Opinion: Have we learned? A test is coming

In 2012, Kansas lawmakers cut income taxes in a bigger, faster, more dramatic way than any other state had done. And revenue from tax collections dropped like a rock, causing Kansas to enter a multiyear period of serious financial trouble.

In 2016, Kansans voted for a new Legislature. One-third of Kansas House and Senate seats turned over, and a supermajority of the newly minted Legislature, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted to reverse much of the 2012 tax cut in a stunning rebuke to a sitting governor. Income tax receipts then returned to more normal levels and Kansas began to emerge from crisis mode.

What’s next? Will we go forward, or will we go back? That’s the fundamental question at the heart of the upcoming election contests for the governor’s office and every Kansas House seat. (Kansas Senate seats are not up for election until 2020.) How Kansans decide those races will determine whether our state has hope to adequately fund education, maintain high-quality roads and invest in the future.

The two leading Republican candidates for governor would take us back. Kris Kobach openly promotes a return to the Brownback tax cuts. Jeff Colyer is more circumspect, but of course as Brownback’s lieutenant governor, he was right there helping to create all the trouble in the first place.

Of 125 Kansas House members, 88 of them — 49 Republicans and 39 Democrats — voted to override Sam Brownback’s veto and reverse the 2012 tax cuts, the key vote they must now defend when seeking reelection. Their opponents will derisively label that vote the largest tax increase in Kansas history, even though income tax rates remain lower today than in 2012. Already last fall, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity sent thousands and thousands of postcards into the districts of the legislators who supported the override, disparaging their vote. And Kansans will endure exponentially more political postcards between now and next November.

Successfully changing the Legislature and reversing the tax cuts took a major bipartisan effort, but if lawmakers lose their seats because they voted to override Brownback’s veto, the positive gains for education and fiscal sanity will be fleeting. A Brownback-style governor, paired with a tax-cutting House, could easily take Kansas right back to the grim period from which we’re now just beginning to emerge.

Not even one year ago, our state was still mired in a damaging budget crisis, without enough income to pay the bills. The override vote brought Kansas out of immediate crisis and gave hope for better times, but Kansas still has a long way to go to regain financial health. Hundreds of millions of dollars continue to drain out of the highway fund each year to pay for something other than highways. KPERS payments have been delayed. Nine rounds of budget cuts have left state agencies struggling to meet reasonable service levels. The state’s rainy day fund stands at zero.

The 2016 elections changed the direction of Kansas, but the 2018 election cycle will be just as important in determining whether we keep working toward healing or reopen the wound.

What will it be, Kansans? Did we gather a lesson from our five-year tax experiment?

— Duane Goossen formerly served 12 years as Kansas budget director.