Dave Helling

Senate President Susan Wagle betrays powerless Kansans, chooses tax cuts for the wealthy

Kansans looking for proof that state Sen. Susan Wagle of Wichita has her eye on higher office — say, U.S. senator — can stop looking.

A couple weeks ago, Wagle, a Republican, appointed herself chair of a special committee looking at the impact of federal tax cuts on the Kansas budget. Because of the way those tax cuts were structured, Kansas may get an unexpected bump in revenue, which some call a windfall.

The windfall cannot stand, Wagle and other Republicans believe. This week, her committee began work on a bill cutting income taxes by more than than $191 million in the first year.

“The unexpected windfall directly linked to the federal tax cuts belongs to taxpayers, not government,” Wagle said in a recent statement.

Some dispute that view. For the sake of discussion, though, let’s assume Wagle is right: Kansas is getting tax money to which it is not entitled, and the state should find a way to send it back.

What’s the best way to return $191 million to taxpayers?

You could cut income taxes for corporations and rich people, as the measure in Wagle’s committee would do. That would make corporations and rich people happy. She wants to ram the bill through the state Senate this week.

But you could also keep the additional income tax revenue and reduce the Kansas sales tax instead. At 6.5 percent, the state sales tax is obscenely high, particularly on food.

Cutting the state sales tax would be simple and quick. It would get money in the hands of almost all taxpayers. It would accomplish Wagle’s stated goal of returning the windfall created by federal tax reform.

It would also put Gov. Laura Kelly in a difficult spot since she supported a cut in the food sales tax during the campaign (“I know a little extra each week goes a long way,” she said.)

It would be much, much harder for Kelly to veto a sales tax cut than the legislation now on the table.

So why haven’t Wagle and other Republicans suggested such an approach? The answer is obvious: They don’t just want to cut taxes. They want to get credit for cutting taxes, which is a different thing.

Sales taxes are stealth taxes — you pay them a nickel or a dime at a time. They seem painless. That’s why officeholders are addicted to them. No politician gets blamed when a $100 grocery bill goes up a few bucks.

And no politician gets credit when sales taxes are cut.

But cutting income taxes? Why, that fits perfectly on a postcard. Say, in Susan Wagle’s Senate campaign.

It’s a deeply cynical, hyper-partisan approach to tax policy.

High sales taxes hammer the poor, the elderly and those on fixed incomes. But they’re not part of a favored political class. The wealthy, the connected and corporate donors all have a friend in Susan Wagle and other lawmakers who prefer regressive levies to tax fairness.

It can’t be repeated too many times: Taxes should be low, simple, and fair — based on one’s ability to pay. Kansas’ ongoing effort to shift the tax burden to the powerless is shameful and should be resisted at every opportunity.

A race for the U.S. Senate would be a good place to start.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.