Politics & Government

Republican infighting forces Kansas Legislature to extend session

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TOPEKA – Republican infighting has slowed major legislation to a crawl and forced lawmakers to extend the regular legislative session into next week.

Lawmakers left the Capitol on Friday afternoon after having clashed for the better part of the 90-day session. Some of the biggest issues are still unfinished: education funding, state employee pension reform, redistricting and the state budget.

They plan to return Monday at a cost to taxpayers of $35,000 a day.

“I think it’s reasonable for people to say they should have gotten things done in 90 days,” Gov. Sam Brownback said. “My hope is that they wrap it up here pretty soon.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, laid the blame squarely on the ongoing fight between moderate and conservative Republicans.

“You have such a huge rift between the governor and the conservative Republicans against the Senate moderates,” he said. “It’s that one side is out to destroy the other is causing the meltdown.”

The stage for that was set well before the session started. And it became obvious in January when the Kansas Chamber of Commerce targeted eight moderate Republican senators by giving maximum campaign contributions to their conservative Republican challengers for the August primary election.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal said it seems almost anything Brownback wants, the Senate has stalled or rejected.

Turmoil between the two Republican factions has led to logjams on education funding, tax cuts, pension reform, Medicaid reform, the state budget and, of course, redistricting, where each side is trying to set up districts that will put the opponent at a disadvantage – or even in another district.

The public probably blames everyone in the Statehouse for the meltdown, said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.

“I think it’s control of the Senate,” he said. “The very conservative wing of our party would like to have sort of a grand slam so that everyone will be in lockstep throughout the executive branch and the legislative branch so no one would ever question anything.”

On education, lawmakers have inched along in negotiations. The primary battle involves moderates and Democrats who want more per-pupil funding to restore several years of cutbacks and conservatives who want to target fourth-grade reading, increase funding more modestly and change how teachers are evaluated.

On pensions, moderates hope to promise employees a little less from the state and pay down the gap between what the state’s expected to have in the bank and what it owes employees nearing retirement. Conservatives have pressed for a 401(k)-style plan that pays down the liability but guarantees employees only as much as they contribute, leaving any investment growth up to the market.

Meanwhile, the wide-ranging budget debate has devolved into a bartering of packaged deals between House and Senate members. Negotiators plan to work over the weekend to advance the issue.

Moderate vs. conservative politics has been pumped into just about every debate about moving a district line a few blocks. Kansas is only state in the nation to not give at least tentative approval to a new map to reflect population changes. The deadlock has forced the state to push back the filing deadline for legislative, congressional and state Board of Education candidates from June 1 to June 11.

Tax-cutting bills

A series of political maneuvers earlier this week on two tax-cutting bills highlighted sour relations between the moderate Senate and the conservative House and Brownback administration more than anything but perhaps redistricting.

Brownback opened his Friday news conference in near-triumphant tone, highlighting the virtues of a massive income tax-cutting plan that was passed in a rush with little debate earlier this week, giving him a key victory while baffling moderate Republicans and Democrats who call the bill irresponsible.

The plan is a version of Brownback’s original proposal to zap income taxes for most businesses and cut rates for individuals.

But it had a long and winding path to approval. Senators, under pressure from constituents to retain many popular tax credits and deductions and skeptical about supply-side economics, heavily altered the bill, driving up its price tag to a point where — at the time — few thought anyone would support it because it could lead to massive budget deficits.

Senators rejected it, then passed it, with the deciding votes cast by moderates who were under pressure from the Brownback administration to approve a bill that would allow them to negotiate with the House, which had passed its own bill.

When the House heard the Senate might not pass a more modest negotiated tax-cutting bill that left projected budget surpluses, House quickly passed the more aggressive tax-cutting bill while conservative senators filibustered to buy the House time.

Now Brownback says he’ll sign the more aggressive tax-cut package, even though he said he would prefer the negotiated tax bill that doesn’t project big deficits. Such deficits could cause big cuts to state services if the tax cuts don’t produce a surge of economic growth.

“I certainly underestimated what the governor was willing to do,” said Morris, who said he had understood Brownback wouldn’t sign the bigger tax-cut bill.

Brownback says the plan can work, despite a projected deficit of more than $2 billion by 2017.

“We can make this work. We will make it work,” he said. “And the beauty of it is that we’ve really got a moment in time where we can do this and really hit the accelerator on growth and jobs in Kansas.”

Brownback did not say how many jobs or what cuts could be made to government to make the plan work.

“I’ve got projections on that,” he said. “I don’t like to cite those, myself. I like to look more at percentages of growth on the economy.”

But he hinted at it, saying if you use 4 percent growth in the projections versus 7 percent “the differences are staggering.”

Brownback said the state will have to save any surpluses it has and control spending.

Democrats, meanwhile, say the plan is irresponsible and would devastate the state’s ability to fund schools and social services.

“I think it is just an absolutely reckless act,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.

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