The political economy of Kansas fiscal policy (from the comments)

MR commentator Patrick L. has a go at it:

OK I’ll bite.

In nominal terms, between 2002 and 2012 state receipts grew 50%. Inflation in this period was 28%, and probably significantly lower for Kansas, while population growth has only been about 10% since 2000. Even the “low” 2014 receipts are $1.5 billion more in revenue from when Sebelius first took office and the government started rapidly growing. In the past 15 years expenditures have grown over 50%, exceeding $6 billion today. The shortfall is $300 million, or about 5%. While the growth of the Kansas government in the past 15 years is smaller than other governments in the country, it still explains the shortfall. We can justify this increase by saying that education and health are rising faster than everything else, but that is not a revenue problem. Tax rates have to rise because education and health costs are growing faster than our economies. That says nothing at all about the optimum size of taxation for state governments with regard to growth, jobs, or even revenue. The tax and spending levels Brownback choose would have been adequate ten, maybe even five years ago. With a bit of luck, he could have ignored the shortfall because of variance, which for receipts can be a few hundred million a year.

Republicans should be wise enough to not depend on luck, and they should be wiser predicting how trend lines go. Cutting the size of government was never a serious option.

I haven’t looked at the votes in depth, but it looks like a classic case of urban // rural split that typically troubles the state’s politics. Just under half the state’s population lives around Kansas City or Wichita, which are both five times than the next largest city. These places have as many votes as the rest of Kansas combined, but their needs are radically different.

Rural Kansas has two unique problems. First, there’s the problem of population collapse, which all farm states are seeing. What few children are born move out when they come of age and new people are not moving in. Fixed costs like “We need at least one school building” or “We need at least one teacher per grade” start to add up for small towns of 1000 or less. Those are the obvious problems, not to mention any number of federal or state concerns dealing with food, medical, or disability services that have to be met. As a matter of geography, 98% of the state is rural, and I think I heard 25% of the state is in towns less than 2500 – with over 400 municipal governments servicing less than 1000 people it’s probably the highest per capita in the country (This is FIVE times the national average).

This is a non-trivial growing problem related to scale government services that has been an issue of intense legal debate in the state. Wichita School District’s scale is such it can use its buses to deliver free or low cost lunches to children in the summer. Small cities don’t have buses. Is that fair? How should taxes be structured to compensate? The only political viable solution to this problem has been to spend more money. If all the small towns could magically consolidate into a super smallville, taxes would (back of the envelope) be 10-15% lower.

Government services to low population areas are subsidized by high population areas, and it costs much more to deliver the same services to small towns. The US Postal Service paid for delivery to small towns across the country by charging monopolistic prices on first class letter mail in cities (Which cost almost nothing to deliver). NPR’s national budget mostly goes to setup stations in small towns. The small towns in Kansas are both relatively and in many cases actually getting smaller, older, and poorer. They are costing more and delivering less.

The other problem is that some rural areas are *growing*, but they’re growing because of immigration attracted to the agriculture and food packaging industries. Which is not the same as growing from a resource boom which can be taxed heavily to compensate. Liberal, KS is the largest per capita immigrant community in the United States. While this influx of people is necessary for the health of these places, the new population has more expensive demands on government services and pays less in taxes. Some of these small towns are the same ones that a decade ago were collapsing. Services and infrastructure might have been allowed to lapse or removed, and now rapidly needs to be replaced. That’s expensive! In the long run this problem might replace the first problem, but for now it’s the worst of both worlds.

The economy of the small cities is based largely around food production, which mostly can’t move, and food packaging, which probably can’t for logistical reasons. These places are poorer, getting relatively poorer per capita, and demanding more in services both directly (immigration / aging) and through scale issues. Their populations are either getting very old or very Hispanic, or both.

In contrast, Kansas City is a stable metropolis whose economy depends on manufacturing is built around a national centralized hub for trains. It also has some finance and telecom sprinkled in, though those guys can probably go anywhere. Wichita, is a moderately growing city based around aircraft manufacturing. When state taxes can’t provide enough government services, local taxes for these areas easily rise to compensate. Their economic concerns are how to stop businesses from going across the border to Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Springfield, or Kansas City, Mo – places which are functionally identical and just as close. Given their dependence on manufacturing, they also have to consider movement across international borders to China and Mexico. Their demography is much closer to the national averages rather than the extremes. They are large enough that they can take advantage of scaling for government services, without being so large that there is decreasing actual returns. I don’t have figures, but I’d guess income rates in the urban areas to be between 150 and 200% those of the rural areas, which are themselves typically around 2/3rds the national average. This is an industry effect, a farmer in Kansas City and an aeronautical engineer in Greensburg, KS would not make much money. The cities are richer, but they’re richer because they have industries that are becoming increasingly easier to move.

