Politics won out over common sense in Kansas over the last few years, as legislators got confused about the difference between campaign slogans and governing. Now the state’s public schools are running out of money and shutting down early. That means that kids in Kansas will fall just a little behind those in the rest of the country.

A few years ago, the governor of Kansas pushed through a series of politically popular cuts in income taxes with no way to pay for them. As is usually the case in these things, he promised that “future growth” would pay the bills. That didn’t happen.

Gov. Paul LePage apparently thinks the Kansas income tax cuts weren’t deep enough, and has proposed something even more radical. He wants to eliminate income taxes altogether. His plan doesn’t pay for those cuts, either.

If a wave of these income tax cuts seems to be happening around the country, it’s no accident. Every four years, just before the onset of another presidential election, national think tanks on both the right and the left unveil their latest “strategies” for each party to implement in states across the country. Their purpose is to promote divisive “wedge” issues that put the other party on the defensive and energize their own activists.

The galvanizing issue for Democrats this year is the minimum wage and, in some states, immigration reform. For Republicans, it’s income tax reductions.

So Republican governors around the country have been beating the drum for lowering or eliminating income taxes. They point to states without income taxes that are doing well, such as Texas and New Hampshire, as though taxes made the difference there. Never mind that Texas is awash in oil money, and New Hampshire is a bedroom suburb of high-income Massachusetts, with none of the costs. Or that their high property taxes offset income taxes.

LePage dutifully unveiled his “made-in-Maine” tax plan with great fanfare. “We’re going to eliminate income taxes altogether,” he crowed. Naturally, some people like the idea. Who wouldn’t want to have their cake, eat it too, and not have to pay for it? The problem with the LePage plan is in the fine print. Massive deficits after nobody pays the bills.

If we eliminate all income taxes, one of two things will happen. We’ll either go hundreds of millions of dollars in debt each year, or we’ll be forced to slash and burn government. Conservatives, such as LePage, hope that will mean big cuts to social programs. What Kansas shows us is that cuts of that magnitude don’t come from people who shouldn’t be on welfare but from kids who should be in school.

Promising voters they can have all the benefits of government without any of the costs is a time-worn ploy that was invented at just about the time democracy came into being. None of it works, nor will it ever win any common-sense or “truth in mathematics” awards. Still, every generation has a surplus of voters gullible enough to fall for it.

Think about these lower taxes pledges as the political versions of those late-night ads that promise that you can work out for five seconds a day, eat all you want and still look like either Tarzan or Jane.

Fortunately, most Mainers are practical enough to know this is nonsense. There’s no free lunch, and if you find one, it’s because someone else is paying.

Here’s the simple reality about taxes: Things have to be done for the greater good that can’t be done by individuals or the private sector. If you want to live in a safe community, with educated and responsible residents, skilled workers, people starting new businesses and a clean environment, there’s no way to have that without chipping in.

Few people dispute that government can and should be constantly modernized and streamlined. But intentionally bankrupting government in order to win political points and create a fiscal crisis needs to be exposed for what it is: a short-sighted, self-serving political agenda that puts politics over people.

Fortunately, Republican legislative leaders have put forward a more thoughtful plan, just as Democrats did a few weeks ago. In place of the LePage plan, they proposed modest tax reductions that actually are paid for by offsetting increases in taxes to tourists.

Democrats support a similar approach. The two sides are still far apart about whether the rich should get tax relief, but the gaps are narrowing.

What’s most important is that both plans reject the LePage approach to fixing problems, which could best be described as government-by-demolition-derby.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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