As of Tuesday afternoon, the Kansas Legislature seemed to be unable to deal with what very well may become a disaster for the state over the coming years: a tax reform bill sitting on the governor’s desk that may cause the state to face a budget deficit of unprecedented proportions within five years. The lead-up to this situation seems more reminiscent of a bad Hollywood comedy than of responsible governance.
Through a series of parliamentary maneuvers, internecine warfare in the Republican majority caused by the split between conservative and moderate Republicans, the impotence of the Democratic minority, and the intervention of a variety of powerful lobbies, the governor now has on his desk a tax “reform” bill that he says he doesn’t want to sign but will sign if the Legislature cannot come up with something better. If ever there was an example of dysfunctional government at work, the current legislative session would seem to be poised to be the poster child.
At the root of the current budgetary mess is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of state government. The conservative Republicans would like to see a substantial reduction in state government. It seems quite clear that what Democrats and moderate Republicans perceive to be a coming disaster that would force substantial curtailment of state support for social services, education and other state activities is viewed not as a disaster but, rather, as a positive development by the conservatives. Underlying this approach to state government is a philosophy that would reverse the legislation that led to the expansion of state government over the past 75 years.
There is nothing mysterious about this conservative view. Those who hold it, both in the Legislature and among the general public, simply want to return to a time when the state did very little other than provide a court system, a part-time Legislature and a few basic social services. Education would be privatized; social services would return to being the province of religious and charitable institutions. Perhaps, the conservatives would continue to favor state support of transportation and prisons, but I’m not sure.
What we have in Topeka today is nothing less than a fundamental clash of economic, social and political philosophies. Debate over whether the current tax reform legislation would create a $500,000 surplus due to increased economic activity or a $2 billion deficit by 2017 is really beside the point. I do not believe that the debate is really about economic development. There has been very little convincing evidence presented on either side about the economic development effects of the proposed tax reforms.
Rather, the real debate, as I have suggested, is about the ultimate shape of state government in Kansas. At the present time, it seems that the conservatives have the majority in both the Legislature and perhaps among the public. If this is, indeed, the case and Gov. Brownback signs the legislation currently before him, then all of us who live in Kansas will become part of a major experiment in social and economic policy over the next five years.
If, indeed, a state can prosper and fulfill its residents’ needs by a radical reduction in state services, then we may become a model for other states. On the other hand, if the conservative experiment fails, and the radical reduction in state services that is almost certainly in the cards should the tax reform legislation be signed, then Kansas will play a different role: We will be the cautionary tale that stops such policies in other states.
Unfortunately, if the conservative experiment in social engineering fails, then everyone in Kansas will suffer for it. That’s the problem with social engineering and radical experimentation. Failures can, indeed, be devastating.