By Ayesha Vishnani
The statehouse elections are still more than a year away, but you might be forgiven for thinking they were just around the corner given the wave of aggressive campaigning by a conservative political group in recent weeks.
Americans For Prosperity, the Arlington, Va.-based advocacy organization founded by Charles and David Koch in 2004, has been targeting elected officials across Kansas, with a highly visible effort against a group of moderate Republicans in the Shawnee Mission area. The organization has sent fliers and postcards, knocked on doors and called constituents to criticize representatives who voted for the bill that rolled back much of the income tax cuts signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012.
Rep. Shelee Brim, a first-term lawmaker who defeated incumbent Charles Macheers in last year’s primary, is among those who have been on the receiving end of AFP’s efforts. Brim recently found a postcard addressed to her husband in the mailbox with the headline, “Shelee Brim gave government a pay raise and you a cut.”
Brim was a teacher prior to entering politics and said the behavior is unlike she has ever seen. The AFP materials often include quotes from families who say they are struggling as a result of the representative’s actions. Usually, only first names are included on the cards, which makes it difficult to track the person who said it.
“This was something that was new to me because in my classroom we always taught the children that obviously bullying was not acceptable and that’s pretty much what they are,” Brimm said. “They’re focusing on the negative and taking facts and turning them and twisting them into untruths. It goes against the grain of everything I ever taught children.”
Americans For Prosperity Field Director Ian Fury said the organization’s actions are justified because of the vote to restore income taxes. Although election season is a year away, he said Americans For Prosperity thinks it is essential citizens know about these issues.
“A tax increase is a negative on Kansans’ pocketbooks,” Fury said. “Kansans got a pay cut thanks to this tax increase. That’s negative for Kansas families.”
But Rep. Tom Cox, who has had six different flyers sent out against him, said he sees this as a tactic to build distrust amongst constituents. One flier targeting Cox has a picture of a stoic-faced family of three. The postcard says Tom Cox at the top and underneath the name is a quote: “Cost our family an entire paycheck. It’s like a full week of pay is gone”:
Like Brim, Cox said a lot of the information on the fliers is misleading.
“I think the organization should be pretty embarrassed of the fliers they are sending out,” Cox said. “They just have misleading information about what the tax plan was and the amount it will cost people and the impact it will have on people.”
The tax reform plan that was passed this summer increased income taxes but still keeps the taxes at a lower level than they were before the 2012 bill was signed into law. Both representatives said they didn’t see an alternative to the plan given the massive budget shortages the state had faced in recent years and the dwindling reserves most agencies have left. Cox said he would have been supportive of a plan that would have included a smaller tax increase, but that the idea the state could balance its budget without restoring some of the cut income taxes was farcical.
“I think we could have passed a smaller tax bill but we couldn’t get the votes for it,” Cox said. “That being said anything that wasn’t a tax increase, absolutely not. There was no option.”
Cox and Brim said that AFP representatives were asked when the legislature was in session what the alternatives were to increasing taxes. The representatives said no specific alternatives were given at the time besides spending cuts.
Fury was working in Brownback’s office until the end of July and started working for Americans For Prosperity immediately thereafter. He said the alternative to the tax reform package would have been a plan put forward by the Truth Caucus. He said there are also issues with the ways the legislature handles money and said there needs to be fixing of inefficiencies. He cited a study conducted by Alvarez and Marsal which was paid by the Kansas state government to figure out ways money could be saved.
“What they could have done is implement some of those savings,” Fury said. “Then they would have had a little bit more money to spend on some of these projects they wanted to put more funding into without raising taxes.”