The Tea Party has swept across politics like a prairie fire and seems to be gaining even more momentum in a volatile election year.
Here in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback is making an example of what a Tea Party nation would look like with draconian spending cuts. But he's not stopping at spending. He has also proposed eliminating income taxes for small businesses and reducing personal income tax to stimulate economic growth – a plan that he hopes will lead to complete elimination of income taxes altogether in Kansas.
With economic recovery weighing on everyone's mind, this sounds like fantastic news. The less we pay in taxes, the more we spend to boost the economy while inviting new businesses to the state. But for those who make their money in farming and ranching, the elimination of income taxes is the last thing we need. We would end up paying more in property taxes.
As I learned on a recent educational trip to Topeka, government funding is traditionally supported by the "three-legged stool" consisting of sales tax, property tax and income tax. Eliminate one of those, and government funding will ultimately be shifted to the remaining two sources. Under the current plan, all funding would come from sales and property.
One could argue that the reduced availability of funding would mean shrinking government – one of the Tea Party's main agendas. But in sparsely populated areas of rural Kansas, the only government operations that can be shrunk of any significance are public schools and other core services.
Given the small sales tax base in rural communities and the fierceness to keep rural schools and services functioning, the burden would ultimately fall to property owners – i.e. farmers and ranchers. For landlords who would also have to pay higher property taxes, those additional costs of land ownership will also be passed on to farmers and ranchers via higher rents. Does this sound like fair treatment for the 65,531 farmers and ranchers in Kansas?
Unfortunately, the voice of farmers, ranchers and rural communities is continually shrinking due to urban migration. And, as agriculture and rural communities lose voters, politicians – including Gov. Sam Brownback, who himself grew up on a farm and holds a degree in agriculture from K-State – have turned their attention elsewhere for votes. A plan to shift the tax burden to farmers, ranchers and other property owners is one such plan that appeals to the growing non-farm majority.
This rebalancing of power from rural to urban representation is most obvious in the current redistricting plan for the state, which calls to dissolve three rural districts while adding three urban districts near Kansas City.
This trend isn't likely to change. As one rural representative in Topeka said, the key to effective leadership in rural America is building coalitions with urban districts and finding common ground. That is the only way rural communities will remain relevant in policy making amidst declining representation. But reaching across party and ideological lines is the last thing you can expect from the Tea Party. Rural voters might want to think twice about whether a party with an extremist agenda truly has their best interests in mind.