Democrats in the Kansas Legislature are playing a dangerous game.
Their Republican colleagues — now split between newly elected moderates and more veteran conservatives — remain unable to reach a compromise on tax and spending policies that would cover a two-year, $900 million budget shortfall.
That makes the Legislature’s Democratic faction relevant. If Democrats can form a working coalition with moderate Republicans, it might be possible to end the state’s long budget nightmare.
We saw just such a dynamic play out in February, when a coalition of GOP moderates and Democrats came within a few votes of approving a tax increase over Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Alas, that coalition seems to have crumbled. This week, the House rejected a Senate-passed tax measure that would have eliminated the detested small business tax exemption, restored three brackets to the state’s income tax structure and boosted rates slightly.
The legislation would have raised $1.2 billion over two years, enough to cover the shortfall and get close to funding the state’s schools at a level the Kansas Supreme Court would endorse.
Conservative Republicans flatly rejected the plan. But to almost everyone’s surprise, House Democrats also backed away from the package, claiming it didn’t raise enough revenue.
Moderates are justifiably upset, as are some Democrats in the state Senate. When presented with a tax plan that closely mirrored the February bill, Democrats scattered, leaving the state stuck.
House Democratic leader Jim Ward — who harbors ambitions for higher political office — appears to believe a better deal will be possible down the road, one with even higher taxes. He also argues the tax bill didn’t provide enough money for schools.
But the Democrats’ recalcitrance may have the perverse effect of keeping revenue lower than it needs to be.
That’s because moderate Republicans may now turn to their conservative colleagues to craft a plan that can not only pass the Legislature but can also get the governor’s signature.
Any moderate-conservative tax bill will almost certainly continue some of the damage from the 2012 Brownback tax cuts. It will likely have just two brackets, not three, an unfair advantage for the wealthiest Kansans.
It will maintain the grossly unfair state sales tax on food. It may even save the small business exemption, which Brownback wants and almost everyone else wants gone.
Conservatives will also insist on further cuts to state spending, an option Democrats oppose.
Yet they won’t be able to stop it. Democrats will return to their traditional posture of irrelevance, watching helplessly as Republicans govern.
There is another way. Sometimes, you have to take yes for an answer.
This is one of those times.
Kansas Democrats should ask moderate Republicans for another opportunity to address the tax issue.
The alternative? Gamble with the state’s future and share the blame when that wager goes sour.