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Running out of options, Brownback revisits tax policy

After demanding tax breaks Kansas couldn't afford, the state's far-right governor is changing course -- sort of.
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback talks to supporters during a campaign event on Nov. 1, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback talks to supporters during a campaign event on Nov. 1, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) managed to win a second term last fall, despite the results of his radical economic "experiment," which resulted in debt downgrades, weak growth, and state finances in shambles. Shortly after the election, the governor's budget director nevertheless said the administration "has no intention of revisiting the state's tax policy."
Three months later, it turns out this posture wasn't sustainable. With Kansas' fiscal nightmare growing considerably worse, and Brownback's tax breaks obviously going too far, the governor has decided to change course -- sort of.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, whose massive tax cuts became a cause célèbre for conservatives but threw his state's budget into disarray, announced Friday that he would pursue tax increases. In a stark turnaround, the Republican called for higher taxes on cigarettes and liquor as part of his annual budget while proposing to make future tax cuts contingent on revenue projections.

The Politico report quoted Meg Wiehe, state policy director at the liberal-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, saying, "We've seen this exploding budget gap, and this year, after three years of this experience, the recognition is they have to put a halt on these tax cuts." said 
Which is a polite way of saying, "We told you so."
Note, however, that there are two elements to Brownback's new approach. The first is pausing tax breaks that were scheduled to kick in automatically, but which Kansas can't afford. That's not a return to fiscal sanity, so much as it's a decision to stop making the hole at the bottom of Brownback's boat deliberately larger.
The second is intended to actually improve state finances through increased revenue, by way of what some call "sin taxes" -- the tax on a pack of cigarettes will nearly triple from 79 cents to $2.29, while liquor taxes will jump from 8% to 12%.
The fact that Brownback is changing direction at all seems like a minor miracle, and anything that helps address Kansas' self-imposed disaster is probably a step in the right direction, but let's not set the bar too low. The Republican governor could have reversed some of the pointless income-tax cuts he approved in his first term, but instead, he's moving in a more regressive direction.
As Melissa Harris-Perry put it in an open letter to Brownback over the weekend, "You certainly are consistent. You still have no intention of asking the highest earners to pay their fair share. Instead, the poorest people in your state will bear the brunt of your mistakes."
Complicating matters, some of the governor's allies are still wary of any tax increase on anyone, ever.

Even some lawmakers who generally align philosophically with Mr. Brownback, who started his second term this month, seemed wary of parts of his proposal. Republicans control the Legislature. "He's proposed some revenue enhancements that I think the Legislature will have a great difficulty passing," said Senator Susan Wagle, the chamber's Republican president. "That's [a] tax increase."

What an incredible fiasco.