The Kansas Ministry of Truth
Aides to Gov. Sam Brownback have been working overtime this past month to counteract a flurry of reports contrary to the governor’s point of view on the Kansas economy and state finance.
Their work brings to mind the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Orwell’s ministry governs truth on behalf of the state and frequently revises history by doctoring the data. Up might mean down. Black might become white. Two plus three might be required to equal four.
Recent economic reports show the Kansas economy trailing surrounding states, as well as the nation as a whole. Further, independent surveys conducted last fall and earlier this year show Brownback’s approval ratings slumping and his actions on taxing and spending out of sync with public preferences.
Agents of the Kansas Ministry of Truth headed by Brownback’s former chief of staff moved into action in March and spent nearly $200,000 from undisclosed donors on TV ads in Kansas City, Wichita and Topeka markets to burnish Brownback’s image on the economy, education and taxation. According to the ads, the economy is growing, unemployment is falling, and the governor is spending millions on education.
More recent reports from multiple sources show state revenues have fallen dramatically due to income tax cuts that favor wealthy Kansans; this information challenges Brownback’s contention the tax cuts would deliver “a shot of adrenaline in the heart of the Kansas economy” and dynamically produce new revenues.
As a front man for the governor’s version of the truth, revenue secretary Nick Jordon hit the road recently with PowerPoint slides to convince an audience of business owners the state’s revenue picture is completely sunny. His show, however, might not be working. Kansas City businessman Steve Rose viewed the slides and wrote in a column to the Kansas City Star the projections were based on inadequate data and the numbers were “just plain half-baked, if not blatantly misleading.”
Then in late March a national think-tank, not aligned with the governor, issued a damning report warning the other 49 states not to try Brownback’s risky tax experiment. The report documented Kansas’ dramatic revenue losses that have resulted in inadequate funding of schools and other core services. Further, the report detailed how the tax cuts favor the wealthy, raise taxes on low-income Kansans, and are not boosting the Kansas economy.
The governor’s publicist quickly responded Brownback had “created a competitive advantage for Kansas ... grown jobs, reduced unemployment and invested in education.”
Then, surprisingly, a glitch in the machinery of the Kansas Ministry of Truth occurred, as the governor’s own Council of Economic Advisors reported Kansas was trailing surrounding states, as well as the nation as a whole, on most indicators of economic growth. This report documented that during the first year of the tax cuts, Kansas consistently lagged in employment, gross state product, personal income, wage levels, new business establishments and population.
The director of the governor’s council attempted a quick backtrack. The numbers had been misconstrued and taken out of context, he asserted. The people of Kansas should be alerted to snapshots, sample sizes, averages and outliers when reviewing economic data. Other data present a more positive picture, and Kansans should be assured the state’s economy “is the healthiest it has been in the past decade.”
No amount of truth-telling by the governor’s spin-doctors can mask economic reality. Brownback’s tax experiment is not delivering as promised, and Kansas voters will have to determine in the months ahead whether they want their state to continue down this perilous path.
H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.