The tax increases the Legislature forced into law over Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto two weeks ago are emerging as an early dividing line in the Republican race for governor.
The distinctions between the candidates so far are sharp. The fight over rolling back the 2012 tax cuts could come to define the GOP primary and will help determine the tax cuts’ legacy among Kansas Republicans.
Jim Barnett, a Topeka physician and the 2006 Republican nominee for governor, formally entered the race on Tuesday after revealing his candidacy last week. He praised the Legislature’s decision to override Brownback’s veto.
“Frankly, I would also put a sign up across I-70 that says the Kansas tax experiment has come to an end,” Barnett said.
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“There were some tremendously courageous legislators who voted to bring that to an end and they deserve our support, they deserve our applause.”
Barnett has been largely absent from Kansas politics since exiting the state Senate in 2010. But with his comments Tuesday, he immediately inserted himself into the most contentious political issue of the year.
His position is the polar opposite of Kris Kobach, the secretary of state who entered the race days after the veto override vote. Kobach condemned the Legislature’s actions and assailed a “culture of corruption” in Topeka.
“Now more than ever, we need a candidate for governor who will say ‘no’ and stop the madness of ever-increasing taxes in Topeka,” Kobach said.
“The state does not need more money and the people of Kansas do not need to keep feeding the government monster with year after year of increased taxes.”
Wink Hartman, a Wichita businessman who is running for the Republican nomination, has also criticized the tax override. The legislation “wasn’t the right solution for Kansas families,” he said.
“Aside from raising taxes retroactively on every Kansan, it failed to address the two core problems with the career politicians in Topeka – out-of-control wasteful spending and no plan to grow our economy,” Hartman said in a statement.
Ed O’Malley, who is running an exploratory campaign for governor, said in an interview that there was a responsible and irresponsible way to cut taxes in 2012 and that the irresponsible path was chosen.
He endorsed the veto override but also said state government must bend the cost curve in the future. That involves fostering a culture of innovation and making government more efficient, he said.
“Unfortunately, yes, it was right the decision to override the governor,” O’Malley said.
‘Grasping for cues’
The Legislature approved a bill earlier this month raising personal income tax rates, adding a third income tax bracket and again taxing certain kinds of business income. Brownback immediately vetoed it. Lawmakers overrode his veto less than a day later.
The tax increases are expected to generate about $1.2 billion over the next two years. They represent a sharp change from the 2012 tax cuts, although income tax rates will still be lower than before 2012.
It’s too early to tell whether the tax increases will become the defining issue of the Republican race or whether voters and the campaigns will eventually move on.
But issues – as well as ideologies, endorsements and demographics – can play a larger role in a primary election than the general election, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
“Voters are really grasping for cues to distinguish people who share the same party,” Miller said.
Advocacy organizations have already indicated that the tax fight will be part of their efforts to influence the primary.
Jeff Glendening, director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said it’s safe to say the organization will be “thoroughly engaged” in educating citizens about where candidates stand on what he called economic freedom issues. He said Barnett was out of touch with Kansans if he believed he could win the Republican primary advocating for the tax legislation and for Medicaid expansion, which Barnett supports.
“Kansas voters were not told the Legislature would be raising their personal income taxes in such dramatic fashion to pay for increased state government spending – they aren’t going to be happy when they find out that’s what happened,” Glendening said.
Meanwhile, the Mainstream Coalition, which works to elect moderate candidates, expressed concern over Kobach’s entry into the race. Brandi Fisher, the group’s director, called him a “more extreme version” of Brownback.
She acknowledged that primaries can favor more conservative candidates over centrists, but said her organization plans to focus on turning out voters. The Mainstream Coalition, along with other moderate groups, helped oust a number of conservative lawmakers in primaries last August, replacing them with more moderate candidates.
“When voter turnout is high, centrist-moderate candidates do better and I think we saw that throughout the state,” Fisher said.