Sam Brownback has been a Tea Party star since taking office as Kansas governor in 2011. He rolled back anti-discrimination laws and vetoed a bill that would have brought health coverage to 180,000 residents by making his state the 32nd to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
But his signature achievement — if one could call it that — was to institute a package of drastic tax cuts to produce what he predicted would be "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy." Brownback's tax consultant, supply-side guru Art Laffer, promised Kansans that the cuts would pay for themselves in supercharged economic growth.
Instead, job growth in Kansas trailed the nation. Month after month, revenue came in even lower than fiscal officials' most dire expectations. Instead of turbocharged growth, observes veteran local commentator Yael T. Abouhalkah, "the state had to divert billions of dollars in road funding, slice higher ed money, cut social services, reduce support for public pensions and fall behind on previous pledges to improve funding of K-12 schools." Despite that, Brownback squeaked through to reelection in 2014 with a 49.82% plurality.
Now, the dime has finally dropped. The Republican-controlled state Legislature on Tuesday overwhelmingly overrode Brownback's veto of desperately needed tax increases. The action rolls back much of Brownback's 2012 tax cuts, producing a $1.2-billion shot of adrenaline for the state budget over two years.
The rare rebuke of Brownback's policies is being taken in the state as a major reversal in the governor's political career and a prelude to his rescue by President Trump. "The override represents a blow to the legacy of one of the most unpopular governors in America," wrote Jonathan Shorman and Daniel Salazar of the Wichita Eagle, "amid speculation that he may not serve out his remaining time in office but instead take a federal position."
Brownback's policies were designed to make Kansas a national laboratory of tea party economics. But their dismal effects have been visible for years. By 2015, job growth was lagging its neighbors, the U.S. as a whole and more fiscally responsible states such as California. Job growth had actually slowed since the enactment of Brownback's tax-cutting package, lagging that of 37 other states, including neighboring Missouri.
A year after the tax cuts were implemented, Brownback touted "impressive" early results to the Wall Street Journal, citing the formation of a "record number of small businesses — more than 15,000." But that was deceptive. As was shown by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 16,000 had disappeared. Many of the others cited by Brownback appeared to be created to take advantage of his elimination of all taxes on partnerships, sole proprietorships and LLCs that pass through their tax liabilities to their owners. That scheme allowed everyone from freelancers and petty contractors to huge partnerships to avoid any state income tax at all, as long as they were organized as a certain type of "small business."
If that sounds familiar, it's because the same idea is part of President Trump's tax proposal. It's an invitation to tax dodging (and perhaps not coincidentally, would be a huge boon to Trump's own businesses and family).
As Brownback anticipated, Kansas has indeed been a lesson for America, just not in the way he hoped.