BY JOE CONASON
When Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932 that a “single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” he was suggesting that state innovations might advance reform on the federal level. The progressive Supreme Court justice surely wasn’t imagining anything quite like Brownbackistan.
Under Gov. Sam Brownback, however, the old Brandeis metaphor is especially apt for Kansas, where a highly publicized “experiment” in extreme tax cutting has just blown up the entire laboratory. As Kansans peer through the still-smoking ruins, they evidently don’t much like what they see.
What makes the Brownback blowup feel so familiar is that the same experiment was mounted more than three decades ago, on the federal level, under the rubric of Reaganomics – by some of the same people. It crashed miserably then, too. But the Republican right has a special knack for dressing up old mischief as fresh policy. To put this one over, Brownback has enjoyed heavy support from the Koch Brothers – chief financial backers of the ultra-right tea party – whose industrial empire is headquartered in Kansas.
The statewide tax cut that Brownback pushed through the Legislature in 2012 certainly benefited the most wealthy Kansans – people just like the Kochs – while inflicting higher taxes on middle-income and working-class families through sales and property tax increases.
Proceeding with the expert advice of Arthur Laffer, author of the “supply-side” theory underlying the Ronald Reagan tax cuts, the gung-ho governor promised that these regressive changes would promote rapid economic growth. He predicted that his plan would produce 23,000 new jobs and over $2 billion in new disposable income for Kansans. Their tax payments were supposed to offset the loss of nearly 8% of state revenues.
But the results have yet to justify the hype. Today, the fruits of Brownback’s experiment include a state budget deficit of nearly $340 million this year; a decision by Moody’s to lower the rating on Kansas bonds; a growing gap in education funding at every level, from kindergarten through college; a ruinous reduction in state and local workforces across the state; and a future that promises even larger deficits and service cutbacks to come.
Advocates of the Brownback cuts – who are much more likely to be found in New York and Washington think tanks than in Kansas itself – insist that with patience, the governor’s vindication will come. Noting that the tax cuts took effect less than two years ago, they say that with time will come the jobs and revenues that Kansans expected. But over the past several months, as most states have added jobs, their state has fallen behind.
The Kansas City Star, the leading newspaper in the state, recently analyzed federal employment data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and published an editorial comparing Kansas with other states in seasonally adjusted, nonfarm total job growth. The bottom line was not encouraging. From January 2011 through June 30, 2014, job growth for Kansas at 3.5% was lower than its four neighbors, other Midwestern states, and even “extremely high income tax” New York, not to mention the national average of 6.1%.
“Kansas has had one of the nation’s poorest rates of employment growth during Brownback’s time in office,” noted the Star editorial, “including since the first tax cuts took effect in 2013.” Moreover, the state actually had fewer jobs at the end of June than it did seven months ago.
As a creature of the Koch machine, Brownback naturally blames this embarrassing data on President Barack Obama, the devilish socialist in Washington. But polls show that whatever Kansans may think of the president, they aren’t so easily bamboozled by such arguments anymore.
Their opinion of the governor is declining almost as quickly as the state’s revenues – and in some polls, he is trailing the lesser-known Democrat, Paul Davis, who bravely challenged him this year. Even some prominent Republicans recently declared they would rather elect Davis than continue the destruction that Brownback is inflicting on their state.
Nationally, the Republican Party still promotes Brownback as an innovator with expertise in growing the economy. The Koch Brothers will deluge their home state in dark money and Tea Party propaganda before they let him fall. But if the voters boot him in November, this latest experiment in extremism will be ranked as an explosive failure.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer