Government & Politics

Brownback takes Kansas lawmakers ‘to the brink’ with latest veto

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Gov. Sam Brownback’s commitment to his signature tax cuts has not wavered even as Kansas is weeks away from financial insolvency.

Brownback’s decision to veto a rollback of his signature tax cuts has set off another override fight in a session that has already featured multiple attempts by lawmakers — so far unsuccessful — to override the governor.

If the Legislature forces a bill into law to raise more than $1.2 billion over the next two years over Brownback’s objections, the Republican governor will suffer his most substantial legislative defeat in his two terms in office. He could arguably be left politically crippled.

But if tax plan supporters fail to round up the necessary two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to override the veto, Kansas could face a shutdown of schools and state agencies in the coming weeks — unless another plan emerges that Brownback will sign.

“There’s no question that he’s taking us to the brink,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and longest-serving member of the Legislature.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s completely unprecedented…this late in the session when we have a June 30 deadline,” Hensley said, noting the court-ordered deadline for Kansas to enact a new school finance formula.

Brownback announced his intention to veto the tax package, which raises $1.2 billion over two years through an income tax hike, within minutes of the Legislature’s passage of the bill early Tuesday. He officially signed his veto later that day.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, interpreted the speed of Brownback’s veto announcement as a sign “the governor actually wants the legislature to save him from his own terrible mistakes” while still maintaining his resolve in the public eye.

“He announced it instantly so what that tells me is he wants to give us that opportunity to override as soon as possible…If he was really being a jerk he wouldn’t have vetoed it yet. He would’ve made us wait,” she said, contending that Brownback could have made it almost impossible to achieve an override if he had waited a full 10 days to veto the bill as allowed by statute.

The House passed the bill 69-52. The Senate passed it 26-14.

“We have worked hard in Kansas to move our tax policy to a pro-growth orientation,” Brownback said in a statement. “This bill undoes much of that progress. It will substantially damage job creation and leave our citizens poorer in the future.”

The veto override fight represents the culmination of a process that began nearly a year ago when a number of conservative Republican lawmakers who supported the 2012 tax cuts and defended Brownback were ousted by Democrats and moderate Republicans who campaigned on undoing the policy.

“It’s a high risk veto…I don’t know what he’s thinking,” said former Democratic Gov. John Carlin, who predicted an override.

While Brownback’s influence in the Legislature has waned this year, a faction of lawmakers remains strongly committed to his low-tax philosophy.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, said “damn right” when asked if he would support the governor’s veto.

“The people who are trying to put this huge tax increase on the backs of Kansans are going to have to try harder,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think they should be allowed to do it without more of a fight.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, wouldn’t directly answer whether he would vote for or against an override of Brownback’s veto.

He also refused to reflect on what Brownback’s most recent veto declaration says about Brownback’s legacy as governor and how wedded he is to the tax policies that made him a national name.

“I’m trying to do what I can to get us out of session,” Ryckman said Tuesday. “We’ll let the historians answer that question.”

Brownback, for the most part, has maintained the line on his resistance to rolling back his tax cuts.

The only blip on that record was his statement earlier this session that he would sign a flat tax bill that featured a single individual income tax rate. That same bill also ended the LLC exemption publicly cherished by the governor.

Like some lawmakers, Brownback has refused to give up the ghost on that concept, even though the flat tax bill limped to defeat in the Senate on a 3 to 37 vote.

Speaking to reporters Monday morning before the tax plan passed and the veto was announced, Brownback once again said he would prefer a single rate plan.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Brownback has shown an unwillingness to revisit his own policies.

“Does he want his last hurrah to be negating basically the point of his governorship, admitting that his trademark policy has not worked?” Miller said.

“If the only way that you’re going to get out of this is to either override his veto or just to completely give in to Brownback and conservatives…are we really any closer to solving this problem than we were in January? I’m not sure.”

Sen. Bruce Givens, an El Dorado Republican, called the governor hypocritical for denouncing the income tax bill he vetoed after helping to push through a sales tax increase in 2015.

That year, lawmakers raised the sales tax rate to close another budget shortfall.

Givens said the veto amounted to the governor saying “I dare you” to lawmakers.

“His logic does not make sense to me,” Givens said.

Some conservative Republicans have been more willing to support the large income tax increases opposed by Brownback in recent weeks.

During the early Tuesday vote, Sen. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican who had previously opposed the tax increases, voted for the bill.

The tax vote was a difficult one for Estes, who said he considers himself to be a conservative Republican. He said the governor had nothing but the “best of intentions” with the 2012 tax policy.

But he described his choice to support the tax plan as one that comes as Kansas is in “financial straits.”

“We have to do some things that normally a conservative would definitely not want to consider,” Estes said. “There’s some conservatives that still won’t consider it.”

Daniel Salazar of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.