Kansas governor wants no tax debate, expects no budget drama
Topeka Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says Kansas legislators shouldn't tinker further with tax laws next year and argues that the state budget is in "good shape" despite a projected shortfall because his economic policies are working.
The term-limited governor spent part of a recent Associated Press interview throwing out statistics aimed at bolstering his argument that the deep cuts in personal income taxes that he championed in past years are boosting the economy as he had predicted. The state has struggled to balance its $15 billion budget since those reductions; Kansas hiked sales and cigarette taxes earlier this year and still faces a projected deficit of about $160 million for the fiscal year that begins in July.
Brownback declined to discuss details of how he'll close the projected gap, and he brushed aside suggestions that painful budget cuts will be necessary.
"I think we're going to be in good shape," the governor said. "I think we're going to be able to work our way on through, provided we don't have just a real big global economic set of problems."
Brownback won a second four-year term last year, even though exit polling showed a majority of voters didn't think the state benefitted from the income tax cuts he persuaded GOP lawmakers to pass as an economic stimulus.
Democrats and other Brownback critics contend that the state's ongoing budget problems prove that his economic policies have failed. State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, scoffed at what he said was Brownback's insistence that, "the sun is shining in Kansas."
"It's a political spin that, right now, isn't being bought by the people," Hensley said.
Brownback noted that the state's unemployment rate in October, 4.1 percent, was the lowest it has been in more than 14 years. The state Department of Labor reported that the average hourly wage in Kansas has increased by 7 percent since 2011.
The governor said positive economic signs are coming, even though three major sectors for the state — aviation, agriculture and oil and gas production — have slumped.
"There hasn't been the coverage of, well, is the tax plan working or not to create jobs?" Brownback said. "I would think that the public would be interested in that."
He expressed frustration that that critics continually insist that cutting income taxes "hasn't worked."
"And it has worked," he said.
Hensley contends that Kansas is seeing the benefits of a stronger national economy.
"I think the president deserves some credit in all of this," he said.
Brownback's backward glance has implications for the annual legislative session that opens in January.
Facing a previous budget shortfall earlier this year, even some of his fellow Republicans wanted to backtrack on a 2012 policy that exempted more than 330,000 farmers and business owners from income taxes. The governor managed to preserve most of the tax break — along with other income tax cuts he had pushed.
"I don't think we ought to be messing with taxes," he said.
He added: "The moral argument is that we give big business a huge tax break, and why do we do it? To get their jobs. What we're doing here is — it's the same moral argument — we're giving small business a tax break and why are you doing it? To get jobs."
As for the budget, Hensley predicted Brownback would again seek to divert highway funds to general government programs. Governors of both parties have relied on such shuffling to plug budget gaps and Brownback's administration already plans to divert $50 million in the current budget to allow the state to continue paying its bills on time.
Brownback wouldn't say whether he'll hit transportation funds again, but he said new federal highway legislation should bring additional dollars to Kansas and added that low petroleum prices will make projects the state has planned less expensive. Those comments suggested another diversion is at least under consideration.