Over the course of 12 debates, the Republican presidential candidates were never asked to address the budget problems in Kansas. That may not sound like an odd omission but it is. To see why, let’s take a quick trip to a parallel political universe:
In Bizarro America, the tea party never happened. Instead, the Great Recession sparked a left-wing populist movement that swept democratic socialists into statehouses all across the country. In Vermont, these Denmark-worshippers took full control of state government and implemented their radical agenda. They raised income taxes to unprecedented heights, upped the minimum wage to $15 an hour, made all state universities tuition-free, and established a single-payer health-care system. As he signed the last of these programs into law, Governor Bernie Sanders declared that Vermont would serve as a blue-state model, one that the Democratic Party’s 2016 ticket could use to say, “See, we’ve got a different way, and it works.”
But by 2016, that model had collapsed. Every warning that conservatives had made about Sanders’s program proved prescient. The tax hikes chased all the job creators out of state. The new minimum wage didn’t raise low-income workers’ living standards; it raised their unemployment rate. The costs of free college and universal health care proved so onerous, the state was forced to raid its rainy-day funds and borrow at high interest rates just to keep the government running. Vermont now faced a billion-dollar deficit. Schools were shuttered. Pensions were cut. The state’s department of social services could no longer afford to investigate child abuse. The legal system could no longer provide indigent defendants with representation. Nonetheless, in the race for the White House, every Democratic candidate ran on some version of Sanders’s economic model.
Wouldn’t it be important for those candidates to explain why their program wouldn’t fail the country in the same way it had failed the Green Mountain State? If you think yes, then you should demand that Donald Trump, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz explain why their tax policies won’t fail America in the same way they’ve failed the people of Kansas.
In 2010, the tea-party wave put Sam Brownback into the Sunflower State’s governor’s mansion and Republican majorities in both houses of its legislature. Together, they implemented the conservative movement’s blueprint for Utopia: They passed massive tax breaks for the wealthy and repealed all income taxes on more than 100,000 businesses. They tightened welfare requirements, privatized the delivery of Medicaid, cut $200 million from the education budget, eliminated four state agencies and 2,000 government employees. In 2012, Brownback helped replace the few remaining moderate Republicans in the legislature with conservative true believers. The following January, after signing the largest tax cut in Kansas history, Brownback told the Wall Street Journal, “My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works.’ ”
As you’ve probably guessed, that model collapsed. Like the budget plans of every Republican presidential candidate, Brownback’s “real live experiment” proceeded from the hypothesis that tax cuts for the wealthy are such a boon to economic growth, they actually end up paying for themselves (so long as you kick the undeserving poor out of their welfare hammocks). Backers of the budget touted projections from the Kansas Policy Institute, which predicted it would generate $323 million in new local revenues by 2018. But marginal gains at the municipal level were dwarfed by the $688 million loss that Brownback’s budget wrought in its first year of operation.* Meanwhile, Kansas’s job growth actually trailed that of its neighboring states. With that nearly $700 million deficit, the state had bought itself a 1.1 percent increase in jobs, just below Missouri’s 1.5 percent and Colorado’s 3.3.