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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Election question: Why do some Kansans vote against their economic interests?

By Andy Marso, Amy Jeffries | October 26, 2016

#KS2016

This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.

The statewide team that’s collaborating to cover the 2016 election in Kansas is taking your questions.

One question that seems to come up almost every election season is why people sometimes vote against their own best interests — specifically, their economic interests. 

Diane Wahto of Wichita asked it this way: 

“Why do Kansans often vote against their best interests? … When we don’t have money to fix the highways or fund social programs, who cares about those other things?”

Ernest Schein of Olathe sent a follow-up: 

“When will people stop voting against their economic interest? The governor who was supposed to lower taxes actually raised them on the vast majority of residents when he signed the sales tax increase into law.”

There is evidence that some Kansans have voted against their own economic interests.

In 2015, the Kansas Legislature passed a historic sales tax increase in an attempt to balance the budget. 

Before that, the Legislature passed and Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law major changes to the income tax structure in 2012. It was sold as a tax cut for all Kansans. 

Former State Budget Director Duane Goossen — who served in the Graves, Sebelius and Parkinson administrations and who is no fan of those tax changes — has done some new number-crunching.

The analysis shows that Kansans making $25,000 a year or less ended up paying more in income taxes. That's because in addition to reducing income tax rates, the 2012 changes included the elimination of credits and deductions, like the food sales tax rebate, that lower-income Kansans benefited from most. 

When the changes first came into play in 2013, about 600,000 Kansas income tax filers were in that $25,000-or-less income category — more than a third of all filers. 

For that group at least, the 2012 tax changes were detrimental. 

Then in 2014, voters re-elected Brownback and gave Republicans a bigger majority in the Kansas House. 

That occurred despite a Docking Institute poll conducted in September 2014 showing almost two-thirds of Kansans were concerned that economic conditions in the state would hurt their families, and barely 30 percent were satisfied with how Brownback and legislative leaders were handling the economy at the time. 

Fiscal issues often take a back seat to social issues, perhaps especially in Kansas. Thomas Frank famously took note of that in his 2004 book, “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”

Gary Brinker, director the Docking Institute and a sociology professor at Fort Hays State University, said abortion in particular has been a litmus test for many Kansas voters. 

But there are indications that economic interests will matter more in 2016. 

In the primaries, voters cast out six Republican state senators and eight incumbent House members. Those lawmakers generally had been in line with Brownback on tax policy and had been endorsed by Kansans For Life, an anti-abortion group. 

And now, as Election Day nears, we’re hearing more talk of the state economy from the governor and conservative Republicans who are still in the running.

They argue it’s not the 2012 tax changes that have hurt the state budget but the downturn in industries like agriculture and oil and gas. And they contend the tax plan passed in 2012, on a macroeconomic level, is still beneficial for all Kansans. 

— Amy Jeffries, based at KCUR, is the editor of a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas.