Government & Politics

How a group of female lawmakers and a top Republican rolled back Brownback’s tax cuts

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Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax cuts were undone in part by a group of female lawmakers determined to forge a compromise with one another and a conservative House speaker who decided the time was finally right to support a tax increase.

Days of negotiations among a bipartisan coalition known as the Women’s Caucus led to a tax plan that significantly influenced the final deal the Legislature passed this week.

And after Brownback quickly vetoed the bill and denounced the tax plan, House Speaker Ron Ryckman’s decision to vote yes on overriding the governor provided the spark needed for other conservative lawmakers to vote yes.

The plan lawmakers approved raises income tax rates and ends a tax exemption for businesses in an effort to raise $1.2 billion over two years to close projected budget shortfalls. It represented a rebuke of the 2012 tax cuts.

Interviews with lawmakers reveal Tuesday’s dramatic showdown with the governor was weeks in the making.

As the session went into overtime, nerves had become frayed. The coalition that moderate Republicans and Democrats had formed began to unravel after influential members failed to agree on education spending and previous tax plans.

Rep. Joy Koesten, a Leawood Republican, said there was “a lot” of anger and frustration after a failed tax vote last month.

“So the next day, we started talking to each other and realizing that our assumptions were just wrong, that we hadn’t laid a good foundation, we hadn’t had the necessary conversations we needed to have,” Koesten said.

Groups of female lawmakers began meeting, walking through what had happened and why the anger existed. That first week, the group probably spent 12 hours talking to one another, Koesten estimated.

“I think our frustration was that nobody had asked us what was important to us. And so we just said we need to sit down as a group and try to understand what this is,” Koesten said.

“So I think it was very purposeful — that women intuitively understand relationships have to be cultivated before big decisions can be made.”

Rep. Tom Sawyer, a leading Wichita Democrat on taxes, said that moderate lawmakers and Democrats “were getting at each other’s throats on things” and noted there was tension in Topeka.

“The women getting together all of a sudden helped melt that again and got everybody working a collaborative effort,” Sawyer said.

Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, said lawmakers knew there had to be a better plan. She said the inclusion of a child care tax credit in the final package was “a very big deal” for many legislators.

“We didn’t mean to craft a tax plan,” Holscher said. “But ultimately what happened was we started talking about what we felt had to be in the plan to get it passed, and some of it ended up here.”

Lawmakers who were open to a three-bracket tax plan were invited, Koesten said.

Other lawmakers still strongly opposed a higher tax plan.

Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican, said she wanted to see more efficiency in public education and other state agencies before voting for higher taxes.

“It’s a massive tax increase, and when you keep more of Kansans’ money, you take away their ability to spend it where they want,” she said. “I like the idea of letting them thrive by getting government out of their hair.”

Like many of the factions in the Kansas Legislature, the women in the bipartisan group did not get everything they wanted from the tax plan, including a higher rate on the upper tax bracket.

But their push to get the child care tax credit in the bill was successful. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, estimated that tax credit being included in the bill won it 10 Democratic votes of support.

“That was huge for us,” Ward said.

Rep. Patsy Terrell, a Hutchinson Democrat, was also a member of the women’s group that helped pass the final tax plan. The day after the House overrode the governor, the spokeswoman for the House Democrats announced that Terrell had died. Her final moves as a lawmaker helped ensure the new tax plan officially passed into law.

On Monday night, the House passed the bill 69-52. The Senate passed it early Tuesday morning 26-14.

Brownback immediately vowed a veto and followed through hours later.

Supporters of the tax plan needed one more vote in the Senate for an override. Sen. Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican, voted no on the bill. But when the override vote came just after 8 p.m. Tuesday, he flipped.

“I just counted the numbers, and there is no way that we are going to get a better bill. The numbers aren’t there. It’s time to move on, bend the curve, go forward,” Wilborn said.

Many believed the House would prove more challenging. Supporters needed to change 15 votes to override the governor’s veto.

It wasn’t clear how Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, would vote. He had voted against the bill but earlier in the day hadn’t committed to voting against an override.

“He has been true to his word not to strong-arm and pressure people. So I didn’t know,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican.

When the vote began, Ryckman’s name lit up green — a yes vote to override the veto — on the two vote boards that hang on both sides of the House chamber. Initially, 84 lawmakers had voted to override, the exact number needed.

By the time the vote ended around 9:45 p.m., the number had climbed to 88.

“When I saw our speaker move to go green, I thought that is probably the biggest sign of a leader we’ve got here in this state,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, who voted against the bill but in favor of the veto override.

Some applauded Ryckman for taking what was clearly a difficult vote for him.

In an explanation of the vote in the House journal, Ryckman said lawmakers “worked in good faith to find the middle ground.”

But it became clear, Ryckman said, that finding that midpoint on a plan the governor would sign was out of reach.

“This isn’t the plan I supported, but it’s the plan that the majority of this House supported,” Ryckman said in the statement. “It’s time to provide certainty for Kansas.”

Brownback called the new tax policy “the wrong move” during a speech the morning after the override.

Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican, said Ryckman had worked with the governor on plan after plan to no avail and made the vote Tuesday with “no other end in sight.”

He said that vote took courage and deserves respect.

“That was the hardest vote he will probably ever take,” Cox said. “That went against so many things he’s run on.”

The Wichita Eagle’s Daniel Salazar contributed to this report.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw