Chapman Rackaway: Davis dodging the tax question

07/06/2014 12:00 AM

07/03/2014 5:20 PM

Spare a thought for Paul Davis. The House minority leader from Lawrence doesn’t seem like he needs sympathy, so offering it might seem odd.

Davis is unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and will face an unpopular opponent in the general election. He also is enjoying successful fundraising.

But everything isn’t roses and rainbows. Strategically, he has to navigate a difficult route with a massive, thorny political trap.

Davis’ message so far has been against Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to reduce income and corporate taxes to zero over time to spur job growth. While state revenues and job growth have been less than projected and brought negative national attention to Kansas, Davis has been able to capitalize on it and even leads Brownback in some polls.

Why the sympathy then? Because Brownback is in a stronger strategic position.

Taxes are tough to campaign on, unless you want to cut them. For eight months now, Davis has criticized the governor’s plan without sharing his vision. The unspoken great mystery of the campaign to date has been: What would Davis do about taxes?

In simple terms, Brownback has lowered taxes. If Brownback’s tactic was as disastrous as Davis claims, the answer is to raise them. But this is politics, and it’s never that simple.

Davis finally released his alternative plan last week, and it lays his delicate position bare.

Beyond boilerplate promises to fight for universally popular items like K-12 education and roads, Davis’ plan was remarkably short on detail. Davis’ plan would stop the automatic reductions in income tax passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Brownback in 2012. But reversing would require assistance from the same Legislature that passed the tax cuts in the first place.

How would Davis get a conservative-dominated Legislature to agree to erase its signature policy?

But the biggest sign that Davis’ situation is delicate is his punt on a substantive tax plan. Since openly vowing to raise taxes would stall his momentum, Davis has promised only to postpone any decision on taxes until after the election. Specifically, Davis’ press release stated that once in office, he would establish a commission to address “accountability measures within the tax code and targeted incentives for job growth” and “proposals aimed at reversing the $400 million property tax increase that has occurred during the Brownback administration.”

Davis’ quasi-plan is smart politics on paper. Davis has been riding high. But strategically he is facing a challenge he hopes the commission plan will let him sidestep.

Brownback’s position is clear, simple and direct: Tax cuts help grow jobs, and the cuts just need time to work. Davis’ position is more complex and harder to campaign on: If property taxes are too high and revenues too low, he must increase taxes in some fashion. But promising to raise taxes in an election year is a nonstarter, so perhaps the only viable strategy is to promise to do something once elected.

Davis has basically chosen to dodge the question entirely. By proposing the commission, he can say there is no tax increase with a straight face. But at some point Davis will have to make a definitive statement on taxes.

The plan might be smart politics, but diving into the inevitable tax trap has only been delayed.

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