Rep. Tom Sawyer, in Wichita recovering from the flu, woke up late Monday afternoon. As he ate a bowl of oatmeal, he learned that the House would debate a tax bill that night, possibly paving the way for lawmakers to wrap the session within a few days if it passed.
He threw some clothes on and started driving. He arrived in time and, at 8:29 p.m. when the roll opened, voted yes.
The bill failed, 53-68.
Senate Bill 30 fell in large measure because of a lack of Democratic support. Thirteen Democrats joined Sawyer in voting yes – 35 percent of the caucus.
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Ten more Democratic votes would have been enough to pass the bill.
The message the majority of Democratic lawmakers sent was clear: They said it was not the best deal available and wouldn’t provide enough money to boost school funding to levels they say are necessary.
Republicans also split over the bill, but their fault line was similar to what occurred in February, when the Legislature passed House Bill 2178, a tax increase bill vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback. Moderate Republicans supported both measures, while more conservative Republicans largely voted no.
Democrats are the minority party in the Legislature. But the party picked up a dozen seats in the November election, increasing its ability to influence legislation when Republicans are divided.
The vote – on the 98th day of the session – capped an internal debate among Democrats over how to respond to the bill, valued at $1.2 billion over two years.
Republican and Democratic leaders met at 10:45 a.m. to map out a new course on taxes. Lawmakers have been gridlocked for weeks. Every tax plan developed either doesn’t survive long enough to get a debate or is voted down.
Leaders discussed a plan close to what the House debated hours later: It would set personal income tax rates at 3.1 percent, 5.25 percent and 5.7 percent. The top bracket would apply to married couples with incomes greater than $60,000 or single filers with income of $30,000 or more. It would also repeal an exemption for certain kinds of business income.
Republican supporters of the plan told the Democrats they needed 20 to 25 Democratic votes to pass it, said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita. They shared that they expected Brownback to veto the bill, and that they would need more than 35 Democratic votes when they tried to override.
“Don’t take this as a threat, it wasn’t a threat. They did say, though, that if we voted against this it probably means they would do the rest of their work with the conservatives as much as they could,” Ward said.
Ward emerged from the meeting needing to gauge the support of Democratic lawmakers. House and Senate tax negotiators were scheduled to meet at 2:30 p.m., when they would make the tax proposal official. The Republicans wanted to know how many Democratic votes they could expect.
A Democratic caucus meeting was quickly scheduled via email. When Democrats gathered at 1:30, reactions to the proposal ranged from skeptical to hostile. Nearly everyone who spoke voiced opposition.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Eastborough, urged Democrats to vote no. He said he doubted a belief by some lawmakers that the Legislature could consider a separate tax plan later to pay for increased education funding.
“We may feel like we’re getting closer, but if we start giving in on this, that is it. We will not be able to leverage the 40 of us again,” Helgerson said.
He urged Democrats not to “give up our vote yet until we get exactly what we want.”
Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, one of the 14 Democrats who later voted yes, told the caucus the bill “represents a solution” that achieves several things. It would stop the march to zero income taxes and repeal exemptions for business income, among other provisions.
But Wilson was in the minority.
“To go in and settle for this is just something I cannot bring myself to do because that’s not what I told people I would do,” Rep. Debbie Deere, D-Lansing, said.
Most revenue of any bill
Ward left the meeting saying that he would tell Republicans there were fewer than 20 votes for the plan.
Republicans decided to proceed with the proposal. The plan crafted by tax negotiators that afternoon largely resembled what Ward had described to his caucus.
Senate Bill 30 would have raised the most revenue of any bill that has been debated this session. House Bill 2178, which passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Brownback, raised about $1.1 billion.
By contrast, a full repeal of the 2012 tax law would generate about $1.4 billion over two years. House and Senate negotiators considered a full repeal at one point, but discussions broke down over which chamber would consider such a plan first.
The state faces a projected budget shortfall of about $900 million over the next two years. Some lawmakers say a new school finance formula should also boost education funding by hundreds of millions.
A school finance plan in the House would have increased funding by $750 million over five years, but was scaled back to a $278 million increase over two years. The Senate is developing its own plan.
Senate Bill 30 would likely have been unable to pay for some of the larger education funding increases lawmakers have considered.
‘Vote your conscience’
As the evening debate approached, Democrats met again. “Vote your conscience” was the message.
The House began debate on the bill about 7:45 p.m. Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, who chairs the House Tax Committee, delivered a speech aimed at holdouts.
No one got everything they wanted, he said. No one was particularly happy with the bill.
“The question cannot be what is perfect. The question is what is progress and what is possible,” Johnson said.
When the vote opened, the twin electronic voting boards in the chamber quickly lit up, an array of red no votes and green yes votes. The count was 53 yes votes, 10 short of the 63 needed for passage.
At 8:31 p.m., the vote was over. The bill was defeated.
“I was asked after tonight’s tax vote ‘What’s next’?” Ward tweeted later that night. “My answer ‘Put a school finance plan on the floor for debate.’ ”