There's no doubt Kansas is a conservative place. Mitt Romney won Kansas by 22 points in 2012. The state is in the title of Thomas Frank's book on conservative successes in the American heartland, What's the Matter with Kansas? Come November, though, voters might just throw out the state's top Republican officials. Gov. Sam Brownback is trailing a Democrat in polls, and Sen. Pat Roberts is in a close race against an independent. What is the matter with Kansas, anyway?
One answer: The economy.
Brownback has signed major tax breaks into law, reduced state spending and arguably made it harder for people in poverty to receive welfare. He called his initiatives "a real live experiment" in red-state governance, a choice of words he now says he regrets. "I don't consider this an experiment," he told The Post recently. "This is a long-term strategy to make us more competitive." For now, anyway, the economic growth he promised hasn't materialized, and the state's budget shortfall is even larger than expected. Voters are upset. Eliminating taxes doesn't guarantee victory at the polls -- not even in a red state like Kansas.
Actually, describing Brownback's reforms as eliminating taxes isn't entirely accurate. For the poorest 20 percent of Kansas families, taxes increased slightly on average, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Brownback reduced tax rates on income, which did little to help people who don't make much money. At the same time, he raised sales taxes, which are paid disproportionately by poor and middle-class people who spend a larger fraction of their income on goods and services because they have less money to save. Brownback also signed legislation that got rid of certain tax credits designed to help poor people get by.
In general, Kansas's tax code is now more favorable to its wealthier citizens, as shown in the chart above.
Meanwhile, Kansas's businesses employ about 3.7 percent more people than they did when Brownback took office in 2011. The national labor market as a whole has recovered at about the same pace over that period. Several neighboring states are doing better. The unemployment rate, 4.9 percent, is below the national average, but it never climbed as high as the rest of the nation's in the first place.
Here's a map showing that Kansas's economic performance in 2013 was worse than all of its neighbors, save for Missouri.
What is clear is that the state treasury is in dire straits. Officials underestimated how much tax revenue they would lose, and the state is short $333 million this year. Moody's and Standard & Poor's have both downgraded Kansas's debt, concerned that the state will not be able to pay back what it borrows. That is the kind of headline that could make conservative voters nervous.
Scarce funds in public schools are bringing home the negative consequences of Kansas's new tack to voters in a more immediate way. While the student population is still increasing, the state has fewer teachers.
Brownback hopes his policies will eventually improve Kansas's economy and restore the state's budget. His supporters call for patience and resolve. If new businesses start making hires and people looking for work elsewhere in the country decide to move to Kansas, those changes could take time. Before then, voters might just cut this experiment short.