One of the common complaints citizens register about federal systems like the United States is that the potential always exists for the federal and state governments to come into conflict over policy. The result is usually confusion at best, and a fundamental contradiction that renders the citizen the only loser in a tug-of-war over policy authority at worst.
Whether it is Medicaid, Obamacare, immigration or tax policy, many times the states and federal government disagree on the best way to implement a policy designed to have the two levels of government cooperate. Kansas finds itself in the latest in a series of such conflicts now, over tax-filing policy for same-sex couples.
Last August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service announced that same-sex couples that had previously needed to file separate tax returns would be allowed to file jointly, beginning with their 2013 returns. One caveat: The couple has to be legally married, meaning they must have formally filed marriage papers in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.
If taxes were only filed at the federal level, or if states automatically followed the federal government’s lead, then there would be no issue. Because Kansas does not recognize same-sex marriage, there is an obvious conflict between the state’s existing system requiring separate filings and the federal government’s allowance of same-sex couple filing.
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Kansas has a history of rejecting federal policy attempts it deems overreaching, and this is no exception. Gov. Sam Brownback rejected federal Obamacare exchange participation, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s pet voting laws, requiring birth certificates to register and photo identification to vote, represent Kansas’ reticence to cooperate with federal policies that Kobach believes are intrusions into state sovereignty.
In October, the Kansas Department of Revenue required same-sex couples here to continue filing separately. A clause in state statute calls for the use of federal definitions of marriage in state tax filings, so the KDOR ruling represents a change of policy that may in fact be illegal. Hence, the Kansas Equality Coalition filed suit on New Year’s Eve to force the state to follow the new federal guidelines and allow joint filing.
At stake is not just a technical argument but a pitched battle in the war over same-sex rights in America today. President Obama changed his stance to support same-sex marriage during the 2012 campaign. Then the June 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down the bedrock of traditional-marriage legislation, the Defense of Marriage Act, opened up a policy window that the Obama administration has seized.
Kansas will probably be one of the last states to accept such federal efforts, though. As recently as 2005, state voters rejected gay marriage. An amendment to the Kansas Constitution prohibiting the performance or recognition of same-sex marriages in the state was approved by 70 percent of voters.
The federal government’s change of attitude may signal an overall shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Eighteen states now recognize same-sex unions in some form, up from just two a decade ago. But that leaves 32 states with some form of conflict.
As the federal and state governments hash out their ideological differences, those caught in the middle are regular citizens who are uncertain about something as basic as filing their taxes.