Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature have repeatedly voted against bills to increase taxes during their 101-day session, which some lawmakers say is hampering progress on a fix for the state’s budget hole.
Senate President Susan Wagle, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Sen. Caryn Tyson, the Senate Tax Committee chairwoman, have rejected nearly all of the tax plans that have come up for debate during the session, one of the longest in the state’s history.
The refusal of legislative leaders to support a tax plan has made it more difficult to find a solution to the roughly $900 million budget hole Kansas will face over the next two years, according to lawmakers in both parties.
“That has caused a lot of problems, I think, that they have been unwilling to do compromise and vote for tax increases,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
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Lawmakers are not very good at raising revenue, Ryckman said. As a Republican, it’s “not in your nature” to figure out ways to generate revenue, he said.
The conservative leaders have had to balance their own political beliefs against the need to pass a budget fix. In practice, that has meant voting against most plans while not blocking plans from coming to the House and Senate floor for debate.
They say they are trying to find compromise.
“Winding down this session is going to take realization in both the House and the Senate that the final bill is going to be a compromise and no one is going to like it,” said Wagle, R-Wichita.
Often, House Majority Leader Don Hineman and Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine have been the only members of the Republican leadership voting in favor of a tax increase.
“I don’t want to go there,” said Hineman when asked about that. “You’re going to have to talk to someone else about that.”
On top of the budget hole, the Kansas Supreme Court has set a June 30 deadline for the Legislature to craft a new school funding formula. A plan that passed the House last week calls for an $180 million boost to schools next year and roughly $278 million the year after.
The question remains whether the Legislature will be able to find enough votes to pass a tax plan to fund it.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said that until legislative leaders “are willing to give their vote to a tax plan, it certainly looks like it will continue to be a struggle.”
Some lawmakers say that GOP leaders’ hesitance to support a tax plan so far is a tactic meant to ensure that the final tax plan is one that hews closely to their preferences.
“I think a lot of time the clock gets run out in order to force votes,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, an outspoken moderate.
‘My opinion doesn’t matter now’
Senate and House negotiators produced a plan last week that would raise personal income tax rates, repeal an exemption on certain business income, and roll back sales tax exemptions on some services.
It would keep the state’s current two-bracket personal income tax system – something that more conservative lawmakers are more likely to support.
It would raise a little more than $900 million over two years.
Legislative rules dictate that the House debate the plan first. That could happen when lawmakers return after the Memorial Day weekend.
Wagle won’t say what she thinks about the plan.
“My opinion doesn’t matter now,” she said. “I don’t think it is appropriate when this bill is going to the House for me to comment on it.”
A number of lawmakers are interested in a two-bracket plan, Wagle said. But she said she is willing to work with everyone.
Wagle voted against a plan earlier this month that would have rolled back much of the 2012 tax cuts and included three brackets. The legislation fell three votes short of the 21 needed to pass in the 40-member Senate.
She did vote for a flat tax plan in April. The bill, which had the backing of Gov. Sam Brownback and would have set a single tax rate on income, received only three yes votes.
Wagle is flirting with a possible run for Congress. If she were to run, she would be challenging newly elected U.S. Rep. Ron Estes in the Republican primary – a contest where support for tax increases could be a liability.
Mark Peterson, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Wagle probably stands a strong chance against Estes regardless of how the session turns out, but that the 4th District’s conservative bent makes the tax issue tactically difficult.
“The machine of conservative anger immediately begins to roar” if she takes a strong stance in favor of raising taxes, he said. “If she really covets that job, then she really will be mum.”
Tyson, R-Parker, has also voted against tax bills. She has been tasked with carrying multiple tax increases on the Senate floor, but has not voted for a large income tax increase on the floor all session.
Tyson has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the 2nd District congressional seat in 2018 after U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins announced she would not seek re-election. Tyson would not comment on her future plans.
The only tax plan to pass the Legislature so far this year – House Bill 2178 – would have raised about $1.1 billion over two years. Lawmakers passed it in February.
Brownback vetoed the bill in a public ceremony, a dramatic and unusual step.
The Legislature responded by immediately moving to override the veto.
The House gathered enough votes to override. But the override effort fell three votes short in the Senate. Ryckman, Wagle and Tyson voted against passage of the bill and the veto override.
Still ‘Ron’s House’
Lawmakers continue to work on tax increase bills in both chambers.
Conservative Republicans have been split on the issue, with some saying they want to be part of the solution and others saying a tax increase isn’t necessary.
One conservative Republican said she thinks the solution will come through Ryckman.
“I think whatever we pass will have the shoulder of the speaker leaning in,” said Rep. Erin Davis, R-Olathe.
Clayton said Ryckman, R-Olathe, has been whipping up votes in support of a two-tiered tax plan as opposed to three brackets.
She said she did not expect Ryckman to vote for a tax bill until that plan has enough votes.
“I think that Ron is still very much in control of the House, much more so than it appears to the public. This is still very much Ron’s House,” she said. “Everything is happening as Ron would prefer it to happen.”
Ryckman, who supports a two-bracket plan, said no faction in the House can get to 63 votes on its own, which makes compromise a necessity.
“When you’re an absolute ‘no,’ typically the legislation moves the opposite direction of your stance. We have to govern by consensus,” he said.
Ryckman said he spent too much time earlier in the session trying to figure out what could pass the Senate, but that his focus now is finding a plan that can gather the 63 votes needed for a constitutional majority in the House or the 84 votes needed for a veto-proof majority.
“I think we’re kind of proving what’s not viable right now, and by keeping the discussion going I think we can finally get to one that can pass and fund the core functions of government,” he said.