Dinah Sykes, a Republican, is a member of the Kansas State Senate.
Americans want efficient government, responsible spending and reasonable taxes. This is not difficult. Yet sometimes what seems so simple becomes complicated when these concepts are turned into buzzwords and used as weapons for political gain.
In 2012, Republicans in Kansas enacted a “revolutionary” tax overhaul promised to be a “shot of adrenaline to the heart of the Kansas economy.” With the benefit of hindsight, we can say with certainty this promise was unfulfilled. In the following five years, Kansas experienced nine rounds of budget cuts, stress on state agencies and the inability to effectively provide the core functions of government for our citizens.
As Republicans in Congress begin working to modify the federal tax code, I worry that tax reform done poorly could lead to similar failure. I hope federal lawmakers learn from mistakes made at the state level.
This year, the Kansas legislature — including many Republicans like me — voted to partially restore income-tax rates and to repeal a provision that allowed independent business owners to pay almost no state taxes on their income. We also overrode our governor’s veto, who opposed rolling back the tax cuts he championed.
Critics of our vote claim that Kansas didn’t cut spending enough to accompany the tax cuts. In reality, we cut our budget through across-the-board cuts, targeted cuts, rescission bills and allotments. Roughly 3,000 state employee positions were cut , salaries were frozen, and road projects canceled . We delayed payments to the state employee retirement system and emptied our savings accounts. Even as we issued more than $2 billion in new bonds to float our debt, Kansas received three credit downgrades, making that debt costlier.
In Kansas, we understand the allure of tax-cut promises. We want to believe promises of amazing growth or outcomes. In 2012, traditional budget forecast models accurately predicted the devastating effect the tax breaks would have on state revenue. Proponents of the plan used dynamic scoring predicting incredible economic growth and supporting their own preconceived ideas. Today, we know which forecasts were correct.
Across the state, citizens may have been paying less in income taxes, but those decreases were offset by increases in sales taxes, property taxes and fees. These changes alone were not enough to put the state on the right path. Education and infrastructure, key investments necessary for strong economic growth, were treated as the enemy. As we went through our 2017 legislative session, the “shot of economic adrenaline” still showed no signs of materializing. Our state functioned as though the Great Recession had never ended.
Kansas should serve as a cautionary tale illustrating the damage done when the normal order is shortchanged. America’s founders and countless generations of leaders embedded deliberative procedures into our legislative process for a reason. But in 2012, the governor’s tax proposal looked very different from the package he signed. A dispute between House and Senate versions should have gone to conference committee; however, the House cut short debate and rammed through a motion to concur with the Senate instead. I watch now as lawmakers in Congress use similar tactics, and I worry that backroom dealing and circumvention of process will lead to similar results.
I never anticipated entering public service. I was content raising my family, participating in the PTA and operating my business. However, I saw the impact that bad tax policy was having on the state. I felt the results of growing class sizes and shrinking programs in the schools my children attended. I witnessed a gradual erosion of the quality of life that makes Kansas such a great place to live.
There is a real temptation to let our frustration turn into anger. In our increasingly polarized world, we see what happens when we retreat to our ideological trenches. The antidote, it would seem to me, is listening carefully to those we disagree with and seeking common ground as a starting point. (We should also note that failing to listen to constituents while blindly holding to ideology can have consequences: About a third of Kansas legislators became ex-legislators in 2016.)
As our country looks at the key issues ahead of us, including tax policy and health-care reform, we face important questions: How can we as Americans work together to improve our tax policy? How can we work together to provide core government functions? Answering those questions requires having civil conversations, learning from our neighbors and sharing our experiences. We are better when we can work together to find compromise.