Politics & Government

Brownback tax cut on chopping block if bill continues to advance in Kansas House

House Tax Committee Chairman Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, watches the tally board Wednesday as a vote is taken on House Bill 2178. The House, with no debate, gave early approval by a robust margin Wednesday to legislation increasing personal income taxes and reinstating taxes on some businesses.
House Tax Committee Chairman Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, watches the tally board Wednesday as a vote is taken on House Bill 2178. The House, with no debate, gave early approval by a robust margin Wednesday to legislation increasing personal income taxes and reinstating taxes on some businesses. Associated Press

Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax cuts could soon vanish if an initial vote by the Kansas House is any indication.

The House gave initial approval to a tax bill Wednesday that would raise income tax rates and end a tax cut for roughly 330,000 business owners.

Brownback, who has continued to champion the tax cuts, said he won’t sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.

“This is just not the way to go,” Brownback said. “I don’t support this.”

The bill passed with 83 legislators in favor and 39 against.

“It was a little higher than I anticipated,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, who voted against the bill. “We’ll see the final action numbers tomorrow.”

A final House vote could come Thursday. The bill would then need to be taken up by the Senate before it could make it to the governor’s office.

The amended tax proposal, put forward by Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, would bring in more than $1 billion over the next two years, according to state estimates.

“I’ve never voted for a tax increase in my entire career, but I did it today, and I did it because this is the best bill that we will get,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park.

But Clayton said the bill doesn’t get the state “all the way there,” and leaves Kansas without a cushion if things go wrong.

“It just looked so good that there was just no way I could believe that it would actually be true,” Clayton said.

There had been talk that the more moderate Legislature — featuring a bevy of freshmen lawmakers who campaigned on closing the so-called LLC loophole for small businesses — might be able to push through a tax plan that would help the state mend its budget issues.

Based off the initial vote, that seemed to be the case.

Rep. Tom Cox, a freshman Republican lawmaker from Shawnee, said he doesn’t love raising income taxes.

But Cox said he doesn’t like an unstable budget and the possibility of deeper cuts.

“We didn’t run to focus on, ‘Oh, can we get re-elected in two years,’ ” Cox said. “We focused on, the state is in a bad situation and there’s things we know we need to do to fix it and we’re willing to make those decisions.”

Republicans and Democrats alike said Wednesday’s vote sent a strong signal.

“It had widespread support,” said Don Hineman, the Republican House majority leader from Dighton who voted for the bill. “It’s pretty unusual to pass a tax bill with that number of votes, and especially on Feb. 15.”

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said there was an expectation the bill would do well, but she still was surprised by the vote total.

“I think that probably, people got the message that the constituents wanted it fixed,” Wolfe Moore said. “And I think especially the new legislators were all out on the campaign trail and they heard they want it fixed. So that’s fabulous.”

On the initial tally, House lawmakers were one vote away from having a veto-proof majority.

Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, which have been criticized by moderate Republican and Democratic members of the Legislature, created the tax exemption for roughly 330,000 business owners, trimmed income tax rates and threw away the third tax bracket.

“I’m feeling good about tomorrow,” Sawyer said. “I’m also feeling good, if the bill does get through the process and gets vetoed, there’s a chance it could be overridden. This sends a good message to the governor that the House is serious about fixing the problem he caused.”

The bill cleared the initial hurdle over a roughly five-minute span late Wednesday morning.

No lawmakers on either side of the issue stepped forward to debate the bill before the vote was made.

Rep. Erin Davis, R-Olathe, who voted no, said “it was really interesting that we just passed a billion-dollar tax increase in what, I don’t know, 30 seconds or something like that?”

“It’s a recognition that we have issues that we have to have solutions for,” Davis said. “It puts people like me that are more conservative in a difficult position because had the LLC or pass-through exemption been repealed in 2015, we wouldn’t be needing to raise taxes by this amount.”

The House plan was the first tax proposal to make it to a full vote in the Legislature.

The state faces more than $750 million in projected budget shortfalls over the next two years.

A separate shortfall of roughly $320 million cannot be closed through the tax increases included in the bill.

An effort by the Senate to put a tax proposal to a floor debate fell apart last week after Republican leaders found they didn’t have the votes to pass the plan.

The vote tally in favor of the legislation was mixed between Republicans and Democrats supporting the bill.

But a few Democrats joined other Republicans in opposing the bill, including Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City.

The plan put forward Wednesday keeps the lowest income rate in place.

It then raises the second rate to 5.25 percent and brings back a third rate of 5.45 percent.

That third bracket would cover single filers who make more than $50,000 and joint filers making more than $100,000.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, the chairman of the House budget committee, who voted against the bill, said the legislation will help discussions as the state moves forward on future budgets.

“Even though this passed with the numbers that it did, it is not my intention to basically take this as a blank check,” said Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill.

Brownback signaled to a small crowd of business owners Wednesday that the debate over tax increases may be far from over.

During a short speech, he asked the roughly 20 people in the room to talk to lawmakers and take a stand against the tax bill.

“I don’t want to keep you long because I want you getting out in the hallways and talking with members here about ‘Don’t raise my taxes,’ ” Brownback said.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw