Opinion Columns & Blogs

Kansas better when citizens empowered, not constrained

James Franko, vice president and policy director of Kansas Policy Institute.
James Franko, vice president and policy director of Kansas Policy Institute.

America and Kansas are at their best when trusted and called to a greater end. That does not necessarily demand military service or a space program. For much of our history, that call was to create vibrant communities, raise families, start businesses, and pass on our inheritance of liberty to another generation.

Our republic totters when we do not trust our citizens to care for themselves and others. Instead of pulling together as a community we, instead, are scared into looking to Washington or Topeka for protection. President Reagan’s farewell address framed it by saying, “As government expands, liberty contracts.”

Yet, there is a role for government to play in creating an environment whereby average Kansans can solve their communities’ problems. The liberty to address these challenges recedes as government grows. Regulations, mandates, and taxes all represent opportunities for government to help individuals serve others or to make some of those problems worse.

It is against this backdrop, and the largest tax hike in state history in 2017, that the 2018 Kansas Legislature demanded more from taxpayers as spending and taxes continued their rise.

Most Kansans will see their federal taxes reduced this year, thanks to Congress, but some will have to pay higher state income tax because of how state laws are connected to federal law. State legislation was proposed to prevent this state tax hike. A yes vote would not have cut state taxes from budgeted levels, but simply protected citizens from an increase, whereas a no vote would ensure the tax increase.

The Senate narrowly voted to protect citizens. The House rejected the legislation and its action will cause Kansans to be hit with an estimated two-year, $210 million tax increase.

Taxes don’t need to be increased to provide quality services. Citizens shouldn’t be scared into higher taxes for fear of deteriorating roads, shuttered schools, or a frayed safety net. Every state provides the same basic services, but those that do so more efficiently are able to tax less, benefiting everyone.

One of the goals of the 2012 tax cuts was to break a four-decade cycle of economic stagnation in Kansas. Unfortunately, it is clear we are lagging back into stagnation as new data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show Kansas private-sector gross domestic product is growing at less than half the rate of the nation as a whole. The tax hikes of 2017 risk a worsening situation of lagging job and GDP growth dating from the 1980s.

Tax revenue outpaces inflation by nearly $2 billion since 1995 and some worry it may not be enough. Many in the Legislature are concerned about further Supreme Court mandates on school spending, despite $818 million already added in the last two years.

Taxes matter and government has a role to play in creating a healthy, attractive state. Yet, too many in Topeka allowed themselves to be scared into a defensive crouch and, in turn, have spooked their constituents into the same. Too many seem content reaching further into our pockets instead of trusting us to address the real challenges facing our state. As Kansas government grew yet again in 2018, it is the average Kansas family that may find it harder to find a job, support a local charity, or see their children grow close to home.

James Franko is vice president and policy director at Kansas Policy Institute.