DALLAS – The cycle of tax cuts and red ink that has marked Kansas budgeting appears to have washed many of its architects out of office. Republican voters defeated a dozen tax-cutting incumbent conservatives in last week’s primary elections. Experts in Kansas government say the decision of GOP primary voters to topple the party power structure showed that moderates had had enough of the so-called “Brownback Experiment” – named for Gov. Sam Brownback -- of cutting taxes while reducing spending on state services, education and transportation. “All the incumbents defeated had strong pro-Brownback voting records, which most importantly included continuing support for his failed policy to reduce, or eliminate for many businesses, income taxes,” said Burdette Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “The resulting revenue reductions have begun to affect many policies, most importantly education.” The Aug. 2 primary came on the same day of an announcement that the state had again fallen short of its revenue projections in the first month of the fiscal year. In the previous week, S&P Global Ratings downgraded Kansas to AA-minus from AA. “The bond downgrades per se probably don't register with most voters, but the media coverage and the ‘just another damn thing’ quality of them when folded in with the din of other bad news helped to motivate the previously unmotivated,” said Mark Peterson, professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka. “Fourteen months of revenues failing to hit projected estimates, the bond downgrades, the governor's stolid unyielding position that the Kansas Experiment was working in spite of a constant stream of evidence to show that the state's economy was lagging . . . and finally an utter absence of acknowledgement that the declining popularity of the governor and the legislature was going to result in any serious reconsideration of policy or confession of error amounted to sufficient stimulus,” Peterson said via email. Counted among the dozen defeats was that of U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a combative member of the House Freedom Caucus who was removed from the House Agriculture Committee after a 2012 power struggle with Speaker John Boehner. Boehner, who later resigned in a showdown with the caucus, was reported to have toasted Huelskamp’s defeat. While Huelskamp’s decisive loss to obstetrician and political novice Roger Marshall was chalked up more to a campaign by farm interests in Western Kansas than an affiliation with Brownback, his angry defiance of traditional politics played a large part, experts said. Huelskamp’s lack of support for a billion-dollar federal animal research center in his district was just one example. “Huelskamp’s defeat was largely the work of the Farm Bureau, but also related to his prickly demeanor,” said political science professor Michael Smith at Emporia State University. “Many people that had tried to work with him did not like him. His loss of the Agriculture Committee seat enraged the Farm Bureau.” Among the high-profile defeats was that of State Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Nickerson, who championed the Brownback tax cuts and defended the policy against attacks from Republican opponent Ed Berger, retired president of Hutchinson Community College. Berger, a political newcomer, declared that he was running “because our state is on the wrong track and our district’s current senator, in lockstep with the governor, is the one leading it in the wrong direction. “Highway maintenance miles have been reduced from 1,200 annually to 200 miles because of irresponsible fund sweeps,” Berger said in a campaign statement. “We can’t fully staff our state hospitals or highway patrol. Our state’s bank account is empty–despite a state law that requires the general fund ending balance to be 7.5% of expenditures.” Bruce had planned to challenge Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, as Senate president in the next legislative session. Wagle, a former Wichita Public Schools teacher, had fallen from favor among Brownback supporters after clashes over tax policy, including an attempted reversal of Brownback’s income tax exemptions for limited liability corporations. Wagle was unopposed in her primary. In all, six conservative state senators and five conservative House members lost their jobs in the Republican primary. In the 40-member state Senate, seven other senators didn’t run for re-election. Those who bailed out included Sen. Jeff King, chairman of the Senate Committee on KPERS. The committee sponsored a controversial 2015 bill that allowed the state to issue $1 billion of bonds for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System pension fund. Another incumbent who decided not to run, Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, chaired the Senate Education Committee that struggled with funding requirements in a State Supreme Court ruling. In this year’s legislative session, Abrams introduced a bill allowing impeachment of justices for “usurping” legislative powers. Passed by the Senate, the bill died in a House committee. In the House leadership, Rep. Peggy Mast, R- Emporia, the Speaker Pro Tem withdrew as a candidate before the primary. She had represented her district for nearly 20 years. “The possibility that so many incumbents would be defeated was certainly in the air, but this was bigger than all but the most dedicated hoped for,” Peterson said. One of the major players in the primary was the Save Kansas Coalition, which included four former governors – two Republicans and two Democrats – who denounced Brownback’s tax cutting policies. “The state of affairs today is such that we have virtually no reserves,” said former Gov. Mike Hayden, a Republican who served from 1987 to 1991. “We virtually don’t have a penny in our pocket, and that’s a very sad state of affairs.” Through a spokesman, Brownback said he did not want to get into a “debate” with the former governors and said he looked forward to working with the newly elected legislators. The Kansas result could serve as a cautionary tale to other GOP-dominated states that cut taxes in the face of falling revenues. Earlier this year, Oklahoma went forward with a tax cut even after declaration of a revenue emergency. Faced with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, Oklahoma lawmakers never completely closed the gap in the 2016 session. “Kansas was often likened to Louisiana under Bobby Jindal with the huge tax cuts and budget shortfalls,” Smith said, “and that’s another state where the politics shifted.” Voters there elected Democrat John Bel Edwards in 2015 to succeed the termed-out Jindal. “To me, the big takeaway is that the argument that tax cuts mean economic growth is greatly weakened by these two states’ real-world experiments,” Smith said. Loomis said that the S&P downgrade and national attention focused on the “Brownback Experiment” had made the state “something of a laughing stock.” “I think that many states have already shied away from the Kansas model,” Loomis said. “And these results will provide further evidence that thoughtless tax cuts are not likely to convey either economic or political benefits.”
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