Kansas legislators will return today from a long weekend determined to push through tax legislation, new restrictions on abortion, gun-rights legislation, the bulk of the next state budget and every other bill of any significance in just five days.
Republican leaders have pledged that lawmakers will finish almost all of the year’s work by Friday. But to make good on the pledge, some tricky and contentious issues will have to be resolved quickly.
The biggest piece of the puzzle is how to resolve differences on taxes and whether a 2010 sales tax increase will be allowed to expire in July as scheduled or will remain in place to shore up the state’s $14 billion budget for 2014.
“We either work now or we work later to reach an agreement on taxes and the budget. Those are the two issues that control the session,” Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce said.
The Hutchinson Republican said the Senate was sticking to its Friday deadline for finishing business and starting a monthlong break. Senate GOP leaders want budget and tax issues settled, limiting how much work they have to complete when legislators return May 8.
The tax plan has to come first, Bruce said, so legislators know if the budget will balance.
Gov. Sam Brownback wants to keep the state sales tax rate at 6.3 percent instead of letting it fall to 5.7 percent as scheduled in July. The Senate sides with the governor and his proposal to raise additional revenue through other adjustments to counter income tax cuts. The House tax plan allows the sales tax rate to drop but also makes other adjustments to raise additional revenue. Republicans and Brownback are looking for the revenue to cushion the impact of massive income tax cuts enacted last year.
“There’s just the budget reality,” Brownback said last week. “I think it’s coming across to people that you’ve got to get your resource package somewhere. The budget doesn’t work without the tax piece of it.”
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey compared the budget and tax negotiations to families looking at their own finances.
“It’s better to know what your income is, and I don’t know that we know what that is yet,” said Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican.
Vickrey concedes that legislators must work quickly. Still, House GOP leaders want a clearer picture of state revenues in April before putting matters to rest in May.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she and House leaders agreed to end the first portion of the regular session Friday. The process was complicated procedurally last week when the House adjourned before the Senate passed a slew of measures that will have to be negotiated. The House will have to take action today to allow committees to start working out differences.
“We may be a little delayed, and that means we are going to have a very busy week,” Wagle said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley has his doubts.
“I think they are overly optimistic this is all going to be done, especially the tax bill,” the Topeka Democrat said. “They may be able to pass a budget in five days, but I just don’t see where the House is going to come around and support the governor in his tax increase.”
Brownback has signed just one bill this session, a measure changing the process for filling vacancies on the Court of Appeals. The change allows the governor to make independent selections to the bench, which would then be subject to Senate confirmation.
Republicans want to go further and apply it to the state Supreme Court. But unlike the Court of Appeals, which is set by statute, changing the Supreme Court requires voter approval to amend the Kansas Constitution. Senators approved a resolution to place the changes on the August 2014 primary ballot, but the measure has been stalled in the House.
Several education bills also remain in play, many of which are aimed at breaking the strength of the Kansas National Education Association by rewriting rules for contract negotiations and collective bargaining rights.
One measure sent back to the House last week is a modified version of Brownback’s elementary school reading initiative. Senators amended the bill to require school districts, with the consultation of parents, to retain students at the first grade who aren’t proficient in reading. The governor set the target at third grade, saying it was cruel to pass students along who weren’t prepared.