SALINA, Kan. - As he campaigned for governor around Kansas last year Sam Brownback felt little need to lay out any specifics on what he wanted to do once in office. With Republicans having succeeded in nationalizing state and local elections he offered little more than cliches on the need to grow our economy.
A year later his true agenda has come into focus. Brownback's main goal appears to be to shift of the state's tax burden from the wealthy to the middle and lower classes. Two items that will fit into his push during the next legislative session are the revamping of the state's Medicaid program and a push to eliminate the state income tax.
Brownback's ideological push to shrink the size of state government resulted in a six percent cut in the state's current-year budget over last year, with most of the reductions coming in deep cuts to education. Medicaid now offers a tempting target because it will not be defended by a fierce and well-funded lobby.
Public healthcare expenditures in Kansas can be roughly divided into three categories - general health, which includes nursing home care and services for those with disabilities, mental health, and substance abuse treatment. The Administration proposes to combine all into one and accept bids for companies to manage the state program. Their goal is to end up with only three entities managing services. They claim that such a managed-care type system will result in program savings. Critics question the wisdom of having for-profit insurance companies overseeing managed care in an at-risk environment.
The Brownback team showed it ideological colors by rejecting a $31.5 million dollar federal grant to assist in the set-up of a state health insurance exchange required by the federal Affordable Care Act. Such an action gives credence to the idea that their desire to shrink the Medicaid program overrides their desire to take care of those in need.
A move to eliminate the state income tax is actually simply a push to shift the tax burden elsewhere. A task force has been meeting secretly to plot strategy, and when the proposal is made public it will be no doubt be cheered and championed by the billionaire Koch Brothers and other well-heeled political allies of the governor. No one was surprised to learn recently that another billionaire, Missouri resident Rex Sinquefield, is helping to bankroll the group Kansas for No Income Tax.
Last year the Milwaukee Sentinental-Journal published a study of the the percentages of tax revenues that state and local governments utilize to fund services to citizens. The vast majority of expenditures in almost all the states are funded by a combination of sales, property and income taxes. Seven states have no individual income tax - Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming and Texas. Two others tax only dividends and interest - New Hampshire and Tennessee.
States without an income tax tend to have some special feature of their economy that allows them to raise alternative revenues. Alaska and Texas have oil, for example, and Nevada has casinos. But despite that most of these, with the exception of Alaska, have generally higher (regressive) sales taxes and property taxes.
Kansas has only three tax brackets, and the lowest pays 3.5% on their income while the top bracket (everyone earning over $30,000) pays 6.45%. By comparison, Hawaii and Oregon have the highest tax rates of 11%, with top brackets at $200,000 and $250,000 respectively.
By digging into the numbers we see that Kansas is not a heavily-taxed state in terms of state government, only one currently overrun by ideologues. Hopefully the Kansas Senate will see Governor Brownback's true agenda during the upcoming legislative session and prevent he and his Legislative allies in the House from doing further damage to our state.