Tax policy puts Kansas governor race in national spotlight

08/17/2014 1:29 PM

08/18/2014 7:05 AM

Nationally known anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist may be out of the country this August, but he’s watching Kansas. Closely.

He knows major tax cuts in the state have made it ground zero in the nation’s long-running argument over the size and scope of government. That, in turn, has made the governor’s race between Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis one of the most important in the country this year.

“The stakes are so large,” Norquist said. “The concept is so important, and it’s not going away.”

Norquist is not the only person scrutinizing Kansas politics and policy. Economists and critics from the left and right have spent weeks poring over obscure budget documents, issuing reports and taking sides in the debate over Brownback’s well-known tax-slashing record and Davis’ criticism of it.

National media outlets from The New York Times to Forbes magazine have weighed in as well.

“The real lesson from Kansas is the enduring power of bad ideas,” liberal columnist Paul Krugman wrote in June.

Will Upton at Americans for Tax Reform reached the opposite conclusion.

“Opponents of tax reform and spending interests want to try and write an early obituary for the Kansas tax reform,” he wrote in July. “Unfortunately for them, the tax cuts are working.”

The ideological argument has sharply elevated the profile of the race, analysts say, and may hold lessons for lawmakers in other states.

The nation is watching. The Kansas tax cuts and credit rating downgrades were issues in the governor’s debate on Thursday — in Iowa.

But the dispute also accentuates the unusually clear choice Kansas voters face in November.

“Kansans do have a very important question in front of them,” said Patrick Ishmael of the conservative Show-Me Institute in Missouri. “How do they want their government to work?”

Such a stark policy difference between two candidates for Kansas governor is unusual. In most other years, Republican and Democratic nominees have disagreed over legislative tactics but have shared roughly similar approaches to state policy.

As a result, those races were largely decided by party identification and personality, not ideology. And they weren’t close.

In the six Kansas governor races since 1990, the average margin of victory for the winning candidate, Republican or Democrat, has been 22 percentage points — the definition of a low-key landslide.

In 1998, Republican Gov. Bill Graves won re-election with 73 percent of the vote, suggesting broad support from Republicans, Democrats and independents.

But a polarizing, ideological contrast between incumbent Brownback and House Minority Leader Davis is expected to yield a very different result this year. Polls have varied wildly, but the Real Clear Politics polling average shows Davis leading Brownback by just two points, 46.3 percent to 44.3 percent. Several outside rating services have called the race a toss-up.

Some outsiders said the closeness of the Kansas race reflects the national divisions between tea party Republicans and more traditional members of the party and holds few lessons for either party nationally.

“The GOP has problems because of a split between pragmatic conservatives and anti-establishment ideologues,” said Stu Rothenberg, a nationally known political analyst. “Kansas has the same kind of split, but it has been much deeper and nastier in the state — and it has lasted much longer.”

But others say the close race in a Republican state shows voters understand the important policy choice they must make.

In interviews and statements, both candidates agree the state faces an unusually distinct decision this fall.

“He (Brownback) wants to turn this state into a red state model,” Davis said. “I sharply disagree with that.”

The Democrat has proposed postponing the next round of tax cuts in Kansas until the state’s income more closely matches his plans for spending.

Brownback, by contrast, thinks Kansas will endorse his attempt to reduce individual and small business taxes despite evidence that the reductions have not yet produced an overwhelming boost to the state’s economy.

“You’ve got to look at your policy choices,” he said on primary night, “and this is really a pretty stark and clear policy choice going into the fall.”

Brownback also is expected to argue that the results of what he once called an “experiment” have been unfairly misconstrued. In his first TV commercial — released Thursday — the governor repeats economic claims he has made in the past, then says, “The sun is shining in Kansas, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

While that argument plays out, experts and political pros disagree over the possible lessons other states might eventually take from the Kansas election results. Some said Brownback’s troubles in a deeply Republican state would provoke other Republican leaders to reconsider their own tax cutting proposals.

“Sometimes ideological experiments bring unintended outcomes,” Oklahoma Republican Ken Miller told The Wall Street Journal in June. “I think Kansas is seeing that, and it serves as a reminder for the rest of us.”

Others were more cautious.

“Republican governors would be likely to say, ‘Well, OK, that’s what happened in Kansas. That’s not necessarily what’s going to happen here,’ ” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Norquist has a similar view.

“If Brownback loses, three states will follow in his wake,” he said. “If he wins, 10 will. It’s such a good idea.”

Mike Leachman of the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says states will learn a different lesson: Major tax cuts don’t boost the economy but require major reductions in spending on schools and other public purposes.

“No matter who wins the governor’s race in Kansas, the fiscal problems that the state faces are going to continue to get attention,” Leachman said.

His view also may become an issue in the governor’s race: Even if voters pick Davis, he’ll still almost certainly face a conservative Republican legislature intent on maintaining the tax reductions it already has passed.

Davis says he thinks lawmakers can be persuaded to revisit tax policy if he is elected governor.

Perhaps.

Partisans may finally interpret November’s results based on their own views of taxes and spending, some experts say, not on whatever message voters want to send. That will complicate the 2015 debate over the state’s budget, regardless of the winner.

“It’s a Rorschach test,” Ishmael of the Show-Me Institute said.

The ink is spreading across the paper, ready for voters to interpret in about 11 weeks.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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