Local officials fear Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s (R) “real live experiment” with the state’s tax system will force cuts to schools as the evaporation of income tax revenue drives down state funding for public services. At the annual Kansas Economic Policy Conference last Thursday, the uncertainty provoked by Brownback’s push to gradually eliminate the state’s income tax led city and county lawmakers from around the state to express concerns.
“Local governments are in a pickle,” according to Hannes Zacharias, the elected manager of Kansas’ most populous county. Zacharias expects that Brownback’s tax cuts at the state level will force tax hikes at the local level. “We’ve cut where we can. Most counties and most local government have done that as well. We’ve run that out, from my perspective,” he said, according to the Kansas Health Insitute (KHI).
But in less densely populated counties with less economic activity and wealth to tax, the imbalance created by shrinking state funding will likely be resolved with further cuts. Whereas previously “the state has said ‘We’ll help Baxter Springs because they don’t have the ability to raise money like Ulysses does or like Shawnee Mission does,’” Brownback’s administration has “cut that aid that goes to those districts,” John Heim of the Kansas Association of School Boards said. “That’s about 80 percent of school districts in Kansas that are having their aid cut,” he added.
Kansas Board of Education Vice-Chair Sally Cauble warned that shifting the tax burden to localities leads counties and cities to compete with each other for the funding that keeps their schools open, with harmful consequences for children. “These situations create great disparities in educational opportunity that depend upon your zip code, exactly the opposite of what we believe is best for students in our state,” she said.
Kansas is already in legal trouble over its school funding levels. A panel of judges ruled in January that the state was underfunding its school system to such a degree that it was in violation of constitutional obligations to students, and it ordered the state to restore $440 million in education funding.
Since winning election in 2010, Brownback has pushed steeply regressive tax policies. Tax changes in 2012 and 2013 cost the state a combined $1.1 billion in lost revenue. Brownback wants to eliminate the state income tax completely, and so far has won significant cuts to income tax rates that benefit the rich while also shifting the total tax burden onto poorer families through a stiffer sales tax.
While Brownback sells his conservative economic policy ideas as part of his quest to reduce poverty, the state’s poverty rates have gone up. Brownback convened a task force to come up with innovative policies for reducing child poverty, but it’s recommendations focus on warmed-over family values rhetoric that experts say will do nothing to improve the material conditions of poor Kansans.