We're Not in Kansas Anymore!

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses a joint caucus of the state Senate and House Republicans on Thursday, June 11, 2015, stre
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses a joint caucus of the state Senate and House Republicans on Thursday, June 11, 2015, stressing the importance of resolving the state's $400 million budget shortfall, at the 'Old Supreme Court' in Topeka, Kan. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/TNS via Getty Images)

The late Bob Harder served as a cabinet secretary under five Kansas governors. He was an ordained Methodist minister, a Sunday school teacher and a former legislator.

When I interviewed him for a magazine profile in 2012, he recalled his time in the Kansas legislature when he would cross the aisle to work with Republicans to hammer out policy. He recalled those times with nostalgia, because with the election of the ideologue Sam Brownback two years earlier, those days were over.

Later, over coffee, Harder predicted that the bottom would fall out of the Kansas budget, but not until after Brownback was re-elected in 2014. Make that exactly one week after. Brownback professed not to know of the projected $278 million fiscal year shortfall before the election, claiming he learned the dire news with the rest of us.

I was reminded of Harder on Kansas Day, Jan. 29th, when Duane Goossen spoke about the state budget at Washburn University. Goossen and Harder have much in common: political moderates who served under Democratic and Republican governors. Goossen, a Mennonite with a calm, gentlemanly manner, is also a former legislator, having served seven terms in the Kansas House before becoming budget director under Republican Governor Bill Graves, as well as Democrats Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson.

In fact, Duane Goossen used to be a Republican. In his talk, "The Kansas Budget: Are We Really in Kansas Anymore?" he said it is hard to recognize the state, and noted that present tax policies put into place by the legislature at Brownback's bidding in 2012/2013 are unsustainable. He said Brownback's dramatic income tax reductions, his "March to Zero," have created a divide between "paycheck people" and individual business owners exempted from income taxes.

"Tax benefits have accrued to the wealthiest Kansans," said Goossen. The top one percent of Kansans -- those earning $493,000 or more -- got a $24,632 income tax break. Most Kansans have ended up paying more in taxes or breaking even. And the less you earn, the larger the percentage of your income goes to taxes. To add salt to the wound, a hike in regressive sales taxes has disproportionately affected the poorest Kansans.

With recurring revenue shortfalls, the Brownback administration has raided the state Department of Transportation, reducing the funds available for maintenance of the state's 10,000 miles of highway. Goossen also pointed to resulting staff shortages at state hospitals and the Highway Patrol, and the difficulty of attracting employees to work in state government.

At the outset of Goossen's presentation, he said, "When we discuss the budget, we discuss our deepest values as a state."

When I ran into him at a gathering a few days after his talk, I asked him what those values have been in the past. He mentioned good schools, good roads, and a decent social services net.

Since then I have been trying to puzzle out what the current state budget says about our state's deepest values, especially when we pick up the daily newspaper to learn that revenue fell $6.8 million below expectations for the month of January. That we value recklessness? That we value filling the pockets of the rich while robbing from the poor?

I've wondered how the Kansas legislature, comprised mostly of Republicans who are supposed fiscal conservatives, can hold up their heads in the midst of chronic dispiriting news about what they supposedly do best: budgetary matters. In his talk, Goossen said something I had never considered: the Brownback administration and the largely Republican legislature have been "wildly successful" at a different goal -- reducing the size of government. The legislators say, "We just have to live within our means," which have been "artificially pulled down," Goossen said. Without the income tax cuts, Kansans would be seeing an extra billion dollars a year in revenue, according to Goossen.

Conventional wisdom says there will be no touching Brownback's reckless tax policies this legislative session as all House and Senate members face election in November. But since Brownback's policies are shredding the state's budget, infrastructure, schools and social services, why wouldn't legislators speak out? They surely will be held accountable when the state's budget for fiscal year 2017, which starts in July, is projected to be $175 million short.

As Dorothy famously said, "We're not in Kansas anymore." The Wizard may rule Oz, but it's not too late to pull back the curtain.