Conservatives face an uphill battle in fighting against ever-increasing levels of taxation and government spending, at both the federal and the state level. Yet recent reforms in Kansas show that cutting spending can be done. Conservative governors and state legislators are showing the country an alternative to the failed pseudo-socialist agenda of their Democratic counterparts and the leading Democratic candidates for the presidency.
A belief in limited government is a belief in empowering individuals and families to rise to the challenge of self-government. In pursuit of this goal, Governor Sam Brownback and conservatives in Kansas have argued that taxpayers should keep more of their own money. In 2012, Kansas enacted an effective, though not perfect, tax cut for every family and for small businesses. This bill flattened the income-tax brackets, returning billions of dollars to taxpayers, and eliminated harmful taxes on small-business income. The goal is simple: institute laws and policies that incentivize growth, reduce regulatory red tape, and empower individuals to build a stronger economy.
As with any bold policy agenda, critiques have been plentiful, but the data affirm the success of this conservative tax plan. Kansas has broken the state record for new business formations every year since the tax cuts went into effect, even though startups have decreased nationwide since the Great Recession. Kansas unemployment has plummeted to 3.9 percent, the lowest rate since 2001. All of this happened despite tremendous economic headwinds, particularly in falling commodity prices and exports, slowing oil and natural-gas markets, and falling manufacturing — three industries that make up a large share of the Kansas economy.
More important, the people of Kansas now get to keep more of their hard-earned money. Every Kansan has seen a reduction in tax rates, while the tax liability was eliminated entirely for the lowest-income-earning Kansans. As has been seen time and time again, when citizens keep a greater share of their wages, economic growth follows.
Creating and growing opportunity also requires reasonable reforms to social services. Instituting work requirements and better accountability for welfare programs has propelled thousands of Kansans out of poverty. These reforms reduced the number of people dependent on welfare by 75 percent. Simultaneously, when provided with education, job skills, and the expectation to work, these Kansans saw their wages increase over 127 percent on average, providing needed financial security.
Kansas is in the business of growing the economy and opportunity for all, not growing the size and scope of government.
Kansas does not have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem. This is why Kansas has taken tremendous steps to curb its spending, from decreasing the growth rate of Medicaid to consolidating state agencies. Kansas has become more efficient. In a recent NRO article, Kevin D. Williamson criticized Kansas for its “not-inconsiderable” level of public employees. Kansas has actually cut the size of its executive branch employees by over 25 percent since Governor Brownback took office in 2011.
On a seemingly annual basis, the Kansas Supreme Court appropriates from the bench, ruling that the state’s funding of education is inadequate.
State pension systems are financially problematic for nearly every state. For over a decade, previous governors in Kansas neglected the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS), choosing instead to let state pensions survive on gains from the stock market alone. The Great Recession destroyed this shell game, and KPERS suffered. In 2012, Kansas had one of the worst-funded pension systems in the country, second only to Illinois. The system is healthier now, after the tax cuts, than it was under prior (Democratic) governors.
Education funding and reform remains a top priority. On a seemingly annual basis, the Kansas Supreme Court appropriates from the bench, ruling that the state’s funding of education is inadequate. In reality, Kansas has increased education funding in excess of inflation and enrollment growth. This reality is, of course, ignored by critics who demand an endless increase in funding while attempting to block real reform or school choice.
Those on the left, here in Kansas and across the nation, have proposed a billion-dollar tax increase. Yet even Democratic legislators were hesitant to vote for a much smaller tax increase this past year. Such an increase would not only irreparably harm the Kansas economy; it would do nothing to curb the previously uncontrolled growth of state spending or ensure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely and efficiently. Tax increases of this magnitude will disproportionately harm low-income families while funneling billions to left-leaning interest groups. This is not an acceptable alternative.
Much can be learned from Kansas’s experience as the only state in decades to attempt to eliminate its progressive income tax. Though it has not been easy, Kansas has shown that it is possible to reform state government, reduce the scope of government, cut taxes, and still provide economic opportunity and upward mobility.
— Brandon J. Smith, an attorney, is Governor Sam Brownback’s policy director.