Pittsburg Morning Sun: Tax cuts and reactions

January 24, 2012
By Burdett Loomis
INSIGHT KANSAS: Tax cuts and reactions: a puzzle

PITTSBURG — Introducing a policy agenda that’s long and deep, Governor Brownback delivered a reasonable State of the State address last Monday, with a major tax reduction as the centerpiece.  Doing instant commentary after the speech, I saw it as an interesting, if somewhat awkward, attempt to broaden the tax base a bit and lower rates – an appropriate proposal from a fiscally conservative administration.

The devil, of course, is in the details.  Like getting the House to make permanent a so-called “temporary” sales tax increase.  Like doing away with tax deductions for home mortgages and charitable giving.  Like lowering to $30,000 the break point for the top tax rate.

In short, many moving parts make up an allegedly simple plan to reduce income tax rates.  Early analyses demonstrated how unevenly the cuts would hit Kansans.  And one thing become increasingly apparent – poor Kansans would be hurt the most, largely due to the elimination of the earned income tax credit, an idea the GOP once eagerly embraced.

I was in the capitol last Tuesday as the news broke – the Revenue Department analyses concluded that the poorest fifth of Kansans would pay $156 more on average under Brownback proposal. No matter what you believe on the substance of the issue, this is flat-out awful politics, especially when newspapers, opponents, and interest groups could trumpet this change as representing a 5,000 percent increase in the poor’s taxes, all based on the Revenue Department’s own figures.

The question is – were the governor and his top staffers ready for the pushback and the storm of unfavorable news stories that resulted, almost immediately, from these analyses?

If the answer is “yes,” the administration comes off as highly calculating, to the point of cynicism, in its pursuit of lower income taxes.  If the answer is “no,” it comes off as lacking in political savvy.

Compare the Brownback tax cut plan to that of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who proposed a 10 percent across-the-board decrease in state income taxes, while simultaneously restoring his previous cuts to the earned income tax credit.  Christie’s blanket approach might well be worse policy than Brownback’s more targeted plan, but Christie’s political sensitivity was far greater.

Why has Governor Brownback appeared to stumble so many times during his first year in the statehouse? One can only speculate, but the first and most powerful explanation is that serving as governor is far different than being a U.S. Senator.

Senators control a staff of 35-40, rather administering a work force well into the thousands. Senators can’t do anything by themselves, save to stop legislation. They can – and do – talk, but usually without impact or even notice back home.

Governors, conversely, can affect everything. Equally important, they are affected, almost immediately, by anything important that happens within the state.

Many things are uncontrollable. But putting forward a tax plan that discriminates against the poor is not. Nor is appointing an IT director with a PhD from a diploma mill. Of course the media and the web magnify every mistake, but that’s no surprise.

A year into the Brownback administration, with the tax story being followed by one on $89 million in overstated budget revenue, the lack of attention to detail has become a too-familiar narrative.

Maybe this is all by design, but given that the governor has retreated on arts funding, on his IT appointment, and on closing SRS offices, for example, what’s clear is that the Brownback administration either has little concern about the political consequences of its proposals or has not thought these consequences out adequately.  Scarcely to best of scenarios.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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