Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dave Helling: Calculator is state’s enemy


Through much of the 1960s, the great political cartoonist Herblock usually drew Richard Nixon with an ominous five o’clock shadow – a gray smear beneath a ski-jump nose and heavy eyebrows.

Until 1968. After Nixon won the race for the White House that year, Block offered an olive branch of sorts: “This shop gives to every new president of the United States a free shave,” his cartoon said.

In that spirit, let’s offer Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback best wishes as he begins his second term – and a fair opportunity to reset his stewardship of the state.

It won’t be easy, of course. Brownback’s first-term efforts to remake tax policy have put the Kansas budget in a potentially dangerous hole, a problem that deepened when a three-judge panel in Topeka ruled that schools remain underfunded.

It’s difficult to see how the governor can make all the budget pieces fit this year.

Yet Kansas voters knew about those problems in November and re-elected Brownback anyway. In fact, his political trajectory strangely resembles that of Barack Obama. Both unapologetically sought big-picture, first-term reforms (tax cuts in Kansas, health coverage through the feds). Both struggled to implement those reforms. And both were re-elected to second terms despite serious opposition.

Kansans, we now know, are willing to give Brownback the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s hope he returns the favor by being completely candid about the size of the challenge ahead. During the campaign, Brownback insisted the sun is shining in the state, a claim that wasn’t accurate. Revenue continues to slide, jobs are growing more slowly than in the rest of the nation, and people are still moving away.

A simple admission that his tax cuts haven’t worked as quickly as he hoped would buy Brownback enormous goodwill. That, followed by a reasonable proposal to restore the state’s solvency, would likely give the governor the final-term legacy he clearly seeks.

Any such plan will almost certainly have to include increasing state revenue. That doesn’t have to mean an income tax hike: a broader tax base, maybe, or a higher gas tax could fatten the Kansas bank account. Postponing the next round of income tax reductions seems unavoidable, but revenue-increasing tax changes might also do the trick.

Most Kansans understand that Democrats and judges aren’t the enemy – the calculator is. Let’s hope Brownback took the oath Monday with a good one in his pocket.

Dave Helling writes for the Kansas City Star.