TOPEKA – Conservative Republicans who want to preserve a break for Kansas business owners prevented a debate Thursday over raising taxes to balance the state budget, while GOP Gov. Sam Brownback said he’s willing to consider new proposals to trim spending.
Republicans who control the Legislature insisted they’re getting closer to agreeing on how to close a projected $406 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But neither chamber has passed a plan for raising new revenues during a session that has been one of Kansas lawmakers’ longest.
House GOP leaders wanted to consider a bill Thursday to boost sales and cigarette taxes and repeal an income tax exemption for business owners and farmers enacted in 2012 at Brownback’s urging. Members didn’t expect those proposals to pass, but top Republicans hoped the House would pass a stripped-down version of the measure.
The Legislature’s rules then would have allowed six House and Senate negotiators to draft revenue-raising plans and present them to each chamber for up-or-down votes, speeding up the resolution of tax issues.
But several conservatives said during a meeting of House Republicans that they feared losing their influence.
“The tax process is going to be handled by three people from the House and three people from the Senate,” said conservative Republican Rep. Steve Brunk, of Wichita. “What’s our mechanism for input then?”
The hitch for GOP leaders was changing the House’s debate calendar for the day. The vote was 72-40, but Republican leaders needed a two-thirds majority, or 84 of 125 possible votes.
House leaders then scheduled a debate on tax issues for Friday, expecting it to last all day, with no guarantee that anything will pass.
The state’s budget problems arose after Brownback successfully pushed lawmakers to cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 as an economic stimulus. Lawmakers reduced income tax rates, dropped the top rate to 29 percent and exempted from taxes the profits of 281,000 business owners and 53,000 farmers.
Republicans don’t expect to get any help in passing a tax plan from Democrats, who argue that Brownback’s tax policies favored the wealthy. GOP lawmakers remain divided over whether the break for business owners and farmers was fair or whether it went farther than intended.
If lawmakers don’t rethink that break, they'll have to rely more heavily on increasing the sales tax and tobacco taxes to raise new revenues. The bill the House was to consider Thursday would have set the sales tax at 6.45 percent.
The Senate voted 30-1 Wednesday to reject a tax plan with similar elements, along with an increase in the gasoline tax.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said afterward that lawmakers must consider new spending cuts. House and Senate negotiators agreed last week on a proposed budget allowing spending financed with state tax dollars to rise 3 percent during the next fiscal year.
Asked about trimming spending during a Thursday news conference, Brownback said, “Let’s see what they come forward with, with ideas.”
“I’m sure there are possibilities,” he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. said budget negotiators will vet new proposals to trim spending, but the Olathe Republican is also confident they’ve drafted a solid spending blueprint. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, questioned whether legislators would support further trimming.
“We can talk about it – make sure we didn’t miss anything. But, at the end of the day, it’s hard to push something like that through the Legislature,” Bruce said.
Friday will be the 99th day of the Legislature’s annual session, nine more than its leaders traditionally schedule, with each extra day costing the state more than $40,000. Only five sessions have run longer, according to legislative researchers.