Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has plans to visit all the Kansas Board of Regents universities. At every university, he reminds them that he proposed level funding, while the state Legislature wants to cut them by either 2 percent in the Kansas Senate or 4 percent in the Kansas House. He then touts the benefits of his tax plans, a major component of which is to continue the state sales tax rate at 6.3 percent instead of letting it drop to 5.7 percent in July.
Then comes the hammer — the universities’ budgets can be spared if the Legislature passes Brownback’s tax initiatives. Even though the state Senate already has signed on to Brownback’s taxing plans, state House Republicans, led by Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stillwell, have not.
Outside Wyandotte County, Democrats and/or moderate Republicans still tend to win legislative seats in or near our university communities. Most of these Democrats, especially those in leadership positions like House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, are committed to making Brownback live with the results of what they consider to be the reckless tax cuts enacted last session.
According to the Consensus Estimating Group report, released this week, Brownback’s income tax reductions will lower state general fund revenues by more than $450 million for Fiscal Year 2014. If the sales tax is also reduced to 5.7 percent in July, the state will lose another $270 million.
If the politics of the past foreshadow the future, one might suspect that Brownback is attempting to cobble together a new version of the moderate coalition in the state House. Some speculate that a bare majority of the GOP House caucus supports Brownback’s plan. If a large portion of the Democratic caucus would change its tune and also support his plan, there would be just enough votes for it to pass.
This would be an interesting development, but the current politics makes this type of scenario very unlikely. Conservative Republicans in the state House have a sour taste in their mouths from the moderate coalitions of yesteryear. They’d prefer to provide all the votes necessary to pass any major policy or budget bill, sans Democrats.
House Democrats don’t appear to be willing partners either. They have spent much of this session saying, “I told you so! Why didn’t you listen?” They are resigned to allow Brownback and the Republicans to live with the ramifications of the tax cuts enacted last year. They will not be volunteering to cast the winning votes for any Brownback policy.
Left in the balance of this new era of politics in Kansas are the universities and Brownback. The universities already have announced that the impact of these proposed budget cuts would be grave, because these cuts come on top of years of flat funding or decreased funding from the state.
What’s in it for Brownback? Since the beginning of his administration, the governor’s budgets have provided level funding for the regents system, despite cuts in other areas. If he loses this battle, or walks away with a compromise solution, he can legitimately claim that he fought the good fight, expending time and political capital for them.
But, he can also point his finger back at Democrats, asking where they were when the tough vote came to keep the sales tax rate at its current level to protect the universities’ budgets?
Even though the Democrats will protest loudly — claiming that it was Brownback’s income tax cuts that caused the budget mess — the governor has maneuvered them into a tough spot, defending policies that hurt Kansas’ universities. This is a shrewd move by a politician who wins even when he seemingly loses.
Joseph A. Aistrup is a political science professor at Kansas State University and a member of the Insight Kansas writing group.