Obama pitches economic plan in Kansas, the anti-tax heartland

Obama touts his economic initiatives in Kansas, where austere Republican policies have faced challenges

There was what President Obama said Thursday, and there was where he said it.

Eager to highlight the differences between his new "middle-class economics" initiative and the trickle-down approach Democrats accuse their rivals of embracing, the president continued his post-State of the Union tour in Kansas, a state he lost twice.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has sought to make the state a laboratory for austere conservative fiscal policies. Brownback slashed spending and taxes after taking office four years ago, promising an economic boom would follow.

But with state revenues lagging — $333 million short of projections in the fiscal year that ended in June, and $205 million short for the current one — Brownback has been forced to push for higher taxes on cigarettes and liquor and halt coming income-tax breaks.

Obama took the stage in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, declaring that his approach to rebuilding the economy has worked. He cited efforts on college affordability, paid leave, healthcare, aid for first-time home buyers and retirement savings.

"At every step, we were told that we were misguided or too ambitious or the laws we passed would explode deficits or crush jobs or destroy the economy," Obama said. "And instead, we've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade."

"Middle-class economics works," he said.

Brownback is not completely backing off his tax-cutting zeal. In his State of the State address last week, he promised to "continue our march to zero income taxes," saying that states without them grow faster.

"The era of ever-expanding government is over because it has to be," he said.

Obama did not mention Brownback, but the president's allies are making explicit the contrast between their approaches.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, herself an ex-governor of Kansas, sharply criticized Brownback in a radio interview and warned there weren't enough smokers and drinkers to tax in Kansas to balance the state's budget.

"I really worry about what the result of this great experiment will be and how long it will take the state to recover from what seems to be a failed and flawed vision of cutting taxes and job growth," Sebelius told KCUR radio, her first local interview since leaving the president's Cabinet in April.

On his visit to the state Thursday, Obama announced new proposals to lengthen Head Start programs to a full day and full school year and expand access to subsidies for child care for low- and middle-income families. He aims to cover another 1 million people through the Child Care and Development Fund, a state-federal partnership.

Obama said that in 31 states, high-quality child care costs more than a year of tuition at a state university, and he urged Republicans to work with him to adopt his changes or to propose an alternative.

"It is time that we stop treating child care as a side issue or a quote, unquote, women's issue. This is a family issue," he said. "This is a national economic priority for all of us. We can do better."

A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Republicans were eager to increase access to quality education.

"But we don't need more top-down policies from Washington or new tax hikes on middle-income families saving for their children's college education," said the spokesman, Cory Fritz.

The Kansas Republican Party called Obama "in denial" over his party's losses in the midterm election and called his policies "abject failures" that "eviscerated" the middle class.

"There are 83 fewer Democrats in Congress than in 2009. Instead of working with Republicans on bipartisan initiatives supported by the American people, he has become the obstructionist-in-chief," said Kelly Arnold, the state party chairman.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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