest criticism of me is Kansas, I mean, come on. What the hell is Kansas? There was no cataclysm. It was boring old Kansas before and after.”
Come on, Art. Boring? Kansas has K-State football, KU basketball, NASCAR, and a thriving arts scene. We even have annual symphony performances set in the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. Kansas may not have as many bright lights as some states, but we also don’t have the red and blue flashing lights that accompany drive-by shootings and flash mob shoplifting sprees. It is hardly boring here in Kansas.
Now let’s set the record straight on the hyperbole. KCUR Public Radio said teachers were leaving, but here’s what they left out in shaping the story they wanted to be told, as reported by the Topeka Capital-Journal (from the same press briefing):
- “More than twice as many educators enter Kansas each year than leave the state, and the number leaving the teaching profession hasn’t increased dramatically, state data indicates.”
- The data “doesn’t support the idea that Kansas is seeing a recent surge in the number of teachers fleeing for other states or other jobs.”
There is a lot more to the Cap-Journal report that contradicts the KCUR narrative, but you get the point.
Yes, there were prison riots during Brownback’s years, but there were riots before he was in office and since. The riots cannot be blamed on budget cuts, but that didn’t stop Sarah LaFrenz, a union steward with the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
Testifying at a hearing organized by U.S. Senate Democrats in 2017, LaFrenz said, “At last count, the state of Kansas employee workforce had been reduced by 25 percent.” But data provided to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the State of Kansas shows that not to be true. State employment held pretty steady throughout the period.
And by the way, General Fund appropriations for the Department of Corrections and correctional facilities were not decimated as LaFrenz told the committee (she used the phrase ‘drain the coffers’). Governors’ Budget Reports show funding increased by $17 million in FY 2013, to $324 million, and stayed at roughly that level throughout the tax relief years.
Our 2012 analysis showed that spending only needed to be reduced one time by about 8.5% (or several smaller reductions over about three years) to balance the budget with the tax cuts. And the opportunities to do so existed, but Governor Brownback, Democrats, and some Republicans would not do so. Spending control is not about cutting services; it is accomplished by providing services more efficiently.
In 2012, state spending amounted to $3,409 per resident.[i] That was 37% more than the states without an income tax. By 2017, when legislators implanted the largest tax hike in history, state spending had jumped to $3,923 per resident.
Increasing spending while cutting taxes wasn’t the only problem. As we documented in What was Really the Matter with the Kansas Tax Plan, Brownback never had a plan to balance the budget. The tax plan was concocted among the Governor’s staff; legislators and tax policy experts were not involved. And as much as the media likes to attack Art Laffer, neither was he. Laffer was brought in after the fact to help ‘sell’ the plan.
The state also lacked reliable systems to estimate revenue and identify efficiency opportunities in the budget, to name a few. (Both problems have continued under Governor Laura Kelly.)
Providing much-needed tax relief can be responsibly done. In fact, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana did so during the Brownback years, and many others have done so since, including Iowa and Arizona.
So when those who prefer high taxes and more government spending pushing their horror stories, do your homework. Most of what they will say will be inaccurate and distorted, although some people may only be repeating what they have been told.
But the media knows better.
[i] All spending less federal funds and money from the issuance of debt, National Association of State Budget Officers.