Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature have repeatedly voted against bills to increase taxes during their 101-day session. Some lawmakers argue that is hampering progress on a fix for the state’s budget hole.
And politics may play a big part in that.
Despite gains by moderates in the last election, many leadership positions remain in the hands of conservative lawmakers who have been reluctant to back a tax increase either out of personal ideology or because of greater political ambitions. It’s tough to vote for a massive tax increase if you’re contemplating a run for higher office.
Senate President Susan Wagle, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Sen. Caryn Tyson, the Senate tax committee chairwoman, have rejected nearly all of the tax plans that have come up for debate during the course of the session, which is already one of the longest in the state’s history.
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The refusal of legislative leaders to support a tax plan has made it more difficult to find votes for a solution to the roughly $900 million budget hole Kansas will face over the next two years, according to lawmakers of both parties.
“That has caused a lot of problems, I think, that they have been unwilling to compromise and vote for tax increases,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
“When you have the speaker, the president, the chairwoman of the tax committee taking those positions, it’s like drawing a line in the sand, and we shouldn’t be doing that.”
Lawmakers are not very good at raising revenue, Ryckman said. As a Republican, it’s “not in your nature” to figure out ways to generate revenue through taxes, he said.
The conservative leaders have had to balance their own political beliefs against the need to pass a budget fix. In practice, that has meant voting against most plans while not blocking plans from coming to the House and Senate floor for debate.
Ryckman said that these debates are an important step toward reaching an eventual compromise.
“I think we’re kind of proving what’s not viable right now, and by keeping the discussion going I think we can finally get to one that can pass and fund the core functions of government,” he said.
Often, House Majority Leader Don Hineman and Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine have been the only members of the Republican leadership voting in favor of a tax plan.
“I don’t want to go there,” Hineman said when asked about being the only member of House leadership to vote for major income tax legislation. “You’re going to have to talk to someone else about that.”
On top of the budget hole, the Kansas Supreme Court has set a June 30 deadline for the Legislature to put a new school funding formula in place. A plan that passed the House last week calls for a $180 million boost to schools next year and roughly $278 million the year after. The question remains whether the Legislature will be able to cobble enough votes together to pass a tax plan to fund it.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said that until legislative leaders “are willing to give their vote to a tax plan, it certainly looks like it will continue to be a struggle.”
Some lawmakers say that GOP leaders’ hesitance to support a tax plan so far is a tactic meant to ensure that the final tax plan is one that hews closely to their preferences.
“I think a lot of time, the clock gets run out in order to force votes,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican and outspoken moderate.
Wagle and Tyson
Senate and House negotiators produced a plan last week that would raise personal income tax rates, repeal an exemption on certain kinds of business income and roll back sales tax exemptions on some services.
It would keep the state’s current two-bracket personal income tax system in place — something conservative lawmakers are more likely to support.
In total, it would raise a little more than $900 million over two years.
Legislative rules dictate that the House debates the plan first. The House hasn’t debated the plan yet, but could when lawmakers return after Memorial Day weekend.
Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has refused to give her opinion about the plan.
“My opinion doesn’t matter now,” she said. “I don’t think it is appropriate when this bill is going to the House for me to comment on it.”
A number of lawmakers are interested in a two-bracket plan, Wagle said. But she said she is willing to work with everyone.
Wagle voted against a plan earlier this month that would have rolled back much of the 2012 tax cuts and included a three-bracket system. The legislation fell three votes short of the 21 needed to pass a bill in the 40-member Senate.
The Senate president did vote for a flat tax plan in April. The bill, which had the backing of Gov. Sam Brownback, received only three yes votes.
Wagle is flirting with a possible run for Congress. If she were to run, she would be challenging newly-elected U.S. Rep. Ron Estes in the Republican primary — a contest where support for tax increases could be a liability.
Mark Peterson, a political scientist at Washburn University, said that Wagle probably stands a strong chance against Estes regardless of how the session turns out, but that the 4th District’s conservative bent makes the tax issue tactically difficult.
“The machine of conservative anger immediately begins to roar” if she takes a strong stance in favor of raising taxes, he said. “If she really covets that job, then she really will be mum.”
Tyson has also voted against tax bills. The Parker Republican has been tasked with carrying multiple tax increases on the Senate floor, but has not voted for a large income tax increase on the floor all session.
Tyson continued to talk positively about the flat individual income tax rate bill that only got three votes when asked about her opposition to other plans. “It was actually the less harmful of any of the tax bills,” she said.
Asked if she could see a path toward a tax solution to wind down the session, Tyson said, “I’m not a fortune teller.”
Tyson has been speculated to be a potential candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2018 after U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins announced she would not seek re-election, but would not comment on her future plans.
The only tax plan to pass the Legislature so far this year — House Bill 2178 — would have raised about $1.1 billion over two years. Lawmakers passed it in February. Brownback vetoed the bill in a public ceremony, a dramatic and unusual step.
The House gathered enough votes to override the veto, but the override effort fell three votes short in the Senate. Ryckman, Wagle and Tyson voted against both passage of the bill and the veto override.
Despite the majority of the leaders shunning the bills that feature large tax increases, the tax bills continue to be worked on and voted on in both chambers.
Conservative Republicans have been split on the issue, with some saying they want to be part of the solution. Others have said they don’t think a tax increase is necessary.
And with no clear path forward as the session heads into its 102nd day, one conservative Republican said she thinks the solution will come through Ryckman.
“I think whatever we pass will have the shoulder of the speaker leaning in,” said Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican.
Clayton said that Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, has been whipping up votes in support of a two-tiered tax plan, as opposed to the three brackets that were included in the Legislature’s earlier plan.
She said that she did not expect Ryckman to vote for a tax bill until that plan has enough votes.
“I think that Ron is still very much in control of the House, much more so than it appears to the public. This is still very much Ron’s House,” she said. “Everything is happening as Ron would prefer it to happen.”
Ryckman, who supports a two-bracket plan, said that no faction in the House can get to 63 votes on its own, which makes compromise a necessity.
“When you’re an absolute ‘no,’ typically the legislation moves the opposite direction of your stance. We have to govern by consensus,” he said.
Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican, said he thought that many of the more moderate Republicans stuck their necks out a few times on tax increases.
He said the decision by a majority of House Democrats this month to vote against a tax bill that would have raised more than $1.2 billion over a two-year span “really runs the risk of burning bridges.”
“That kind of sets the tone of, moderates tried to work with the Democrats and Democrats kind of slapped their hand away,” Cox said. “And so now I think more moderates are going to be more interested in turning to Ryckman and a more conservative plan.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat weighing a run for governor in 2018, said Democrats opposed the bill because they believed that it would not raise enough revenue to cover the cost of addressing the court’s order on schools. He called the school finance bill passed last week insufficient.
Ward confirmed that the partnership between moderates and Democrats that flourished early in the session has largely dissolved during the month of May.
“Every session kind of has a theme, and this one I think the biggest one is disappointment, because it started with such promise,” he said.