Many consequential news events — from local to international — are getting lost in this era of nonstop, overlapping “breaking news” stories regarding all things Donald Trump. Buried on the inside of newspapers across the nation last week was a monster story for followers of state-level politics and policy in the United States: The declarative statement by the Kansas legislature that the “Brownback experiment” in fiscal policy in that state is over.
Sam Brownback made the rare shift from the U.S. Senate to run for Kansas governor at the start of the decade, promising drastic tax cuts if he were elected. Soon after taking office, Brownback persuaded his overwhelmingly Republican state legislature to do just that, cutting income taxes across the board and eliminating some business taxes entirely. More income tax cuts followed in 2013. While critics termed his proposals “voodoo economics” that had been tried and failed at the federal level in the Reagan era, the governor argued that any budget shortfalls would be more than made up by exceptional economic growth in the state. As Brownback said at the time of the first proposal, “We’ll see how it works. We’ll have a real live experiment.”
Late last Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition in the Kansas House of Representatives deemed the experiment a failure, overriding Governor Brownback’s veto of their legislation rolling back the tax cuts. Despite shrinking state government across the Brownback era, during the current fiscal year the state faced an approximately $350 million budget shortfall with projections of even larger deficits in the coming fiscal year. In addition, the Kansas Supreme Court declared the state’s school funding scheme unconstitutionally inadequate, and Kansas faces a court deadline at the end of this month to boost state spending on education. The new tax revenues resulting from the override will allow the state to shift some new dollars into its public school system, although it is unclear if it will be enough to satisfy the court.
Not only has the Brownback fiscal strategy devastated the state budget, it has also cratered his political standing in the state with clear ramifications for his political allies. According to Morning Consult’s April survey of the approval ratings of all 50 U.S. governors, Brownback trails only New Jersey’s Chris Christie in disapproval of state residents with 27 percent approval of Kansans. In the state, a candidate’s support or opposition to Brownback and his agenda has become the key issue in state races within GOP primaries and general elections alike. No less than 21 moderates who contrasted themselves with Brownback won Republican state legislative primaries last August with 14 of them booting incumbents who had been loyal to the governor’s legislative package. That was followed by 13 Democratic pickups in a general election campaign in which Brownback and his fiscal plan were front and center. Efforts to recall the Supreme Court justices who had issued the school funding decisions also were soundly rejected in November. Brownback’s shadow over politics in the state extended even to the April special election for a seat in Congress in the Wichita area. While national observers of the special election saw the Democrat’s close loss — exceptional for the ruby red district — as a referendum on President Trump’s early months in office, in reality it was the Democrat’s effective linkage of eventual GOP winner Ron Estes to Brownback that helped make the contest so close.
In 1932, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in arguing that an innovative state policy should be upheld: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system 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.” The implementation of the Brownback-backed policies serves as a clear example of using a state as a “laboratory of democracy.” Typically, such experiments lead to results that are fuzzy with advocates and opponents continuing to argue about their efficacy. There is little to debate regarding the result of the recent Kansas experiment: It is a clear failure substantively and politically.
This failure has real implications for policymaking across the nation, including in Arkansas. A chunk of legislators in the new Republican majority in Arkansas are advocates of the Brownback approach and have continually argued for aggressive cuts to personal and business taxes in the state. Governor Hutchinson fended off additional tax cuts in the recent legislative session by agreeing to the creation of a Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force to examine wholesale reforms to the tax code in Arkansas. That group has just begun meeting. While many reforms to the state’s tax code have real merit, the outcome of the Kansas experiment should make all wary of a journey down that path.