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A Strange Political Dustup Clouds Kansas Governor's Future

Paul Davis, third from left, the presumed Democratic nominee for Kansas governor, receives the endorsements of more than 100 current and former Republican politicians on July 15, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.
Charlie Riedel
Paul Davis, third from left, the presumed Democratic nominee for Kansas governor, receives the endorsements of more than 100 current and former Republican politicians on July 15, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.

Kansas's Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is locked in an unexpectedly tough re-election battle for doing exactly what he said he would do — cut taxes.

Citing mounting evidence that those tax cuts are creating a budget crisis – not stimulating the Kansas economy as promised — some in the state's moderate Republican establishment recently did the unthinkable: endorse a Democrat for governor.

That's not only endangering Brownback's re-election hopes, it's also tarnishing his plans to turn one of the reddest of red states into a national model.

Sam Brownback left the U.S. Senate to run for governor intending to demonstrate he could use conservative policies to reverse decades of population and economic decline in his home state. He easily won the 2010 race, and immediately began implementing and promoting what he calls his red-state model.

"You've got really two models developing: You've got this red state model and blue state model," he explained in a recent interview with the Heritage Foundation. "And one of these models is going to end up winning out and that model is going to go, I think, nationwide. I really hope it's the red state, lower taxes, less government, more freedom model."

Tax cuts are the most important part of the red-state model, and Brownback argues that lowering and eventually eliminating state income taxes will make Kansas a top choice for entrepreneurs and job creators.

His efforts to sell his model as a path forward for other states caught the attention of Michael Leachman, a researcher at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"The tax cuts that Kansas implemented a couple of years ago and took effect at the beginning of 2013 were one of the biggest state tax cuts in history," he explains. "And now a number of other states are pointing to Kansas as a model for how you can use very large tax cuts to promote economic growth."

But so far, Leachman says, following Kansas's lead may not be a good idea. The tax cuts haven't generated anything close to the economic "shot of adrenaline" that Gov. Brownback promised.

"There is no evidence of any boost to the state's economy," he says. "Kansas's job growth since the tax cuts took effect is actually a little slower than job growth has been nationally."

If a lack of immediate results was all that Sam Brownback had to worry about, he could appeal for patience. But there is mounting evidence that his tax cuts are largely responsible for a sudden and sharp drop in state revenues.

Senate Democratic leader Anthony Hensley says if the trend continues the state soon will burn through its cash reserves, forcing legislators to deal with a burgeoning budget crisis when they return to Topeka in January.

"I think the governor is in a serious state of denial right now about the fiscal condition of the state," he says, chuckling.

The specter of cutting funding to schools, universities and a popular highway program by hundreds of millions of dollars is political fodder for House Minority Leader Paul Davis, Brownback's likely Democratic opponent in the fall.

A poll conducted in June showed Davis leading Brownback by six points.

That has spurred some moderate Republicans to do something quite unexpected. Just last week, more than 100 of them — all current or former elected officials — endorsed Davis.

"We are all Republicans but we will always be Kansans first," says former state Sen. Wint Winter Jr., who helped organize the uprising. "We stand today united in the belief that under the current Republican governor Kansas is going in the wrong direction."

But Brownback is not backing down and insists his tax cuts are starting to work. At a recent campaign rally, he cited a discussion with a business owner he hired to help with his daughter's recent wedding.

"He looks at me and says, 'hey, you're the governor right? Yeah, Yeah. 'That tax deal that you did; that's really helped my little small business out," he says. "And I said, good, good. What are you going to do with the money? He said, 'well I'm looking this fall at buying another truck and hiring another guy to run the truck."

Whether voters give Brownback and his experiment more time could depend on just how much worse — or better — the state's fiscal problems get between now and November.

Copyright 2021 Kansas Public Radio. To see more, visit Kansas Public Radio.

Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KCUR 89.3. He is the managing director of KCUR's Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations across Kansas.