Gov. Sam Brownback was in Washington, D.C., last week boasting at a national political conference that when he took office the state was broke with just $876.05 in its bank account, but now through his leadership the state had $700 million in reserve.
Given the governor’s propensity with budget numbers the late radio commentator Paul Harvey might advise: “And now, the rest of the story.”
As a result of the Great Recession, Kansas state finance was indeed in dire condition the year before Brownback took office. Individual income taxes, the mainstay of state spending, had fallen by $487 million, or 17 percent, in the two prior years. Sales and use taxes had fallen by another $112 million in the same period. And the state’s balance sheet was indeed at zero, on June 30, 2010, six months before Brownback assumed office.
But Brownback had nothing to do with fixing this problem. He was comfortably in the U.S. Senate preparing to run for governor.
Gov. Mark Parkinson and a bipartisan coalition of state legislators did step forward in the 2010 legislative session and address the issue by passing a three-year, 1-cent sales tax, grabbing money from the highway fund, and plugging federal “stimulus” funds into school finance.
The 2010 action taken by these courageous state lawmakers avoided a financial crisis and handed Brownback $1.149 million in added sales and use tax revenues for his first three budgets. A turn in the Kansas economy that began in 2010, again not of Brownback’s doing, added another $500 million in individual income tax receipts to state coffers in the same period.
In sum, that heroic coalition of 2010 plus an economic upturn gave Brownback his $700 million in state balances plus another $1 billion he has applied to state spending.
After all that, Brownback surely fell on his knees and profusely thanked those lawmakers. To the contrary, he turned on them. He joined with his stalwart ally, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, and targeted them for defeat. As a result, 13 incumbent House members in the bipartisan coalition were defeated in November of 2010.
Then, in 2012, Brownback took the unprecedented action of purging legislators of his own party. In alliance again with the Kansas Chamber and other special interest groups, he campaigned against state Senate leadership, and nine incumbent senators were defeated, all of whom were part of the 2010 coalition.
Brownback might attempt to rewrite the recent history of state finance for his own purposes, but Kansans will not find him crowing about state budget balances going forward. His proposed budget of ill-advised tax cuts and election-year spending obliterates the $709 million in state reserves on the books as of last July. He recommends spending in excess of revenues totaling $462 million this year and next, leaving a balance of less than $250 million at the end of next year, over $200 million below that required by state statutes.
And Brownback absolutely refuses to talk about state balances after next year. There will be no balances. State finance will be underwater in a sea of red ink. Brownback’s radical tax policy will leave the state broke.
In the words of Paul Harvey: “And now you know the rest of the story.”
H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University and a member of the Insight Kansas writer’s group.