On June 6, 2017, the Kansas legislature voted to override Governor Brownback’s veto of its vote to overturn tax policies that had bedeviled the state’s finances since 2012. The vote was national news. To understand what happened in Kansas, the Washington Post turned to Duane Goossen, former Kansas legislator (1983-1996) and state budget director (1999-2011). Goossen had become the pre-eminent critic of Brownback’s failed “tax experiment,” and arguably the most influential voice in turning public opinion in Kansas toward change.
Goossen was not an elected official. What accounted for his extraordinary influence? According to Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Goossen shaped the statewide debate through “his monthly newspaper column that ran in over twenty newspapers across the state, his blog writings, his radio and TV interviews, and public seminars.” At the outset in 2012, Goossen’s critique was a lonely one. But over the months and years, as Beatty summarizes, events proved him right: “He predicted the tax cuts would not produce the estimated tax revenue windfall; they didn’t. He predicted the tax cuts would blow a giant hole in the Kansas budget and necessitate budget cuts and borrowing; that happened.”
The Kansas primary and general elections of 2016 were an important turning point. Many far right conservatives were turned out of office, and newly elected moderates were more willing to listen to alternative voices. Goossen became popular on the lecture circuit—invited to speak two and three times a day. His exceptional knowledge of state budget and finance history ensured that he would be taken seriously. He illustrated his points with graphs that made complex relationships understandable. Defenders of Brownback’s policies were unable convincingly to contradict Goossen’s data. They rather resorted to tired repetitions of the “trickle down” ideology that did not agree with the facts.
Goossen’s arguments were enhanced by his personality. Mark Peterson, chair of the political science department at Washburn University, has said that Goossen is “one of the least egocentric individuals I’ve ever met.” He did not take obvious delight in destroying the arguments of his opponents. “His Mennonite background has created a real conviction in the good of service to others.”
Peterson also emphasized Goossen’s professional credentials. “I think the thing that makes Goossen so effective is his vita — 7 terms in the state house (Republican), a Masters from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and his service as budget director from 1997 for the Graves administration until the end of the Sebelius administration. In that time he became both parties’ and most lobbyists’ go to guy for the straight up on revenue and the impact of contemplated changes to the state’s budget.” While Goossen was a registered Republican during his political career in Kansas, he has subsequently changed his registration to Democrat. But his contribution to the tax debate has been strictly non-partisan.
The national press has been interested in the wider relevance of the Kansas model. The Washington Post article based on conversation with Goossen was titled, “Kansas’ collapsed tax-cut plan will provide political fodder for Democrats for decades.” Recent commentaries on Fox News suggest that supply-siders will simply ignore Kansas, and continue to claim that tax cuts under President Reagan fostered national prosperity. Meanwhile Goossen warns about the looming tax plan of President Trump: “It’s the Kansas experiment on steroids.”
We might wish that Goossen could exercise the same kind of influence on national policy that he has had in Kansas.