The Corner

Kansas’s New Economic Patriotism?

Late last week, Kansas’s staunchly free-market governor, Sam Brownback, gave his approval to a flagrantly partisan, protectionist proposal from Democrats in the state Legislature. It’s bad policy — and an unfortunate aberration for a governor who’s been a champ for fiscal conservatism.  

Last Thursday, Kansas’s Democratic leaders, the legislative minority, proposed new “buy American” legislation that would force state agencies to buy American-made products, exempting them only if there’s a domestic shortage or if it would raise project costs by more than 25 percent. And Governor Brownback’s spokesperson called this “a good idea and something we can find bipartisan compromise to implement effectively,” according to the Topeka Capitol-Journal.

Brownback’s concession here is especially disappointing given his otherwise stellar economic record. Earlier this year, he signed the biggest tax cut in the state’s history — a package that will save residents around $4.5 billion over the next six years. He’s also managed to eliminate income taxes for around 191,000 Kansan small-business owners.

These pro-business policies have reinvigorated Kansas’s economy. Unemployment stood at 5.9 percent in September, compared to 6.7 percent the previous year, and a national rate of 7.9 percent.

Brownback’s policies have also helped Kansas become more competitive both domestically and globally. This year, Kansas ranked 15th in the nation on CNBC’s “Top States for Business 2012” list, following a similarly strong showing in 2011. And in the first half of this year, the state’s global merchandise exports were 2 percent higher than they had been in at the same time in 2011, according to the International Trade Administration.

But while Brownback has succeeded in removing barriers to economic activity, he’s been less successful at his second goal: reducing spending. The state budget has actually grown slightly since his election. In this context, imposing protectionist policies on government agencies makes even less sense.

A Buy America provision “essentially increases costs for Kansans and for taxpayers, at least potentially, as opposed to promoting the best value,” said James Franko, communications director for the non-partisan Kansas Policy Institute. “It’s not necessarily an issue of where the products are sourced; it’s about delivering the best value to Kansas taxpayers. If we can find cheaper products that deliver the same service to Kansas taxpayers, why wouldn’t we?”

Precisely. Brownback has garnered national attention because his free-market principles have worked for Kansas. He shouldn’t compromise them now. 


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