Even if the $310 million disparity between revenue projections and tax collections turns out to have been a two-month phenomenon rather than the start of a cliff dive, Kansans should demand that candidates, including likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis, say how they’d handle the state’s worrisome finances.
As the Kansas City Star recently reported, Davis freely criticizes Gov. Sam Brownback’s historic income tax cuts for sharply reducing revenues while failing to deliver the promised economic dividends. But Davis, the House minority leader and a Lawrence attorney, can’t turn back time and refight the 2012 duel between the House and Senate that led to the deeply flawed tax reform. He needs to articulate the way forward as he sees it.
Telling voters what he told the Star – “I’m just spending a lot of time talking to business leaders and community leaders about how they believe we ought to grow the economy” – is dodging the question. So is promising to unveil plans later in the campaign.
Would Davis advocate that lawmakers raise taxes? Would he tell the 190,000 or so business owners who just saw their personal income taxes eliminated to pay up again?
Because any tax increases seem highly unlikely given the conservative dominance and leadership in the Legislature, this question goes to the heart of whether Davis could be an effective governor.
The many candidates of both parties running against the status quo have a similar responsibility to do more than say what’s wrong.
If they would raise taxes, which ones and when? If they would just slow down the phase-in of the still pending income tax cuts, and cut spending to better match available revenues, they need to specify that, too.
Of course, the culpability for the tax cuts falls on Brownback and many of the incumbent House members now running with him for re-election. They need to be pinned down on what they plan to do once reserves can’t cover the gap between revenues and spending.
What actions would they take to reassure Moody’s Investors Service, which recently downgraded the state’s credit rating, that Kansas is on a sustainable fiscal course?
It’s easy to declare it great news that government has less to spend and to call vaguely for more and more spending cuts. But in 2014 lawmakers and the governor already had to backtrack on reductions made in 2013 for corrections and higher education; in the case of prisons, the cuts went too deep for public safety. Cutting is far harder than it sounds, especially after years of reductions across agencies affecting core services and vulnerable populations.
As the tax cuts put stress on the state budget, voters need to ask incumbents and challengers alike to explain how they’d make things right.