The Legislature’s wrap-up session risks being a battle of the chambers, with Gov. Sam Brownback in the thick of it and Kansans’ schools, courts, tax burden and way of life depending on the outcome.
As the Legislature debates a $14.1 billion budget, redistricting, state-pension reform, tax cuts and more, the Republican governor and the GOP leaders of the House and Senate are sure to demonstrate that one-party control does not mean easy agreement. Things could get rough, especially with conservative Republicans including Brownback determined to wrest Senate control from moderate Republicans in the August primary – and acting as if the campaigns have begun.
But the wrap-up needn’t be complicated or time-consuming, especially if lawmakers concentrate on what must be done – passing the 2013 budget, finishing redistricting, approving supplemental funding to end the court furloughs – rather than on what somebody wants in order to serve some political scorecard, postcard or timetable.
A January survey of 600 likely Republican voters, conducted by American Viewpoint for the Senate GOP leadership, provides a good guide to Kansans’ priorities for the Legislature: Asked how an expected budget surplus should be used, most preferred to put money back in education and other programs that have seen deep cuts in recent years (38 percent) or in a rainy-day fund (35 percent); only 17 percent called for tax cuts and further spending reductions. And if taxes were to be reduced or eliminated, 45 percent favored cutting property taxes, compared with 27 and 16 percent support for cutting income and sales taxes, respectively.
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Keep in mind that those were GOP voters who preferred more funding for schools instead of tax cuts. A fall survey of all Kansans by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University had similar findings.
Such statistics argue for the House to endorse both the Senate-passed plan to add $74 per pupil to base state aid, or $100 million statewide over the next two years, and the Senate-approved measure to buy down local property taxes by $180 million over the next four years.
Polling and public comment also are at odds with Brownback’s obsessive drive to eliminate the state income tax. Though the governor’s own tax plan at least tried to pay for itself, the versions that passed the House and Senate have been stripped of so many of his desired offsets that their potential is high to dry up state revenue and force local property-tax hikes. Another unknown is how many companies would cash in on Brownback’s desired tax break for limited liability companies, subchapter S corporations and sole proprietors, including by reorganizing themselves to qualify.
Meanwhile, Brownback needs to concur with lawmakers’ commitment to sufficiently fund the new Kansas Creative Industries Commission, and the Legislature must not adjourn without putting more money into community mental health care and Larned State Hospital, and addressing the shocking waiting lists for home- and community-based services for the disabled and elderly. And surely lawmakers can beat the May 10 redistricting deadline without the House breaking tradition and redrawing Senate districts, as some are threatening to do this week, and without carving up obvious communities of interest in a congressional map.
Lawmakers and the governor would do well to remember that most voters won’t care which GOP faction wins or loses the session’s spoils. They will blame everybody for whatever goes wrong – closed courts, laid-off teachers, a postponed primary, property-tax hikes – and they will be right.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman