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Chapman Rackaway: Louisiana is a cautionary tale

Since Sam Brownback was elected governor in 2010, the model state for Kansas has been Texas. No surprise there. Texas has made a no-income-tax model work for some time, and Brownback’s close friendship with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry means the two share plenty of ideas.

But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal makes the third member of the low-tax party. And if we look to Texas for guidance, we should also look to Louisiana as a cautionary tale.

Three years before Brownback took over Cedar Crest, Jindal won the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Jindal proposed the biggest tax cut in the state’s history.

Louisiana was flush with oil revenue, and that flow of cash promised to offset the tax cuts. But a sluggish recovery and dropping oil prices have put the brakes on Jindal’s economic supercharger. Now Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion shortfall.

Jindal refuses to consider any sort of revenue enhancements, and three weeks ago publicly vowed to veto the entire state budget if any tax increases were included.

Jindal wants to cut, and is doing so with zeal. Higher education will bear the cruelest brunt of the cuts, to the tune of nearly $300 million, and state flagship Louisiana State University will take the hardest hit of them all with about 80 percent of its state funding being lost under Jindal’s plan. In anticipation of the draconian cuts, LSU has drafted a plan for financial exigency, which allows it to bypass due-process mechanisms and make deep cuts to salaried employee rolls.

If the “Ballad of Bobby Jindal” sounds familiar, it may be because its second act is playing out here. Brownback’s plan was remarkably similar to Jindal’s.

Kansas is not in Louisiana’s hole yet, but a roughly $800 million revenue gap is no reason to issue a self-congratulatory press release.

Louisiana whistles while Rome burns. Kansas knows the house is already on fire.

But will we look at the charred ashes of Louisiana’s experiment and decide to tread a different path, or now go headlong into the breach knowing what is coming? If LSU can be cut 80 percent by the state, then Kansas might be forced to do the same, or even extend drastic cuts to K-12 education.

Will we heed the warnings from bayou country?

Brownback has an opportunity to be a hero now. The plan to attract new business and residents to Kansas was laudable, but the tax cuts did not leave enough money to fund education. The governor has tried to paper over the cracks with block grants, but shuffling how money is distributed doesn’t add money. New revenues are needed.

Low taxes are beneficial, when feasible. Legislators in Topeka are working on tax plans that would bring in some revenue to cover the shortfall. Sales taxes seem to be the default strategy.

If Brownback wants to avoid the disastrous legacy being left by his friend Jindal, he must be willing to sign the new taxes put forth by the Legislature. If so, he can fulfill his commitment to schools and his promise to lower taxes. If not, he could wreak the same kind of havoc in Kansas that Jindal has in Louisiana.

Chapman Rackaway is a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.