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Tax Debate Plods Along In The Kansas Statehouse

Stephen Koranda
Kansas Public Radio

Lawmakers are in the 105th day of the 2015 legislative session, making it the second longest session in Kansas state history. Legislators are looking for more than $400 million to close the state’s budget gap.

There was hope last weekend that the logjam could break when Gov. Sam Brownback introduced his tax plan. It relies mostly on sales taxes and tobacco taxes to generate revenue.

The bill mostly leaves business income tax cuts in place, because Brownback says they’re spurring economic growth.

“So we’ve got to keep that economy growing and we’re moving in the right direction to get that to take place, so I think we want to continue that and not put policies forward and enacted that harm small business growth because that’s your primary job creating machine,” he says.

But there are Democrats and Republicans who don’t agree that the business tax cut is working. Democratic State Rep. Barbara Ballard says Democrats probably won’t agree to any bill unless it amends the 2012 tax cuts.

“We don’t want to be the people standing in the way, but we also have to say ‘you’re not looking in all the right places here, we’re not dealing with what really is the issue,’” says Ballard.

There are other Republicans who don’t want to raise taxes at all, or would prefer to eliminate tax exemptions, including Republican Sen. Jeff Melcher.

“I’m thinking back on my campaign, I don’t remember going door to door saying ‘I just can’t wait to get to Topeka to raise your taxes,’ that didn’t happen,” says Melcher.

Ultimately, House leaders decided they wanted a small group of House and Senate negotiators to come up with a compromise that could pass both chambers.

“It really isn’t the sort of discussion you should have out on the floor, putting all the pieces together, especially with this kind of money that needs to be done,” says Republican Rep. Marvin Kleeb.

Some Senate Republicans objected.

Steve Abrams, who’s on the Senate Tax Committee, said they should try to build a tax plan publicly on the Senate floor.

“It is a difficult process, but I believe we should be having those hard discussions, we need to have those discussions,” says Abrams.

So the Kansas Senate embarked on several days of tax debate.

By Tuesday, the chair of the Senate Tax Committee, Les Donovan, was getting impatient. 

“This whole situation is ridiculous,” he says. “And I don’t mean just ridiculous, it’s worse than that. We know better than what we’re doing here. We’re standing here acting like children.”

Senators eventually agreed to the original House strategy, in which a small group of House and Senate negotiators would try to build a tax agreement. Senate President Susan Wagle says while they didn’t pass any major tax bills, the debate wasn’t just wasted time.

“It has helped build consensus. We aren’t there yet, we don’t have a majority for one plan, but I think consensus is starting to build,” says Wagle.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are facing down a Sunday deadline to either pass a budget or send thousands of state employees home without pay. Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly believes the Legislature will not reach a tax agreement in time, but she expects they will avoid furloughs.

“There’s more than one way to get out of doing furloughs and I think we’ll figure out a way to not do the furloughs. I would be very surprised if they let that happen because of the political fallout from it,” says Kelly.

The question now is whether lawmakers will be able to close out this session as the second-longest in state history, or if they’ll breeze past the previous record of 107 days.

As the Kansas News Service managing editor, I help our statewide team of reporters find the important issues and breaking news that impact people statewide. We refine our daily stories to illustrate the issues and events that affect the health, well-being and economic stability of the people of Kansas. Email me at skoranda@kcur.org.
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