The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Kansas “Red Dawn” Draws Bipartisan Concern

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Kansas’s experiment with Tea Party governance is uniting skeptics—both left and right. Tax experts in Washington, DC have joined non-Tea Party Republicans in the Kansas legislature in expressing concern that the tax reform signed into law by Governor Sam Brownback went way too far with its tax cuts. The bill, which slashes top income rates and corporate rates and exempts all pass-through business income, makes Joseph Henchman of the right-leaning Tax Foundation uneasy:

[The legislature] just passed a tax cut, which can be justifiable if you want to reduce the size of government or expect other revenue sources to go up. But they didn’t cut spending and they don’t expect revenue to grow, so it’s just a hole. With the exemption for pass-through entities, if you’re a wage earner, you’re taxed at the top rate, which is currently 4.9 percent in Kansas. If you’re a partnership, an LLC or any form of recognized business entity with limited liability that’s not a corporation, you’re income is taxed at zero percent. That’s an incentive to game the tax system without doing anything productive for the economy.

Nick Johnson of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the measure is unprecedented:

The real big problem here is that because it costs so much money, it will make it harder for Kansas to make other kinds of investments that are important to a strong economy like education and infrastructure. People don’t understand the scale of what’s been enacted—it’s jaw dropping. I’m hard-pressed to identify another state that has ever passed a larger tax cut package overall to its budget.

The experts think that the type and number of tax cuts the Kansas Tea Party wants don’t seem affordable, sustainable, or good for economic growth. Add to these problems the fact that the system could harm low-income taxpayers while favoring high earners, and this looks like a governing agenda that, unless the results prove the experts wrong, will be difficult to sell at the national level, to put it mildly.

Like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who was forced to withdraw an ambitious tax plan of his own, Sam Brownback is sagging in statewide opinion polls. If even the reddest of red states is chafing under Tea Party governance, the movement may have to go back to the drawing board.

[Images of Gov. Sam Brownback and background courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on April 12, 2013 5:21 pm
  • Marty Keller

    Professor, it’s not “tea party governance” if the size of government is not also reduced with tax revenues, so please avoid the rhetorical equivalency. As I understand it, tea party members have concerns about the ever-expanding size and scope of government. Reagan’s “starve the beast” strategy failed precisely because of his unwillingness to cut the federal budget when he was pushing through bipartisan tax cuts. Looks like Brownback may be making the same mistake. Those who don’t learn from history . . .

  • Jim Luebke

    I think it’s far more likely that the TEA Party will figure out how to cut spending and not just taxes, (which as Marty pointed out is more true to the party’s root philosophy) than it is likely that the Democrats can develop either the ideas, or even the will, to produce a workable Blue model.

  • Scott Morgan

    Governor Brownback is in power thanks to a loose confederation of tea party
    advocates, pro-life supporters, gun enthusiasts and those who find government to
    be generally repugnant. Despite what those who do not know Kansas like to
    believe, this confederation is not reflective of our state’s general
    population. However, it is a sufficiently strong confederation that it will win most lightly-voted primaries. In a general election between a Republican chosen
    by this group and a typically weak Democrat, the Republican will always
    win.

    Brownback has the support of the confederation but he has done a
    remarkably poor job of reaching out to the general population. His group
    controls the legislature and could get some of his “plan” passed but not even he
    could get what he calls his “pay-fors” passed. These “pay-fors” included
    eliminating the home mortgage and charitable contribution deductions. Neither
    proved to be popular with the legislature and he was left with a bit of a fiscal
    mess.

    Despite this and many other odd moves and despite a disapproval rating
    of 51 percent, the governor stands a good chance of reelection because no
    Republican will take him on and the Democrats will manage to nominate a well-meaning, under-financed opponent who is even less reflective of the Kansas
    electorate.

    And so turns the world until someone figures out how to appeal to
    the wide middle.

    • Jim Luebke

      Is there a name for the fallacy among those whose combination of values puts them in the political “Center”, that everyone else whose combination of values puts them in the “Center” agrees with them on anything?

      • Scott Morgan

        Not sure if there is a name (Argumentum ad centurm?) for what you describe but I did not mean to imply that all who find themselves in some sort of political center agree with each other. To the contrary, I think individuals tend to think as individuals and no two of them agree on everything. Heck, I don’t even agree with myself on every issue from one day to the next.

        Just as the coalition I describe that provides Governor Brownback with support is a loose confederation, I believe other political movements tend to be confederations built around various issues. The groups that have formed around pro-life or guns or anti-tax disagree with each other on a host of issues but they do come together in Kansas for Brownback. That doesn’t mean they even physically meet, just that they can be reached on different issues to drive them to support him.

        The center is ill-defined because it is seems to be made up of individuals who do not have one particular hot button issue but have a general sense of what they like to see in government. That doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about specific issues, just that their vote can be moved by candidates who successfully create a broad vision of an overall approach to governing rather than appeals built on a certain issue.

        None of this means that the center is somehow superior than people categorized as on the edges, just what motivates them to vote is different. In Kansas, those in the center elected current HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius twice because she presented a case that appealed to their general sense of governance and she was faced by Republican candidates from the edge who did not. This same center elected Brownback. Clearly money and name recognition played a part but the point is that the center’s vote is obtainable not a given. The center doesn’t agree with everyone else in the center on all issues but I think they get grouped because of what motivates their vote.