Moderate Republicans face a choice as lawmakers seek to close a budget gap and end a lengthy legislative session: work with Democrats – who have killed two moderate-supported tax plans in two weeks – or forge a path with conservatives.
In recent days, the House has defeated two similar tax increase proposals that would have raised personal income tax rates and added a third tax bracket to Kansas’ current two-bracket system. The vote on the latest failed plan came just before midnight Tuesday.
Rep. Patty Markley, R-Overland Park, said Wednesday she was surprised, disappointed and frustrated after what she found to be a good bill failed.
“I think I was just frustrated with my colleagues, and not just Democrats and not just Republicans, but my colleagues in general,” she said. “I really thought we had a chance when the Senate passed it with 26 (votes).”
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It remains unclear how the Legislature will move forward.
Since January, lawmakers have struggled to fix a budget shortfall projected at roughly $900 million over the next two years. Divisions over whether to raise taxes, and by how much, have slowed their progress.
The session, which passed its 103rd day on Wednesday, is already among the longest in state history and is creeping toward the longest session ever – 114 days in 2015. The state begins its new fiscal year – with a new budget – in just a month.
The Legislature is roughly divided into three groups – conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats – and passing legislation typically takes two of the three groups. Because conservative Republicans and Democrats are usually at odds over taxes, which side moderate Republicans choose to partner with could affect what kind of bill ultimately passes.
The number of brackets in the tax plans is one of the biggest divisions among lawmakers right now.
The 2012 tax cuts took Kansas from three brackets to two. Most tax plans that have been considered would either raise the rates on the two existing brackets or restore a third bracket. The three-bracket plans in some cases would raise hundreds of millions more than a two-bracket plan.
Other components within the tax plans, such as repealing an exemption for certain kinds of business income, are less controversial at this point in the session and are included in virtually every plan under serious consideration.
Many Democrats say the recent three-bracket plans, which would have each raised about $1.2 billion over two years, were not enough to close the budget gap and pay for increases in school funding. Some want a full repeal of the 2012 tax cuts, which would raise about $1.4 billion.
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans have either been against any tax increase or have advocated for a flat tax or two-bracket plan for most of the session.
Moderate Republicans, who mostly supported both proposals, are coming to terms with continued Democratic opposition and assessing their next move.
Several said Wednesday they are still not willing to back a two-bracket tax plan, a concept that the conservative House Speaker, Ron Ryckman, and some other conservative lawmakers support but that has not been brought up for debate.
Complicating the issue, lawmakers think Gov. Sam Brownback probably would veto a tax bill that includes three brackets. That means three-bracket plans need supermajority support in both the House and Senate to have a realistic chance of becoming law – 84 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate.
Some moderates have also expressed frustration with Ryckman, R-Olathe, and other House Republican leaders for continued “no” votes on tax bills. Ryckman voted against the plan debated Tuesday night.
The frustration with House leaders played out on social media early Wednesday after the tax vote. Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, tweeted that “I do currently have unprintable thoughts re: Leadership.”
In an interview last week, Ryckman said he has been attempting to bring various factions together. Compromise will be necessary to pass a tax bill, he said.
“That’s our goal. A lot of it’s just been communication. There’s been a lot of meetings to bring the different factions together,” Ryckman said.
Ryckman and moderate Republicans have cooperated in the past – most recently on a school finance proposal. Moderates and House leadership joined together to pass House Bill 2410 last week, 84-39.
Rep. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, said he doesn’t believe a two-tier tax bill will ever be considered on the House floor. He said he thinks there aren’t enough votes to pass it.
“I think the speaker will be disappointed with the outcome when he runs that bill,” Jennings said.
Rep. Tom Cox, a freshman Republican from Shawnee who campaigned on restoring budget stability, said he didn’t know whether he could support a two-bracket plan, which would raise less money than a three-bracket plan.
Cox has supported three separate tax bills, including the bill debated Tuesday night.
I’ve had a lot of people who’ve told me from the left, ‘you’re in the majority, it’s your job to figure out’ and from the right saying ‘we don’t want it.’… I’m kind of at the point of saying ‘all right, it’s someone else’s job to figure out what they can do.’
Rep. Tom Cox, a freshman Republican from Shawnee who campaigned on restoring budget stability
“I’ve had a lot of people who’ve told me from the left, ‘you’re in the majority, it’s your job to figure out’ and from the right saying ‘we don’t want it.’… I’m kind of at the point of saying ‘all right, it’s someone else’s job to figure out what they can do,’ ” Cox said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, acknowledged that relations between Democrats and moderates are strained.
The relationship has deteriorated since House Bill 2178 passed in February with moderate and Democratic support. The tax bill would have raised about $1.1 billion over two years but was vetoed by Brownback.
But Democrats remain willing to work with moderates, Ward said.
I think they’re good-faith people trying to pass a bill. They’re a little angry at us right now, but that will calm down.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita
“I think they’re good-faith people trying to pass a bill. They’re a little angry at us right now, but that will calm down,” Ward said.
Too many ‘holding out for perfection’
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said the puzzle for moderates is that if they move too far to the right to pick up more Republican votes and placate the governor, they’ll lose Democratic votes. At the same time, if they move to the left to satisfy Democrats’ concerns, they’ll lose GOP votes and likely ensure a gubernatorial veto.
“If they can get Brownback to not veto, they don’t need as many votes, so they can afford to lose some Democrats,” Smith said.
Whatever happens in the House may also affect the Senate, which has had an easier time passing tax bills.
The tax bill that faltered in the House on Tuesday passed the Senate earlier in the day, 26-14. Supporters were one vote shy of the 27 that would be needed to override a veto.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said taxes are in the “House’s court.”
We sent ... a solid bill with basically a veto-proof message last night, and they turned it down. So the tax policy is all on their shoulders at this point in time.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, talking about House members
“We sent (Ryckman) a solid bill with basically a veto-proof message last night, and they turned it down,” Denning said. “So the tax policy is all on their shoulders at this point in time.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said lawmakers have long passed the point where they can all hold a hard line or take a principled stand on “I won’t vote for this or that.”
“Nobody is going to walk out of here with a plan that is their idea of perfection,” Rooker said. “And we have too many people holding out for perfection.”
Nobody is going to walk out of here with a plan that is their idea of perfection. And we have too many people holding out for perfection.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Kansas City Star