Flat tax proposals will put Kansas at risk. My home is worth protecting from destructive policy.
Senate President Ty Masterson has been an outspoken supporter of a flat tax proposal this session. He testified before a tax committee on Feb. 20, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
After almost six years on the east coast, I’m moving back to Kansas this summer, which means I’ll soon be part of what Sarah Smarsh calls “the homecomers”: folks who return to — and fight for — the rural places they love.
I look forward to spontaneous drives through the Flint Hills with friends and eating my way through the best barbecue spots in the state, starting with Joe’s. (Don’t even get me started on college basketball. Rock chalk!) But I’m also deeply saddened to come home to the potential legislative disasters unfolding at the state Capitol.
Our state’s history was forged by liberators, but today’s policy choices — and the disingenuous politics and politicians who embolden them — threaten Kansans’ economic freedom and our state’s potential. Most notably, a flat tax proposal will ensure widespread injustice with generational consequences if enacted.
I left home for New York City in 2017, a few months after Gov. Sam Brownback’s disastrous tax plan was overturned by state legislators on both sides of the aisle. Working as a communications staffer and tax advocate at the time, I saw firsthand how Kansans made that happen, having understood what was at stake.
From Goodland to Chanute, voters across the state signed petitions, called their elected officials and showed up at town halls to demand that our government stop the tax tricks and get back to balancing its budget — back to taking care of its people.
Since leaving the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, a former project of Kansas Action for Children, I’ve deepened my tax knowledge, collaborating with leading policy experts and organizations and shaping how we talk about — and measure — economic growth and health.
I know with certainty that a flat tax is a recipe for economic decline.
Why a flat tax will never work
To keep it simple: A flat tax is “just a crappy, less fair income tax,” as researcher Eric Harris Bernstein describes it.
With a one-tier tax rate that doesn’t consider income, it’s a full-blown marketing ploy “aimed at distracting from the fact that flat taxes take sorely needed revenue out of our communities and put it back in the pockets of top earners.”
That’s why I call it a tax reform trap. By not taxing higher incomes at higher rates, a flat tax would cement an unequal economy, drain our state’s revenue and deprive our communities of the much-needed investments we all need — to not just get by but thrive. And no matter how it’s framed, a flat tax is always a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“Flat taxes are often advocated as a way to simplify the tax code, but this simplicity is an illusion,” explains the Center for American Progress. “They violate the fundamental principle that tax systems should be based on ability to pay.” By eliminating our graduated income tax structure, legislators would only be delivering a tax advantage to the very rich. We know this isn’t fair, and it doesn’t work.
Brownback’s tax plan eliminated the top income tax bracket and cut the remaining two, which decimated the state budget and hurt everyone without wealth. After nine rounds of budget cuts and three credit downgrades, not to mention the accumulation of record-high debt, our state was unable to pay its bills, fund schools or plan for the future.
In fact, Kansas became a cautionary tale for the nation about regressive, unsound tax policy and the consequential, day-to-day struggles that emerge from it.
Current flat tax proposals would be woefully worse. State after state, it’s been proven that this inherently flawed fantasy always falls short.
We can’t afford to go back
Kansas Republicans permitted the first failed tax trial that hurt all of us and cost some families everything, including late pension payments and deep cuts to early childhood education. Now they want to do it again with a flat tax proposal that will cost us even more.
“The Kansas Department of Revenue estimates the proposal … would cost the state more than $1.5 billion in lost revenue once implemented. That is nearly double the cost of Sam Brownback’s disastrous ‘tax experiment’ that tanked our economy, left our schools underfunded and prevented the state from funding essential programs,” writes University of Kansas professor Donna Ginther in the Kansas City Star. “It’s not hard to remember.”
We can’t forget where unfair tax policy takes us: to a place of tax advantages for the wealthy few and forced desperation for everyone else. That’s not what I want to come home to.
It’s best we keep the Sunflower State where it is — standing tall on the path to shared prosperity. That’s something I’m willing to fight for.
Kendra Bozarth (she/her) is an editor, writer and organizer who specializes in economic policy and narrative change. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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