Andrew B. Wilson

As first appearing in the Wall Street Journal:

Liberals love to hate Sam Brownback, and for good reason. The Kansas governor threatens a central tenet of liberal orthodoxy: the belief that higher taxes are a price that must be paid for progress.

“If your objective is to grow the economy, would you rather put more money into government, or leave it in the hands of small business?” Mr. Brownback asks during a recent interview in his office at the state capitol. Three years ago Kansas enacted the biggest tax cut of any state, relative to the size of its economy, in recent history. Lawmakers reduced the top rate on the personal income tax to 4.9% from 6.45%. They also eliminated the income tax for small business owners who file as individuals, a broad group that includes sole proprietors, limited liability partnerships and S-corporations.

The governor declared that Kansas was “open for business” in such strong terms that he might as well have donned a sandwich board reading “Come to Kansas / Keep Everything You Earn.” He boasted: “Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.”

The comment was subsequently picked up by critics who wondered why the Kansas economy wasn’t suddenly leaping ahead at, say, 4%-5% growth annually. When Mr. Brownback ran for re-election last year, national reporters descended on the Sunflower State and quickly made Kansas the national symbol for the alleged depredations of “trickle-down economics.” A sampling of headlines includes: “How Tea Party tax cuts are turning Kansas into a smoking ruin,” L.A. Times, July 9; “Kansas’ Ruinous Tax Cuts,” the New York Times, July 13; and “The Great Kansas Tea Party Disaster,” Rolling Stone, Oct. 23.

Yet voters re-elected Mr. Brownback by a four-point margin. What the news coverage missed was that if Kansas hasn’t exactly catapulted into the front ranks in economic growth and employment, then it has at least moved a long way from the stagnation of recent decades. Consider:

• In March 2013, unemployment in Kansas stood at 5.5%. It has since dropped to 4.2%, tied for 14th lowest in the country.

• From 1998-2012, Kansas ranked 38th in private-sector job growth, according Bureau of Labor Statistics data crunched by the Kansas Policy Institute. In 2013—the first year after the tax reform—the state climbed to 27th place, and in 2014 it moved to 21st, placing it in the top half of states.

• In the second half of 2014, hourly wages in Kansas grew 3.5%, according to BLS data, far faster than the national average of 1.9%.

Then there is the Kansas City metropolitan area, a living laboratory that straddles the border with Missouri. On Mr. Brownback’s side of the divide, the top personal income-tax rate is now 4.9%, beginning at $15,000 for single filers; in Missouri the top 6% rate starts at $9,000.

“I just think Kansas City is a great study,” the governor says. “This is an unusual place, where you’ve got a city virtually equally divided between two states.” The results? Over the past two calendar years, private-sector jobs increased by 5.6% on the Kansas side and only 2.2% on the Missouri. In the same period hourly wages grew $1.22 on the Kansas side, compared with $0.61 on the Missouri side.

To Mr. Brownback, those kinds of statistics show the success of his tax cuts. He says a reporter recently asked whether he could “definitively say this wouldn’t have happened” without the reforms. “We don’t have the studies that say that,” he replies, “but we’re in terrain that we have not seen before—and it’s good terrain.”

Such results make intuitive sense. Patti Bossert, who owns two employment agencies in Topeka, estimates the tax cuts saved her firms $40,000 last year. Seeing a windfall on its way, she spent $375,000 to buy and remodel an old building for a new company headquarters. “Our business has been phenomenal,” she says. “Wages are going up, and the big problem now is that there are many more available job openings than there are qualified people to fill them.”

Critics contend that Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts have blown a hole in the state budget—$344 million in the 2015 fiscal year and $600 million in the next. The governor is filling those gaps by moving money from highway projects and delaying some public pension contributions. He has also proposed raising cigarette and alcohol taxes and pausing some of the tax cuts still scheduled to take effect. But he insists that the state will maintain a balanced budget and at the same time “continue our march to zero income taxes.”

Even so, Ms. Bossert worries that budgetary issues could cause the legislature to roll back the tax cuts. “Kansas can’t afford to break the promise it made to small business in 2012,” she says. “We have to stay the course to reap the real long-term benefits of this reform.”

If Mr. Brownback has anything to do with it, Kansas will stand firm. The governor expresses mild regret that his use of “colorful language”—the shot of adrenaline line—became a distraction. But he’s still eager to take on liberal assumptions across a host of issues, including the best way to eliminate poverty.

“I love the debate on wage growth because the left wants to push mandatory minimum-wage growth,” he tells me. “They want to do it by statute, and we will do it by growth.”

Mr. Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the St. Louis-based Show-Me Institute.

 

About the Author

Andrew Wilson
Fellow and Senior Writer

A former foreign correspondent who spent four years in the Middle East and served as Business Week’s London bureau chief during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms as Britain’s prime minister, Andrew is a regular contributor to leading national publications, including the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal.