Kansas legislators appear no closer to finding a solution to fixing the state’s budget woes, and the frustrations and high emotion don’t show any sign of going away.
If lawmakers are going to find a path forward and end their marathon session, it might be the moderate Republicans who hold the key: Will they work with the Democrats — after they killed two tax plans the moderates supported — or forge a new path forward with conservatives?
Rep. Tom Cox, a freshman Republican from Shawnee who is seen as a moderate, said he has supported three separate tax bills, including the latest one defeated just before midnight Tuesday.
“I’ve had a lot of people who’ve told me from the left, ‘You’re in the majority, it’s your job to figure it out,’ and from the right saying, ‘We don’t want it,’ ” Cox said. “… I’m kind of at the point of saying all right, it’s someone else’s job to figure out what they can do.”
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Moderates gained a number of seats in last November’s lesson and are wielding more power this session as lawmakers consider whether to unravel Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts to help fill projected budget shortfalls of close to $900 million over the next two fiscal years and pay for an increase in school funding.
But the moderates — or any faction, for that matter — are having little success so far.
The session entered its 104th day Thursday and is already among the longest in state history. It is creeping toward the longest ever, the 2015 session that lasted 114 days.
And the president of the Senate has already warned lawmakers that she thinks they will run out of money to keep working by Friday, though legislators could pass a bill to keep funding the Legislature.
In recent days, the House has defeated two similar tax increase proposals. Each would have raised personal income tax rates and added a third tax bracket to Kansas’ current two-bracket system.
Rep. Patty Markley, an Overland Park Republican, said Wednesday that she was surprised and disappointed after the failed effort to pass what she found to be a good bill.
“I think I was just frustrated with my colleagues, and not just Democrats and not just Republicans, but my colleagues in general,” she said. “I really thought we had a chance when the Senate passed it with 26” votes.
In interviews with several lawmakers this week, it remained unclear how the Kansas Legislature will move forward.
Without Democratic support, passing a three-bracket plan is very difficult, if not impossible. Majority support from House Democrats would have been enough to pass both bills.
But many Democrats say the plans, which would have each raised about $1.2 billion over two years, were not enough to close the budget shortfall and pay for increases in school funding they argue are necessary. Some want a full repeal of the 2012 tax cuts, which would raise about $1.4 billion.
That full repeal seems unlikely.
Moderate Republicans, who mostly supported both proposals, are coming to terms with continued Democratic opposition and assessing their next move.
Several said Wednesday they are still not willing to back a tax plan with two individual income tax brackets, a concept that the conservative House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, and some conservative lawmakers support but that has not been brought up for debate. The state currently has a two bracket system, though a proposal made public by tax negotiators earlier this month slightly increased the two individual income tax rates.
Complicating the issue, lawmakers believe Brownback probably would veto a tax bill that includes three brackets.
Rep. Russell Jennings, a Lakin Republican, said he doesn’t think there are enough votes to pass a two-bracket plan.
“I think the speaker will be disappointed with the outcome when he runs that bill,” Jennings said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, acknowledged that relations between Democrats and moderates are strained at the moment.
The relationship has deteriorated since House Bill 2178 was passed in February with moderate and Democratic support. The tax bill would have raised more than $1 billion over two years but was vetoed by Brownback.
But Democrats remain willing to work with moderates, Ward said.
“I think they’re good-faith people trying to pass a bill. They’re a little angry at us right now but that will calm down,” Ward said.
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said the puzzle for moderates is that if they move too far to the right to pick up more Republican votes and placate the governor, they’ll lose Democratic votes. At the same time, if they move to the left to satisfy Democrats’ concerns, they’ll lose GOP votes and likely ensure a gubernatorial veto.
“If they can get Brownback to not veto they don’t need as many votes, so they can afford to lose some Democrats,” Smith said.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said lawmakers are long past the point where they can all hold a hard line or take a principled stand of “I won’t vote for this or that.”
“Nobody is going to walk out of here with a plan that is their idea of perfection,” Rooker said. “And we have too many people holding out for perfection.”
Some moderates have also expressed frustration with Ryckman and other Republican leaders for continued no votes on tax bills. Ryckman voted against the plan debated Tuesday night as he has on other plans.
The frustration with House leaders played out on social media early Wednesday morning after the tax vote. Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, tweeted that “I do currently have unprintable thoughts re: Leadership.”
Whatever happens in the House may also affect the Senate, which has had an easier time passing tax bills.
The tax bill that faltered in the House late Tuesday passed the Senate earlier in the night, 26-14. Supporters were only one vote shy of the 27 that would be needed to override a veto.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said taxes are in the “House’s court. They need to figure out what they want because we sure can’t.”
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.