How Kansas Is Selling Sam Brownback’s Failed Trickle-Down Tax Cuts

Charlie Riedel/AP

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s reelection campaign is in serious trouble. The latest poll has the incumbent Republican losing to his Democratic opponent by 4 percentage points.

As I explained in our November/December issue, Brownback’s woes can largely be traced back to the drastic tax cuts for the wealthy that he pushed through the state legislature. Kansas’ tax rate for top earners dropped from 6.45 to 4.9 percent, with further future cuts baked in. The cuts were even more generous for business owners, entirely wiping away their tax burden for pass-through income.

Brownback sold his tax cuts on supply-side promises of unbounded future growth, but the results have been less than stellar: While the state’s unemployment rate, like the national jobless rate, has dropped over the past few years, Kansas’ economic growth has lagged behind its neighbors’.

Despite these disappointing results, the state has settled on enticing out-of-state businesses with its low tax rate. Check out this full-page ad from the Kansas Department of Commerce, scanned from an issue of the US Small Business Administration’s magazine Small Business Resource by a reader:

That ad’s pitch—”one of the most pro-growth tax policies in the country” leads to “a perfect state”—lines up with the theories of free-market economist Arthur Laffer, the grand poobah of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. Brownback cited Laffer’s work to justify his cuts. During the thick of the legislative debate, he flew Laffer in for a three-day sales pitch, costing the state $75,000.

When I called Laffer in August, he excitedly proclaimed that Brownback’s cuts would prove a resounding success. “I’ll make you a very large bet that Kansas will improve its relative position to the US over, let’s say, eight years, hands down. I’ll bet you with great odds,” he told me. “I feel very confident that what Sam Brownback has done is and will be extraordinarily beneficial for the state of Kansas.”

As Laffer saw it, low tax rates would entice out-of-state residents and businesses to relocate. Laffer himself had moved to Tennessee sight unseen nine years ago, fleeing from California because of the Volunteer State’s lack of income tax. “In someplace like Kansas, I don’t think the income tax makes any sense whatsoever,” Laffer said. “That’s what we’re trying to move toward in Kansas. The income tax is a killer.”

Except that magical migration hasn’t developed yet. In August, the state added just 900 jobs, with a tepid growth rate of just half a percent for the full year. Maybe I should have made that bet with Laffer.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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