Wichita Metro Chamber’s 2013 agenda continues anti-tax push

12/02/2012 12:35 AM

12/02/2012 12:46 AM

The strong anti-tax push by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce continues.

The chamber’s board last week approved a platform for the upcoming state legislative session that includes calls for further tax cuts for personal income, corporate income and privilege taxes – on the heels of deep state income tax cuts approved in the last session.

The chamber was a key ally of the Brownback administration and conservatives in the Kansas Legislature in cutting taxes, which opponents contend will force large personnel and service cuts in coming years by state and local governments facing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue shortfalls.

Other legislative proposals to promote a business-friendly environment include requiring the losers of lawsuits to pay the winner’s legal costs and reducing unemployment insurance to 12 weeks from 26 when the unemployment rate falls below 5 percent.

Jason Watkins, the chamber’s lobbyist in Topeka, said the chamber doesn’t necessarily expect further income tax cuts in the coming session, but it wants those cuts to be a long-term goal.

Watkins and Barby Jobe, the chamber’s vice president of governmental relations, said the chamber began moving in a more fiscally conservative direction in 2007 and accelerated during the recession – as the business community saw a state government facing a budget gap. Businesses were also smacked with stiff increases in unemployment insurance tax.

But the response from the chamber has been much broader than short-term protection from higher costs. It has embraced lower taxes and lower regulation as the driver for expanding the economy and creating jobs.

“The chamber has gotten a little more focused on getting the state more competitive,” Watkins said. “And one of those ways is the cost of doing business, both with taxes and with things like workman’s comp.”

Some chamber members have privately expressed unhappiness with the strong small government direction, but the chamber’s new chairwoman, Debbie Gann, noted that the board’s vote on the agenda was unanimous.

The chamber’s survey, which was answered by 10 percent of 1,500 members queried, showed roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of respondents consistently favored the low-tax, limited-government proposals.

Jon Rosell, executive director of the Sedgwick County Medical Society who served on this year’s chamber Government Relations Committee and will head it next year, said the platform might not please everybody in the chamber, but it does reflect the majority.

“There is no question our current political climate is allowing for spirited debate on those issues,” he said. “I don’t see a split. I see an open discussion after which we come together as a collective body to promote our community.”

Bernie Koch, who was the chamber’s lobbyist for years until 2008 and now runs another business lobbying group, the Kansas Economic Progress Council, said that in the past chamber had supported tax increases on a case-by-case basis if it thought the impact would help the state and the business community.

“We’ve been on both sides, but we always said the business community understands the need to invest in infrastructure and a lot of what we did was that,” he said.

Watkins pointed to many stances in this year’s agenda that have been part of the chamber’s agenda’s for years: support for state funding for the National Institute of Aviation Research and the National Center for Aviation Training, subsidized air service in Wichita, the historic preservation tax credit and protecting the state transportation plan from being diverted to other state spending.

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