Gov. Sam Brownback went to the University of Kansas recently and rhapsodized about his tax-cut legislation. “We are trying to create a pro-growth environment,” he said, as he defended the large and highly weighted (to partnerships, trusts, sole proprietors, etc.) tax cuts enacted last May.
Like some poker pro, the governor has pushed most of the state’s chips into the pot, banking on the power of tax cuts to help us attract new investment to Kansas.
The entire tax-cut philosophy rests on shaky ground, but state taxes unquestionably play some role in business decisions. Still, the quality of the workforce, the strength of schools, good transportation and various amenities are also significant. Indeed, any state seeking to attract new business must be seen as an attractive destination.
And there’s the rub.
Over the past two years, the Brownback administration and Secretary of State Kris Kobach have done a tremendous job in making the state appear unattractive to exactly the kind of high-quality, financially sound firms and startups that would provide a powerful wave of good new jobs.
Most recently, we have experienced the fatuous “birther” controversy, which Kobach and the State Objections Board needlessly fueled to the point of legitimizing a trivial complaint that could have been dismissed with no fanfare. Rather, the board extended the agony by seeking further documentation, only to have the request withdrawn. Across the country, the news stories and editorials were withering in their criticism.
The state of Kansas again became the butt of national – even international – jokes. Blessed by the presence at the hearing of Orly Taitz, the so-called queen of the birthers, Kansas was once more painted with the broad brushstrokes of political weirdness and intolerance.
Such a portrait, of course, is just what the state needs in the wake of two decades of creationist controversies, unending Westboro Baptist Church protests, a governor whose administration monitors a student’s Twitter account, and a secretary of state who flies around the country amping up a nasty, ego-satisfying campaign against any presence of illegal immigrants. And don’t forget Kobach’s sterling anti-immigrant, anti-Shariah law stances at the GOP convention.
All these incendiary statements, false steps and flat-out blunders encourage the thought that perhaps there has been a cagey plot to make prospective employers, along with thousands of well-qualified professionals recruited by the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility and the KU Cancer Center, think long and hard about putting down roots in Kansas.
In contrast, as illustrated by economist and social scientist Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” argument, it is good schools, lively cities, safe suburbs and thriving arts communities that attract the most innovative firms and the most accomplished professionals.
Who knows? Maybe cutting taxes to the bone will prove a great boon to the Kansas economy. But this narrow policy choice must navigate upstream, against an unceasing flow of national news that makes the state look spiteful and stupid.
I’m not sure we can lower taxes enough to overwhelm the torrent of negative stories that shows no sign of drying up.