Kansas lawmakers pursuing single plan on taxes, school aid
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Republican legislators in Kansas cooked up a plan Sunday for breaking an impasse over raising new revenue to fix the state budget by tying income tax increases to higher spending for the state’s cash-strapped public schools – and doing it in a single package.
GOP negotiators for the House and Senate agreed on a plan that would raise more than $1 billion over two years by increasing income tax rates and eliminating an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners. It would roll back the bulk of past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
The same Republican lawmakers agreed on another proposal to phase in a $285 million increase in education funding over two years. The plan is a response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in March that the $4 billion a year in aid to the state’s 286 school districts is inadequate, though many lawmakers question whether the measure would satisfy the justices.
The GOP negotiators then agreed to put the tax plan and the school funding measure into the same bill for a single up-or-down vote in each chamber. The House planned to vote first on the package, though not until Monday morning because of the time staff needed to draft it.
The tactic would be highly unusual: Kansas legislators historically have kept tax proposals separate from spending or policy proposals so all can be vetted individually. But GOP leaders believed the income tax increase would have a better chance of passing if it were tied to education funding – and that Brownback might feel compelled to accept the undoing of his signature policies.
“We’re hoping that this would give him another reason not to veto,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Overland Park Republican.
In addition to the court mandate on education funding, the state faces projected budget shortfalls totaling $889 million through June 2019. Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since GOP legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging, and the state later experienced slumps in agriculture and energy production.
Majority Republicans in the House have been deeply divided over tax issues and GOP leaders haven’t attracted enough Democratic votes to pass a tax plan. The impasse had lawmakers meeting Sunday in the 107th day of what was supposed to be a 100-day annual session, making this year’s one of the longest in state history.
Democrats objected strongly to the tactic of tying the year’s two biggest legislative issues together in a single package.
“That is an absolutely horrible precedent to set,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat.
Democrats disliked parts of the school funding plan and didn’t think the tax increases were large enough to both fix the budget and comply with the court’s order on school funding. Attorneys for the four school districts that successfully sued the state over education funding had criticized the school finance plan as too small.
“We don’t think that will satisfy the court,” said David Smith, a lobbyist for the Kansas City, Kansas, district, one of the four.
Republicans contend the plan will meet court muster. It also would set up a new, per-student formula for distributing state dollars to ensure that enough of the money goes to helping the lowest-performing students. The Supreme Court did not say how much funding must increase in setting a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to pass a new school funding law.