It’s increasingly clear that Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts will be the central focus of the 2014 governor’s race. It’s also clear that both major-party candidates – Republican Brownback and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence – will face tough questions about those tax cuts in the coming campaign.
Brownback, for example, will be asked for proof that the year-old cuts have helped grow jobs in the state. And so far, employment growth has proved more tepid than Brownback wants.
The most generous data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, show Kansas added 14,500 private-sector jobs, seasonally adjusted, from December 2012 to November 2013, a growth rate of 1.3 percent.
But Missouri, without the broad-based Kansas tax cuts, added 44,600 private-sector jobs over the same period – a much-better growth rate of almost 2 percent.
Kansas does better if you count government jobs. The state added them last year while Missouri lost them. (In a weekend conversation, though, a tax-slashing, anti-government Kansas state senator furiously told me public jobs can’t be part of the scorecard, so I’m happy to leave them out. Even though it hurts the governor’s case, and the legislator’s.)
Other state Republicans say Kansans must wait a year or two before they gauge the job effects of the governor’s budget.
But higher college tuition, reduced money for some school operations, tougher rules for public assistance and a host of other reductions are the reality now. Kansans will want to know the growth results of the tax cuts now. By any reasonable measure, they’ve been weak.
Another feature of Brownback’s tax cuts poses a political problem for Davis. While the reductions may not attract many jobs, they are putting real cash into Kansans’ pockets.
Taxpayers, filing their returns this spring, will notice fatter refund checks. That means Davis will have to decide whether he wants to repeal the Brownback tax cuts to provide more for schools, prisons, roads and health care.
Campaigning on a tax increase is typically not a wise strategy.
So Kansans will face a difficult, fascinating choice this year: The Brownback tax cuts may not be working – not yet – but many Kansans will think fixing the problem would hurt even more.