On a political level, normally cities become more liberal, and poorer as you go deeper into the city – a leftover of 19th century industrialization competing against 20th century transportation. Deep urban cores produce these deep blue constituencies that act as checks on conservative suburban rings. In some states this manifests itself as a coalition between the poor rural areas and the poor urban areas against richer suburban areas allowing normal American class politics to balance itself. Cities produce political equilibrium: The richer and denser it becomes, the more liberal, which pushes more money and voters to suburbia, diluting the power. In short, declining rural power (D) and rising urban power (D) offset each other, but rising urban power (D) enhances suburban power (R), and so at a state level you get a balance.

The problem is that the inner core of Kansas City is in Missouri, so Kansas only gets the rich (Republican) suburban ring and a tiny blue part. Typical democratic concerns like maintaining a progressive tax structure can’t really find a foundation. While Wichita also has an urban core that does provide a Democratic representation, the city isn’t constrained geographically by anything (No ocean, mountain, lake, and transportation goes around, not through, the city) means concentration, an ingredient for populist politics, is lessened. The city spreads, and the poor can easily move up the class structure by moving further and further out. Wichita has half the population density of Syracuse and two thirds that of Madison, two close sized metropolitan areas. I haven’t done a county level comparison, but I suspect that Sedgwick has half the density of the ‘average American county with half a million people’ in it. There are other places in America like that, but guess how they vote.

Nor are either cities big university cities, like Madison or Boston. The two big universities in the state are in the small towns of Lawrence and Manhattan, which are quite separate from the rest of the state. Urban centers are places of “Commanding Heights” industries, like health and education that can’t easily move, but Wichita and Kansas City are based around manufacturing.

The political outcomes are not that surprising at all. There is nothing ‘the matter with Kansas’. The power structure easily shifts between slim majorities formed from predominately suburban populations who are wealthier, and whose jobs are most likely to move, and slim majorities formed from the small urban cores and rural parts of the state.

There’s no possible political coalition that you could form that would pass a constitutional amendment allowing a floating balanced budget over a 10 year period. Nor are the populist pressure strong enough to push against regressive taxation. You have ‘fiscal hawks’ in the rural areas who never vote for cuts, and suburban conservatives who never vote for taxes. When the storm gets too bad, they vote a nice moderate democrat in to raise taxes and crack down hard on whatever (Non manufacturing / agricultural) big business they can put pressure on. Obviously something that can’t move easily like Health Insurance.

In summery, this really is an issue of Urban vs Rural politics. Unlike other cities, the kind of industries around Kansas City and Wichita can move. The jobs in the rural areas can’t. The rural areas require more per capita government services, and the urban areas have more money. They both have half the vote. Solve for equilibrium.

== As for the deal:

It’s mostly a .4% sales tax increase, which is less than some of the more fanciful projects done by local governments in the past 15 years, which have included sports arenas, loans to movie theaters, and waterfront improvement. A half cent increase in sales tax does move the state into the top 10 for the country, but the overall tax burden is still quite low. The real problem is that city/county sales taxes are a function of distance from Wichita, and the inverse of population. The smaller your city, and the farther you are from Wichita, the more the county depends on sales taxes. In places like Junction City, this could put the sales tax close to 10%! The real disparity is going to be at the border towns: After the change there will be a .7% difference between KC, KS and KC, MO, though I bet the Missouri side will raise taxes to compensate. After the increase, there’s a 1.5% difference between Pittsburg, KS and Joplin, MO – big enough that I could see some people consider driving for purchases more than $300 (Biweekly grocery shopping for a large family?), especially if retailers on the Missouri side are not dumb. As a general rule, the money and the shopping is on the Kansas side of the border, so stuff isn’t going to transition immediately, but I expect some Laffer curve effects here for local governments, and I would hope they’ll respond by dropping taxes to compensate.

This is probably WHY such a deal was able to pass. Most of the damage goes on the poor and rural parts of Kansas, which is where most of the balance budget hawks are. The rich living near Kansas City will have the easiest time dodging the increase and avoid it more often. A regressive tax, but an efficient one.

As for the other parts of the deal, $90 million in itemized deductions are being removed. I don’t actually think this will amount to much, since there aren’t many itemized state deductions left. What remains are things like adoption, historical preservation, or disabled access. I don’t see much money coming in this way, and the state will almost certainly reverse itself the first chance it gets (As it did the last time it got rid of the adoption credit).



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