Opinion

This presentation ended one chapter and began another for the Kansas tax system

March 8, 2022 1:30 pm

Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, presents to the House Taxation Committee on Monday. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

On Monday, the House Taxation Committee held a hearing that served as an epilogue to 10 years’ worth of drama in Kansas.

Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, presented the findings of the Governor’s Council on Tax Reform. Led by former GOP Senate President Steve Morris and former Democratic Sen. Janice Lee, the council was formed in 2019. Its members were charged with sorting through the wreckage of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax-cutting “experiment.”

The council’s prime recommendation is eliminating the state’s sales tax on food, but Ginther presented a wide-ranging summary of our state’s tax challenges. It can all be understood, she said, by the analogy of the three-legged stool.

“The idea being that if you have a diversified allocation of taxation across sales, income and property taxes, if the economy hits one tax, you have other taxes to kind of hold up that three-legged stool,” she said.

“So it results in lower rates on each tax to reduce the pressure and competitions that other states may have with other types of taxation,” she said. “And so one of the prime recommendations from the tax council was that the three-legged stool be a motivating approach that we use throughout as we think about taxation in the state of Kansas.”

This simple analogy explains why Brownback’s experiment was such a disaster. Targeting income tax rates, it began in 2012 and threw the state into an extended financial freefall. Public services across the board suffered, with the plight of teachers and schools gaining the most public attention. After a 2016 election season that saw moderates gain ground, the Legislature repealed most of the cuts.

Since then, the state has enjoyed robust tax collections and finds itself, this year, with an enviable $2.9 billion surplus.

Now, Ginther and the council argue, that means we can afford to reduce our reliance on one of the other legs of the stool: sales taxes. While eliminating the food tax has broad support, it remains expensive and one recent proposal aims to phase it out gradually.

Watch Ginther’s presentation. It includes interesting discussion and debate with members of the tax committee, with bonus discussion of property tax burdens. It sketches out the options and potential consequences.

In a sense, this epilogue brings us back to where we began. As I often wrote during my tenure with Kansas Action for Children (when I frequently dealt with the subject), tax policy is about what we value.

Do we want to subsidize giant corporations and wealthy individuals? Or do we want to help those among us who work hard every day just to get by? If we focus on those in the first group, we will always find an excuse to overlook those in the second.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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