Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback delivers his State of the State speech to an annual joint session of the House and Senate at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
Photo by Orlin Wagner/AP

Brownback scrambles to clean up his mess

In his first term, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) launched an economic “experiment,” involving massive tax breaks his state obviously couldn’t afford. The result was something of a disaster: state finances are in shambles, the state’s debt rating has been downgraded (twice), and the promised economic boom never materialized.
Brownback was re-elected anyway.
But as the far-right governor gets ready for a second term, he’s left in the awkward position of trying to clean up his mess, which includes a $279 million budget shortfall in 2015, and a projected $436 million gap in 2016. Brownback could scale back some of his lavish tax breaks, which aren’t working anyway, and which would alleviate the problem.
That’s not, however, the governor’s plan. The Kansas City Star ran this report yesterday:
Gov. Sam Brownback plans to transfer $95 million from the state highway fund and cut the budgets of state agencies by 4 percent to help plug a budget deficit.
State agencies will see their budgets reduced by 4 percent from January through June, resulting in about $79 million in savings. The state will also transfer $201 million from dedicated funds, including the highway fund, into its general fund.
Hmm. Given a choice between highway spending, which creates jobs and helps commerce, and tax breaks that aren’t working, Brownback has decided to prioritize the latter.
The Kansas Republican has also decided to divert funds from public pensions to the general fund, which doesn’t seem to be going over well.
The plan drew immediate, bipartisan criticism from state Senate leaders because it would divert $41 million from the pension system for teachers and government workers. Obligations to retirees over the next two decades are only 60 percent funded, and that figure was expected to climb over time thanks to a 2012 law that increased both the state’s and employees’ contributions to stabilize the system’s long-term health.
“It reneges on the commitment that was made,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
In his successful re-election campaign, Brownback pointed repeatedly to the pension fixes – which promised full funding of its obligations in 2033 – as a major accomplishment.
So much for that idea.
Remember, as far as Brownback is concerned, he has a popular mandate from the Kansas electorate. He ruined the state’s finances, won a second term, and sees no need to change course. So, predictably, he’s keeping the tax breaks that didn’t work and slashing public investments even deeper, since this is entirely consistent with the agenda endorsed by voters.
Shortly after the election, Brownback’s budget director said the administration “has no intention of revisiting the state’s tax policy.” Of course not. Why would failure need to be revisited?
Postscript: Two years ago, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of Brownback’s radical economic experiment, “This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do here, in Washington.” Something to keep in mind.