As the Kansas Legislature continues to debate whether to cut taxes and government services further, I have been thinking about the purpose of government at the state level. Ten years ago, if I remember correctly, the conservative political agenda in Kansas was to limit tax increases and to eliminate inefficiencies in government operations. Today those goals have been transformed into eliminating all income taxes and scaling back the size and scope of government services. This is a radical change. We have reached the point where we are seeing the implementation of an agenda that would shift the focus of state government away from providing the current level of social and educational services to a much lower level.
At the root of this radical shift away from providing social and educational services is the overarching policy of lowering and eliminating taxes on business so that the state may create a more favorable business environment. What this means in practice is a march toward the elimination of all income taxes, the shifting of the tax burden to sales and property taxes, the elimination of certain individual income tax deductions like the deduction for home mortgage interest until the income tax is completely eliminated, and, of course, the scaling back of services provided by the state.
In effect, the purpose of state government is being shifted away from helping individual citizens, especially the poor and the disabled. Instead, the new purpose of state government is to help business. By helping business, supporters of this shift argue, individual citizens will be helped because the economy will improve, jobs will be created, and this new wealth will “trickle down” to even the poorest citizens.
In effect, what is now happening in Kansas at the state level is a move away from the idea of government as a “social safety net,” an idea that gained national influence when President Roosevelt and Congress created the “new Deal” in the 1930s. We are now clearly returning to a more rugged form of free market economics that sees the primary purpose of government as aiding economic development.
Here’s the problem, as I see it, with the shift in government purpose that is now going on. There are a great number of people in Kansas who benefit from a variety of social and educational services. As these services are eliminated or scaled back, those who benefit from them will suffer, in some cases, quite seriously. Many of those negatively affected are older Kansans, young children, and the disabled, who cannot easily or affordably replace the lost government services.
Thus, until our economy improves and until — and “if” — there is a trickle down effect that helps these people, their suffering will continue. So it comes down to a simple question: Are we, as Kansans, willing to see our fellow citizens, many of whom cannot replace lost government services, suffer grievously? That, to me, is the real question. It is not simply an economic question; it is a human question.