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The tax trap

7/6/2014

Spare a thought for Paul Davis. The Lawrence state representative doesn't seem like he needs sympathy, so offering it might seem odd. Davis is unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, an unpopular opponent in the general election, and successful at fundraising. A few national media entities already have called the election for Davis. But everything isn't roses and rainbows. Strategically, he has to navigate a difficult route with a massive, thorny political trap.

Spare a thought for Paul Davis. The Lawrence state representative doesn't seem like he needs sympathy, so offering it might seem odd. Davis is unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, an unpopular opponent in the general election, and successful at fundraising. A few national media entities already have called the election for Davis. But everything isn't roses and rainbows. Strategically, he has to navigate a difficult route with a massive, thorny political trap.

Davis' message so far has been against Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to reduce income and corporate taxes to zero through time to spur job growth. While state revenues and job growth have been less than projected and brought negative national attention to Kansas, Davis has been able to capitalize on it and even leads Brownback in some polls.

Why the sympathy, then? Brownback is in a stronger strategic position. Taxes are tough to campaign on, unless you want to cut them. For eight months now, Davis has criticized the governor's plan without sharing his vision. The unspoken great mystery of the campaign to date has been: What would Davis do about taxes? In simple terms, Brownback has lowered taxes. If Brownback's tactic was as disastrous as Davis claims, the answer is to raise them. But this is politics, and it's never that simple. Davis finally released his alternative plan last week, and it lays his delicate position bare.

Beyond boilerplate promises to fight for universally popular items such as K-12 education and roads, Davis' plan was remarkably short on detail. Davis' plan would stop the automatic reductions in income tax passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Brownback in 2012. But reversing would require assistance from the same state Legislature that passed the tax cuts in the first place: The same Legislature that tried to sunset a sales tax in 2013. How Davis would get a conservative-dominated Legislature to agree to erase their signature policy is inconceivable. If Davis could pull off such a sales job, Bill Snyder should ask him to help recruit. After all, if the Legislature was not willing to extend an existing sales tax already, how likely are they to support an unsubtle increase in any tax?

But the biggest sign Davis' situation is delicate is his punt on a substantive tax plan. Since openly vowing to raise taxes would stall his momentum, Davis has promised only to postpone any decision on taxes until after the election. Specifically, Davis' press release states once in office, he would establish a commission to address "accountability measures within the tax code and targeted incentives for job growth" and "proposals aimed at reversing the $400 million property tax increase that has occurred during the Brownback administration."

Davis' quasi-plan is smart politics on paper. Davis has been riding high. But strategically, he is facing a challenge he hopes the commission plan will let him sidestep. Brownback's position is clear, simple and direct: Tax cuts help grow jobs, and the cuts just need time to work. Davis' position is more complex and harder to campaign on: If property taxes are too high and revenues too low, he must increase taxes in some fashion. But promising to raise taxes in an election year is a non-starter, so perhaps the only viable strategy is to promise to do something once elected.

Davis basically has chosen to dodge the question entirely. By proposing the commission, he can say there is no tax increase with a straight face. But at some point, Davis will have to make a definitive statement on taxes. The plan might be smart politics, but diving into the inevitable tax trap has only been delayed.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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