Lawmakers Finally Rejected Sam Brownback’s Bad Economic Policies

Casey Quinlan Policy Reporter, Think Progress

Kansas is in a fiscal crisis. Lawmakers have to close an over $300 million deficit by this month. Infrastructure spending has been put on hold, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that public schools aren’t being equitably funded, and the failure to expand Medicaid has hurt vulnerable Kansans and cost the state billions.

All of these factors served as a wake-up call to state lawmakers, who have finally turned on Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and rejected his economic policies. On Tuesday night, a coalition of Kansas lawmakers — conservatives, moderate Republicans, and Democrats — rolled back tax cuts that haven’t delivered on the promise of stimulating the state economy. Kansas will raise taxes $1.2 billion over the next couple years to cover its deficit.

Although the repudiation of Brownback’s tax cut experiment from members of his own party was dramatic, especially to outsiders, Kansans aren’t surprised. The rejection of his trickle-down economic policies has been brewing for years.

The harmful consequences of a bad tax policy

In 2012, Gov. Brownback cut personal income tax rates, got rid of the top tax bracket, lowered the sales tax, and eliminated non-wage income taxes for small businesses. He said he wanted to make the state part of a “real-live experiment” to see how conservative policies would work. But since his policies took effect, the state has been battling challenges on multiple fronts.

The employment rate in Kansas grew by only 2.6 percent — significantly smaller than the average 6.5 percent growth nationally in the same period of time. The state’s economy has also grown less than half as fast as the rest of the country, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Taxpayers in the bottom 40 percent experienced an increase in their taxes, according to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

“When the 2012 tax plan was passed, we were told it would be a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy, and instead we’ve seen the opposite happen,” said Heidi Holliday, executive director of Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

Kansas’ General Fund shrunk from over $700 million in 2013 to $40 million in 2016, and the state’s bond rating has been downgraded twice. Infrastructure projects have been put on hold. Per-pupil aid for public schools fell during Brownback’s tenure, and the state’s Supreme Court ruled that Kansas failed to abide by the state constitution’s requirement to provide equitable funding for school districts.

In addition to the governor’s sweeping tax cuts, health care advocates said his failure to expand Medicaid has cost the state billions and his decision to privatize the state’s Medicaid system has harmed the quality of care Kansans receive.

Brownback vetoed Medicaid expansion again earlier this year. His spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, told The Atlantic, “Kansas must prioritize the care and service of vulnerable Kansans, addressing their health-care needs in a sustainable way, not expanding a failing entitlement program to able-bodied adults.”

David Jordan, executive director of Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, a statewide coalition of health care industry and health advocacy groups, said Brownback’s actions have seriously threatened Kansans’ health — especially the reductions in reimbursement rates for providers accepting Medicaid patients, the lack of oversight for the state’s Medicaid system, and the decision not to expand Medicaid.

“Over the last five years, the governor has systematically harmed the state’s safety net, threatening the health of our most vulnerable Kansans through the privatization of state’s Medicaid program and lack of transparency and accountability in the oversight of the state Medicaid program,” Jordan said.

Before President Trump was sworn into office, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials said Kansas was out of compliance with federal statutes and regulations, that communication from the state to the public was “adversarial” and that there was less oversight from the state. Thus, officials rejected the state’s request to extend its program.

How the tide turned against Brownback

All of these factors and more proved to lawmakers that the tax cuts weren’t sustainable and that the only option was to reject them, local experts on tax policy said. The state’s Supreme Court ruling on school funding in particular ensured that many state lawmakers wouldn’t have the political wiggle room to keep tax cuts.

“A lot of education groups were mobilized by the Supreme Court ruling this spring, and that we would need revenue to pay for any school finance formula that moves forward,” Holliday said. “That really increased the urgency of the tax reform efforts that were there already in Kansas.”

A few factors likely played into Republican legislators’ decisions to finally oppose the tax cuts: the urgency of the state deficit, the presence of more moderate Republican lawmakers in office after the last election, the school funding decision, and the governor’s waning influence in the legislature. Mark Peterson, a political science professor at Washburn University, said there wasn’t time to do anything else given the fact that the state was running out of money.

“When the governor gave his veto message there was a general recognition that he had no compromises or offers that made sense. The die-hard ‘We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.’ crowd wasn’t gaining any new public or legislative supporters,” Peterson told ThinkProgress over email. “So a few of the less conservative members of the most conservative Republicans in the House and Senate gave it up, held their noses and cast the necessary two to four votes in each chamber to provide the two/thirds override votes necessary to quash the governor’s veto. There wasn’t time or will to do anything as an alternative.”

“The die-hard ‘We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.’ crowd wasn’t gaining any new public or legislative supporters.”

Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas, said voters began to react to Brownback’s policies a few years ago.

Although Brownback was reelected in 2014, there was heavy criticism of his tax cuts and he had an approval rating under 50 percent. Loomis said rather than a wave of popular support, Brownback’s win may have been due to an influx of money coming into the state to support Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), who was on shaky ground that election year. Outside groups spent $10 million on ads for Roberts and against his opponent, and both Roberts and Brownback won the election that year. But in 2016, the same year that the governor’s approval rating fell to 26 percent, a number of moderate Republicans defeated incumbent conservatives, which served as a rebuke of the governor’s policies.

“[The Roberts campaign] nationalized the election and made it more Republican than the electorate, so I think Brownback benefited from that,” Loomis said. “There was handwriting on the wall then, and by 2015 and 2016, the state of the economy and state of the government were so bad that average people were really getting it. It was a reaction to Brownback’s policies, but it just took a while. This is a Republican state. It took a while for that to sink in, but it did sink in and the 2016 election demonstrated that.”

What lies ahead for the Kansas economy

The future of the state’s Medicaid, school funding, and financial footing still haven’t been settled. The governor has not confirmed whether or not he will sign a bill to increase public school spending by $300 million, and it’s unclear if that funding will even comply with the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling. A number of spending cuts, made over the years due to the tax cuts, also need to be restored — especially in areas like the state highway fund. An almost $100 million payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement has been delayed.

“Last night’s vote was phenomenal for our state, but it’s only a first step. There is a lot of damage that needs to be repaired in our state,” Holliday said. “We’ve gone through nine rounds of budget cuts since the Brownback tax plan took effect, and lawmakers agreed that there was nothing left to cut from the budget. But we do have a lot of pieces of the budget that have been underfunded for years that need reinvestment.”

Loomis said he doesn’t see Kansas ever becoming a purple state, but that he thinks the political environment has changed from one where conservatives didn’t need to work with Democrats and moderate Republicans or hold hearings.

“I don’t think [Kansas] will become a purple state at all, but we may have moved toward pink from red,” Loomis said. “I think this kind of package reflects where the Kansas government has been over the last 40 years, where Democratic governors have often worked with Republican legislatures or moderate Republican governors worked with Republican legislatures to produce a government that wasn’t excessive but certainly funded governmental services.”

Meanwhile, Brownback has gotten his bailout. He’s likely to leave his post — and the disaster he created in Kansas — for a comfortable job in Rome as UN ambassador for food and agriculture.

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This was reposted from Think Progress.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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