One likely outcome of the Kansas Senate’s failure to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a tax bill is that K-12 schools will get cut.
And that result lies largely at the feet of state Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning.
Denning, a conservative Republican from Overland Park, won re-election in November with only 52.7 percent of the vote, but he prevailed. He probably survived in part because of his strong assurances that he would fight for public school funding in Johnson County, particularly as a new school finance formula is written. He will have tremendous influence over that process.
His strong advocacy for Johnson County schools helped convince me to endorse him.
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The other reason for my endorsement is that Denning has been his own man, and even though he is a conservative legislator, Denning has not been afraid to buck his conservative governor when he thought Brownback was wrong.
A perfect example is Brownback’s insistence on keeping 330,000 businesses and farms off the tax rolls. Denning wants to close that loophole and save the state a much needed $250 million a year.
Heading into this legislative session, Denning’s agenda included eliminating that loophole and cutting school funding, albeit reluctantly. While reducing education funding would cost Johnson County schools millions of dollars, Denning was persuasive in his argument that there really is nowhere else to cut in order to close the deficit and balance the budget. Schools account for half the state budget, and everything else has been cut to the bone. Alas, it was education’s turn to take a hit, Denning surmised.
That was before the revolt in the Legislature.
To the shock of almost everyone, moderate Republicans, Democrats and even some conservatives in the Legislature coalesced around a series of tax hikes to raise enough revenue to avoid cutting school budgets. Both the House and the Senate passed bipartisan legislation to raise income tax rates, particularly on wealthier Kansans.
To even greater shock, Brownback’s veto of that legislation was narrowly overridden in the House. Eighty-four votes were needed for a two-thirds majority to override the governor. House members mustered 85 votes.
The Senate had the same opportunity to hold firm against a governor who still believes in the fairy tale that by slashing taxes, revenues will grow. That bunk theory has been an utter failure. Still, the Senate fell three votes short of overriding Brownback’s veto.
Denning voted against the override.
Denning, a successful executive and a financial guru in the Legislature, has indicated he knows that the 2012 tax cuts have not worked and that the budget cuts have been painful. He also has acknowledged that he is tired of one-time gimmicks used to balance the budget today, only forestalling a bigger burden tomorrow. The state has decimated the highway fund and deferred payments to the retirement fund — maneuvers that Denning has blasted.
The question I have for him is this: How can you promise voters in Johnson County you will fight for schools when a new funding formula is crafted, yet pass up an opportunity to avoid education cuts right now? The tax hikes, although anathema to a conservative, may have been the only viable way to avoid cutting school budgets.
The Senate now goes back to the drawing board to come up with a new tax policy. I assume Denning will continue to fight to eliminate the costly tax loophole for businesses, over the protests of Brownback.
But unless substantial tax hikes are also put in place, schools will suffer. Cuts in school spending are not what Denning’s district wants and are not what most Kansans want. The ball is now in Denning’s court.
I would be surprised if he doesn’t come through.