Republican legislators from the House and Senate mustered just enough votes to pass a $400 million tax increase Friday and end the historic 2015 session.
The session traditionally lasts 90 days. Friday was the 113th, as both chambers struggled to get Republican supermajorities to approve a substantial tax hike.
The final plan raises the state sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent. Senators ultimately gave up on a quest to tax groceries at a lower rate.
That means Kansans will pay the second-highest sales tax on food in the nation, trailing only Mississippi’s 7 percent.
When local sales tax levies are added, most Kansans will pay the nation’s highest tax on food — more than 9 percent in some areas.
Several senators said Friday’s bill was flawed but they were voting for it to avoid deep budget cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback had promised were coming within days. Several also said their support was contingent on promises that the Legislature would have serious discussions next year about lowering the food sales tax rate.
“I definitely know it’s important to my district,” Sen. Mike Petersen, a Republican from Wichita, said during a Senate Republican caucus before the vote. “I hear about it all the time.”
Some Republicans who voted against the bill cited the high food sales tax as the reason.
The bill restored the food sales tax credit to the income tax code, but Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Republican from Wichita, called the projection of $15 million in tax relief for low-income Kansans “somewhat of a farce.”
O’Donnell said he did not think the measure would bring that much relief, and what it did provide would go only to a relatively small number of people. A food sales tax cut would have been better, he said.
“A cut impacts all 72,000 or 73,000 people in my district,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Democrat from Wichita, had worked together to promote food sales tax cuts during the session, at one point suggesting a complete exemption for fresh produce.
Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Republican from Topeka who voted against the tax bill, said an exemption could be tricky to implement. But she agreed something needs to be done to keep Kansans on a budget from gravitating toward the cheapest food options, which often are less healthy.
“To not have any offset at all for food and to raise the sales tax that high should give everyone pause,” Schmidt said.
During the caucus, O’Donnell asked Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce how realistic a food sales tax cut would be next year, given the state’s tight cash flow.
Bruce said it would be “very realistic” to lower the rate in the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2016, because that year is projected to have an ending cushion of more than $200 million.
Friday’s tax bill also includes a 50-cent per-pack increase in the state cigarette tax, which was one-third of what public health advocates had pushed for as an incentive to reduce smoking rates. The tax will rise from 79 cents per pack to $1.29.
The bill also provides for the first state tax on liquid nicotine used in electronic cigarettes, but that does not take effect until next year.
The bill exempts Kansans at the lowest end of the income scale — $5,000 a year or less for individuals and $12,000 or less for couples — from paying any income tax, but that provision doesn’t kick in until tax year 2017.
Also delayed is a continuation of Brownback’s “March to Zero” income tax.
Senate Democrats, who all voted against the bill, said that approach is what has the state struggling to balance the budget in the first place — and will again in future years.
They railed against the 2012 bill that got the march started and exempted more than 300,000 businesses from paying any income tax.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said the Republicans were “foisting on Kansans the highest and most regressive sales tax on food in the nation” to subsidize the income tax cuts.
“Now we’re asking poor people to pay more to keep a misguided, reckless tax policy in place,” Hensley said.
Some legislators complained about threats of cuts to public universities and state hospitals and “political blackmail” to get a plan passed in the final desperate weeks of the session.
But Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Republican from Grinnell, was not among them.
Ostmeyer said he voted for Friday’s tax bill because the Legislature needed to fund the budget, including areas vital to his large, rural district.
His district lost facilities for disabled Kansans in Colby and Oakley in recent years, he said, and could not afford to lose more.
“I have a handicapped child,” Ostmeyer said, choking up. ”We never talk about them. I take care of my child, but Kansas has a lot of people we need to take care of.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.