TOPEKA, Kan. – Outgoing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback argues his experiment in aggressive tax-cutting pioneered a national debate over helping small business owners that has influenced Congress and other states, even though his home-state lawmakers rolled it back.
In a year-end interview with The Associated Press, the conservative Republican governor predicted other states will look at lowering personal income taxes for small-business owners and pointed to provisions of a GOP federal tax overhaul as a sign that the idea has taken root. He also reflected what he sees as other major accomplishments, including tougher state abortion laws.
Brownback is awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Looking ahead during the interview, he said he believes that partly because of an exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, religious liberty issues are more visible globally and "the time is right" for the U.S. to focus on them.
Brownback saw his popularity and national reputation wane because of the state's persistent budget problems, and voters in 2016 elected a Legislature with bipartisan supermajorities this year to reverse most of the tax cuts he championed in 2012 and 2013. But he said he believes that in time, people will come to view what Kansas attempted more favorably.
"It's amazing to me that a tax cut in Kansas was the dominant tax debate in this nation over the last five years," Brownback said. "That's pretty amazing."
A heavily criticized part of Brownback's tax experiment was an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners on business earnings reported as personal income. The federal tax overhaul Congress sent to President Donald Trump on Wednesday includes a decrease on such "pass through" income, and Brownback saw it as a sign of Kansas' influence nationally.
"I think you will see a lot of places start to tinker with, how do you stimulate small-business growth using this pass-through tax model," Brownback said. "Part of opening up a new field — you're not exactly sure how to do it."
Brownback contends the exemption for small-business owners created jobs and the state's finances cratered because of slumps in agriculture and energy production. But even some GOP voters last year saw the experiment as a failure, and critics in both parties labeled the exemption as unfair because employees' wages remained taxed.
Scott Drenkard, director of state projects for the conservative, nonpartisan Tax Foundation, said the new federal provision cited by Brownback is narrower, suggesting Congress "learned a lot of the really hard lessons" from Kansas. He said the state remains a cautionary tale.
"I've never said that a tax cuts doesn't create jobs. I've said that this tax cut is not worthwhile, for a lot of other reasons, and it comes with a cost," Drenkard said.
Brownback is enduring a longer-than-anticipated Senate confirmation process, having been nominated for his ambassador's post by Trump almost five months ago.
He said he's been reading academic studies on the economic benefits of greater religious liberty, and he touched heavily on related themes during a speech this week during a Hanukkah celebration at the Statehouse.
"I always think you've got to make it such that a country, this has to be in their best interest," Brownback said. "They're not going to do it just because we say, 'You're doing a bad job.'"
While Brownback is facing questions about how much power he's sharing with fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer during an awkward transition, he's still traveling the state, touting his administration's work issues such as water policy and talking up growth in the state's wind-energy industry.
During the AP interview, he ticked through a list of projects on his watch, including a new state crime lab and the luring of the venerable American Royal livestock exhibition from the Missouri said of the Kansas City metro area.
Assessing his administration, he said, "You've got to let the emotion clear the air. You have to run the test of time to see if the ideas worked."
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .