Conservative Republicans anticipated Wednesday that they’ll trim the Kansas state budget and even consider additional tax cuts after cementing large majorities in the Legislature that should give GOP Gov. Sam Brownback broad freedom to move the state further to the right.
Republicans were poised to maintain their majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House, but the more important dynamic was within the GOP. The Senate had been controlled by GOP moderates, who worked with Democrats to stall some of Brownback’s initiatives, but conservatives scored big victories in the August primary — then followed up by winning Tuesday.
Conservatives are now on track to hold a supermajority of 27 in the 40-member Senate. They also could have as many as 75 seats in the 125-member House, short of the two-thirds majority of 84 needed to approve possible changes in the state constitution but more than enough to pass a wide range of proposed laws on taxes, abortion and other issues.
Massive income tax cuts enacted this year have left the state facing a self-inflicted budget shortfall, and Brownback will need the newly constituted Legislature’s approval for spending cuts or measures to bring in more revenue — with an emphasis on belt-tightening far more likely. With a new financial forecast Tuesday, legislative researchers immediately projected a $328 million gap between anticipated revenues and current spending commitments by July 2014.
“This is manageable,” said retiring House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a conservative Hutchinson Republican and the chief executive officer of the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which aided conservative GOP candidates with mailings and broadcast advertising. “A certain amount of reduction in government is coming and should be coming.”
Income tax cuts enacted this year for 2013 — reducing individual income tax rates, dropping the top rate to 4.9 percent from 6.45 percent and exempting the owners of 191,000 businesses from taxes — are estimated to be worth $4.5 billion over the next six years and are designed to stimulate the economy.
Some conservatives want to go further, moving the state toward eliminating income taxes altogether.
Legal constraints on state spending increases also are on the agenda of anti-tax, small-government groups like Americans for Prosperity, and many conservatives would like to pursue proposals to give parents more alternatives to their current public schools. Also, Brownback has previously proposed changing how appellate court members are chosen, cutting out a commission that screens applications for the governor and creating a role for legislators.
Democrats had attempted to make this year’s legislative elections a referendum on Brownback and the income tax cuts, portraying the reductions as reckless and likely to lead to massive cuts in aid to public schools, social services and other programs. Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon, a former state revenue secretary, said the new projection of a budget shortfall bolstered their arguments.
But exit polling of more than 700 voters showed that Kansans who participated in Tuesday’s election generally gave Brownback good reviews after nearly two years in office.
Still, Wagnon said, Democrats aren’t anticipating changing their message, and she saw some positive signs in Democratic incumbents, particularly in the Senate, who overcame efforts by the GOP, the chamber, Americans for Prosperity and other Brownback allies to oust them.
“They tried desperately hard to put us out of business,” she said. “They didn’t do that, but we didn’t pick up the seats we needed to derail their train.”
Most of the focus was on the Senate, because of the alliance between GOP moderate leaders and Democrats to thwart Brownback on some issues such as remaking the appellate courts.
Most of the key races were in northeast Kansas, and three Democratic senators targeted by the GOP either won their races or led in final unofficial results — Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, Tom Holland of Baldwin City and Laura Kelly of Topeka. But Democratic Sen. Kelly Kultala of Kansas City, Kan., was trailing significantly in her race.
In the House, 11 incumbents — six Democrats and five Republicans — lost or were trailing in unofficial results. But three of the Democrats and two of the Republicans were in incumbent-on-incumbent contests forced by political redistricting.
The results of legislative elections left conservatives celebrating.
“I’m very energized,” said Rep. Tom Arpke, a conservative Salina Republican who won a seat in the Senate. “Kansas has some really good days ahead of it.”
Brownback hasn’t spelled out his agenda for next year’s legislative session, which convenes in January. Spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said that in working through budget issues, the governor will protect aid to public schools, social services, public safety and other core government programs.
“He’s committed to a smaller government, one that works more effectively and more efficiently,” she said.