Gov. Brownback's legacy in Kansas is one of missed opportunity

Gov. Brownback's legacy in Kansas is one of missed opportunity
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The Obama era changed things in D.C. and, in some way, sowed the seeds for the Trump era. This is not unique to President Obama but confirms a maxim that constituents usually react to one political era with something different in the next. Voters take lessons and act accordingly as they pick the next crop of leaders.

Here is hoping that voters take a lesson of capturing an opportunity from the Brownback era in Kansas. As The former Gov. Brownback takes his religious freedom ambassador post in D.C. – you could not create a better job for the man Sam Brownback – the political winds are much different than they were eight years ago.

Then-Sen. Brownback cleared the field of primary challengers in 2010 and walked into the Governor’s Mansion in 2010 with a commanding 63 percent of the vote. That mandate was consolidated in stunning legislative victories in 2012. It seemed a new era of conservative governance had come to The Sunflower State.

The next six years have often been portrayed as a cautionary tale. Unfortunately, much of that caution is misguided as many in media and progressive politicians willfully ignored reality as it relates to the tax cuts and Gov. Brownback’s management of state government. There was a tremendous opportunity early in Gov. Brownback’s tenure to re-chart the course of Kansas to stem ongoing economic stagnation. It simply would have taken political discipline to bring spending in line with revenue.

Despite what is commonly understood, that never happened as state spending continued to grow. Maybe not growing as rapidly as it had in the past but growing just the same. This created an endless budget debate and loads of bad headlines. This is the first lesson to be taken from the Brownback years — do not cut taxes at the state level unless you have the discipline to demand government focus on core functions and do so efficiently.

It is also hard to argue that a positive case was ever made — consistently and passionately — for the tax cuts. The point of tax cuts is not the cuts themselves. Instead, it is one of empowering individuals to make decisions for themselves, incentivizing families and businesses to seek opportunity through the dignity of work, and demanding that the dollars we do send to government are used to their best effect. Thus, the second lesson; there is a bully pulpit that should be used to champion policy initiatives by calling our citizens to noble ends such as independence, family, and prosperity. Instead, little attempt was made to counter the dubious and misleading information being spread in an ignoble fashion by those determined to take more money from citizens.

Kansas Policy Institute, my employer, will shortly be publishing a book that chronicles the history of the tax cuts themselves in much greater detail. Rightly or wrongly, that legacy and Gov. Brownback’s legacy will be viewed as one and the same. Kansas’s hoped-for economic growth, post-tax reform, did not all materialize but there were some gains in private sector employment. These gains are often ignored when discussing the Kansas experience because they never matched the rhetoric used when any selling of the plan was done. But, they are there and showed early promise. Kansans will never know if these early returns would be matched with long-term growth as the 2012 tax cuts were reversed in 2017.

That these lessons were not implemented in advance meant that Gov. Brownback’s legacy was already set. This laid the groundwork for reversals of 2016 as a referendum of Gov. Brownback and the “Brownback tax experiment.”

Sitting in the House Gallery during the 2017 session confirmed that the political reversals of 2016 — progressive Republicans gaining dozens of seats — would see much of Gov. Brownback’s policy legacy ripped up while he was still in office. In just one February week of 2017, teacher tenure reform lauded by conservatives was rolled back in the House, later stalling in the Senate, and a veto of a massive state tax hike was only narrowly sustained. These were but the first harbingers of a new reality. Later in the session a veto of Medicaid expansion was sustained by two votes and the largest tax hike in state history was passed over another gubernatorial veto.

Victories occurred during the Brownback era and are easy to identify. The albatross of Medicaid expansion has not come to Kansas, strong work requirements for welfare were enacted, property owners were empowered against massive property tax hikes, and a tax credit scholarship program for low income kids were signed into law. But, the dawning of a new conservative era is hard to see.

Trends of out-migration, stagnant job growth, and staggering gaps in student achievement will continue. What’s more, the fundamental driver of Kansas’ political economy and government spending will remain as the Kansas Courts ignore our constitutional order to dictate more money for public school lawyers and lobbyists. Viewed against these court mandates of billions in new spending, talk of tax cuts may be akin to rearranging deckchairs. It is hard to tackle the structural reforms needed in a state and often come with little short-term fanfare. Without doing so, however, our elected officials are largely just punching the clock while institutional lethargy continues.

Voters will draw their own lessons from the last decade of Kansas politics and, by extension, Gov. Brownback’s legacy. From where I sit, with the state’s only think tank supporting the ideals of America’s founding, my view is that a terrific opportunity to truly change the trajectory of Kansas was missed.

James Franko is vice president and policy director of Kansas Policy Institute.