Brownback, GOP leaders defend private budget talks

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback The Associated Press

While top GOP officials consulted privately over tax and budget issues Monday, most of the state’s 165 elected lawmakers were left with virtually nothing to do.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who has made income tax cuts the cornerstone of his agenda, said there are “different proposals that are being shopped back and forth.” But neither he nor legislative leaders close to the negotiations were willing to discuss details in public, saying the private meetings are just part of the process.

“The discussions have been good,” Brownback said. “But it always takes a lot to finish a session up and that’s where we are now.”

Asked whether Kansans will have time to analyze whatever tax plans emerge, Brownback said the moving parts of the tax cuts – whether to extend the sales tax, phase out tax deductions and lower income taxes – have been discussed publicly for months.

“The pieces are well-known, it’s just how do you get them to fit together to make a budget and a pro-growth tax position,” he said.

Democrats, who are vastly out-numbered, say the tax discussions ought to happen in public.

“The budget impacts every single Kansan, yet the public is being denied the opportunity to weigh in on the debate,” House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said in a prepared statement. “These closed door meetings completely betray the democratic process and beg the question: what is Gov. Brownback hiding?”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, acknowledged all the talk is going on behind the scenes, but she said people will have time to understand whatever plan emerges and talk with their representatives before a vote.

“The basics of both plans have been publicly negotiated,” she said.

Wagle, one of the Legislature’s longest-serving lawmakers, said it’s normal for top legislative officials and the governor to privately negotiate how to end the legislative session.

The House and Senate are at odds over how to bring in more tax dollars after approving deep income tax cuts last year that eliminated taxes for more than 190,000 businesses and farms and lowered rates for all income taxpayers.

That hastily approved plan has created budget problems. Brownback has urged people to look at the bill he signed last year and this year’s effort to bring in more state revenue to make up for the cuts as one.

The Senate voted in favor of a plan similar to Brownback’s that extends indefinitely the six-tenths of a cent sales tax increase lawmakers approved during the recession as a temporary measure. The plan further reduces income tax rates in the next couple years.

Many House members view extending the sales tax rate as politically toxic. They’ve approved a plan that wouldn’t drop rates immediately but instead would channel any growth in state revenue beyond 2 percent toward rate reduction.

Both plans phase out the value of income tax deductions over time as rates decline.

Wagle said lawmakers have “narrowed the gap” on the sales tax discussions, indicating lawmakers may be headed toward only letting a portion of the sales tax increase continue.

She declined to provide specifics.

“Anything could happen at any time,” she said. “Anything could be in the mix today and out tomorrow. So that’s why I don’t want to be definitive. But clearly I think we’re having excellent negotiations.”

She said lawmakers won’t adjourn the legislative session without steadying the budget in the wake of last year’s tax cuts.

“There’s no reason when you have a Republican Senate, a Republican House and a Republican governor to walk out without a balanced budget,” she said.