Message from Kansas: Learn from Our Mistakes

By Suzanne Wikle

The recently unveiled U.S. House Republican tax plan is modeled heavily on a 2012 Kansas tax bill. Many components of the House bill echo the Kansas “tax experiment,” as Governor Brownback described it—doubling the standard deduction, limiting itemized deductions, eliminating or restricting tax credits for low-income families, reducing the number of income tax brackets, and steeply cutting business taxes. 

As a Kansan, I can tell you that the Kansas “experiment” failed terribly. Kansans—particularly low-income residents and children—bore the brunt.  Contrary to claims that tax cuts would stimulate growth, Kansas’ revenue plummeted at the same time many other states were beginning to emerge from the Great Recession. Critical services like education, health care (including Medicaid provider cuts), public safety, and infrastructure maintenance were cut drastically. Many schools, which struggled to retain and attract teachers, were forced to eliminate positions such as school nurses and librarians. On top of this, many local communities increased property tax and/or sales tax, increasing local tax burden and creating more regressive tax policy.  

The United States must learn from the Kansas experiment: we now know this approach to tax policy doesn’t generate additional revenue and doesn’t lead to better jobs outcomes

If the House Republican plan becomes law, the next step will be to cut expenditures to make up for lost revenue. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House tax will cause a $1.7 trillion increase in the deficit over the next decade—and more thereafter. House Republicans have already signaled plans to cut critical programs—such as Medicaid, Pell grants, food assistance, and many other supports—in order to pay for the massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations. This isn’t how we maintain the possibility of the much-vaunted American Dream. Rather, this is how we stratify and divide the American people.

Kansans recognized this and fought back at the ballot box. The 2016 elections played out very differently in Kansas than elsewhere. The anti-tax hardliners who had pushed through the tax cuts were ousted from the Kansas house, while enough moderate Republican and Democrats won to form a coalition able to partially repeal the 2012 tax cuts and override Governor Brownback’s veto. The people of Kansas spoke and policymakers listened, but the damage can’t be undone as quickly as it happened. We still haven’t restored all the cuts to education, and we’ve raided revenue sources like the highway fund, which will need new financing.  

Kansas has a proud history of leading the country on important political movements, including women’s right to vote and (for better or worse) prohibition. There’s a saying that “as Kansas goes, so goes the nation.” Tax policy, however, should not be added to the list of things Kansas has led on. In fact, Congress should learn the economic and political lessons from Kansas’ mistakes, and rethink its approach on taxes. 

Suzanne Wikle—a native Kansan and resident of Lawrence, KS—is a senior policy analyst at CLASP.