Being Stupid More Slowly in Kansas

Remember Sam Brownback? You know, the Kansas governor whose fiscal policies were so disastrous that he barely won re-election in one of the reddest states in one of the reddest cycles in memory, while also benefiting from a national GOP rescue effort for endangered Sen. Pat Roberts? Yeah, that Sam Brownback.

Well, his state’s fiscal mess has gotten worse, not better, since he limped through to victory, and per a report from The Atlantic‘s Russell Berman, he’s retreating from his delusions very slowly.

Kansas’s red ink has left the governor red- faced. Brownback is asking Republican state lawmakers to slow the income tax cuts over the next few years, raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, overhaul school funding, and divert money from the state’s highway fund in order to balance the budget. It’s not as if he’s abandoning his conservative economic philosophy—he still wants to replace the state’s income tax entirely with consumption taxes over time. And like any politician on the ropes, he is preaching patience. “These things take time,” he said last month. He also acknowledged the toll his stumbles have taken on his image. “We’re in Lent season, so I’m giving up worldly things, like popularity,” he joked to a small crowd. Brownback has blamed the budget shortfall in part on automatic increases in education spending (a subject of a long-running court dispute), and he’s cited a recent uptick in job growth as evidence that the tax cuts, on the whole, are working. “Kansas is on the rise, and the state of our state is strong,” the governor proclaimed in an annual budget address in January.

Regular readers know what I think about this whole proposition of state policies having a big and immediate impact on economic trends. It’s mostly a matter of the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. Trouble is, while the linkage between state tax policies and state economic performance is largely hypothetical, and the evidence for the supply-side proposition is non-existent, the linkage between state tax policies and state revenues is very real and tangible. Now it would probably be fine with Brownback if the ultimate consequences of his “real live experiment” were a big cutback in safety net and education spending–a very classic “starve the beast” scenario. But that was too much for a Republican-controlled legislature, so instead the governor is just putting the ruination of his state on slow motion. And here’s the thing: even if Brownback’s tax policies hurt Kansas or fail according to his own standards, there’s no question they will help his strongest and wealthiest supporters, including the Brothers Koch. So in that respect, Brownback cannot fail.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.