Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers face major tasks on taxes, schools when they return in May

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate say they may keep lawmakers working on the weekends when they return from a three-week break, a step designed to build momentum for legislation.
Legislative leaders in the House and Senate say they may keep lawmakers working on the weekends when they return from a three-week break, a step designed to build momentum for legislation. File photo

Whether taxes will go up — and whose taxes may be affected — remains an open question as Kansas lawmakers leave for a three-week break.

Also unresolved is how much money schools will receive next year.

When they return May 1, lawmakers face a June 30 deadline to pass a new education finance formula after Kansas Supreme Court justices found the system inadequate.

They must pass a spending plan for the next two years.

And they will need to find a way to pay for that budget and for any increase in school funding. If that includes tax increases, they must develop a plan that wins the approval of Gov. Sam Brownback — or one that can draw enough votes to override his veto.

Any one of those items alone could prove challenging to tackle in the last stretch of the legislative session. Combined, they increase the possibility of a protracted process that could last weeks.

“To come back to a situation where we’re doing an education formula, I think it will take a lot of discussion,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe.

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The scale of the task confronting lawmakers also raises the specter of the 2015 session – the longest in state history. It lasted into mid-June and was marked by daytime gridlock and nighttime debates before the Legislature gathered enough votes to pass a tax increase.

“That’s part of the tactic. That’s a strategy leadership will use sometimes – is just wear the Legislature down, hoping we’ll vote for anything to get out of here,” Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said.

Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate said they may keep lawmakers working on the weekends when they return, a step designed to build momentum for legislation.

Lawmakers are very focused, said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “We know what we have to do,” she said.

“There’s a will to get to it quickly and try to resolve our differences,” Wagle said.

The Legislature has met about 75 days this year, but budgeted for 100 days. If lawmakers stick to that goal, and work on the weekends, they have until approximately May 25 to finish. By contrast, the 2015 session lasted 114 days.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said lawmakers were told to use the next three weeks to reconnect with friends and family. Lawmakers should rest up because they’re going to need it, he said.

“This is a veto session. It’s not meant to be a prolonged extension of a session. It’s meant to finish up our main jobs of passing a budget, school finance and a tax plan,” Ryckman said.

The Legislature will be armed with additional data when it returns that will help lawmakers make decisions, Ryckman said.

State officials will issue a new revenue forecast later this month. The forecast will offer new projections of how much Kansas is expected to collect in taxes over the next year, giving lawmakers a fresh understanding of how much money will be needed to balance the budget.

Under current projections, Kansas faces budget shortfalls of more than $1 billion through June 2019.

‘Unaffordable’

The Legislature will also have an attorney to help with deliberations over school finance. On Friday, legislative leaders approved hiring former Senate vice president Jeff King to advise them.

The Supreme Court found the current block grant system for funding schools unconstitutional in a ruling in March. The justices said the state is not providing an adequate education for about 25 percent of students, citing low test scores.

A House committee has developed a school finance proposal, but has not yet voted to send it to the floor. It would raise funding for education by $750 million over the next five years.

“The numbers that were put in the school formula are unaffordable right now,” Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said.

He predicted the Legislature will pass a tax package, but that it won’t raise enough money to cover the figure. Lawmakers will have to compromise, he said.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the Legislature can fund whatever is required to make the system constitutional. The Supreme Court will review the plan that lawmakers ultimately pass.

“What we can’t do is do it on the backs of poor people. Poor people don’t make enough money, no matter how high you raise their taxes, to fund the state government,” Ward said.

Governor’s veto

The tax plans that have been debated have either failed to draw legislative support or have been rejected by Brownback.

The governor vetoed a bill earlier this session that would have raised income tax rates and added a third bracket. The legislation would have generated about $1 billion over two years.

The Senate fell three votes short of overriding the veto.

Last week, the Senate voted down a measure that would have taxed all personal income at a single rate. The bill would have raised about $650 million over two years.

Brownback had said he would sign the legislation, but only three senators voted in favor.

“The liberals don’t like a flat tax and the conservatives don’t like any tax,” Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, said.

A ‘difficult situation’

Brownback said the vote margin didn’t surprise him. He said a flat tax was a relatively new idea to come before the Legislature but isn’t a new idea nationally.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, who chairs the House Tax Committee, said discussions when the Legislature returns will include whether lawmakers need to raise taxes besides income. Some proposals have called for increases to cigarette and liquor taxes.

Johnson also alluded to Brownback’s veto power – a factor in any discussion of taxes.

“Can we pass a comprehensive tax bill, or will we have to pass a comprehensive income tax bill that will take, essentially, a two-thirds majority to pass?” Johnson said.

Brownback said the session will end with a balanced budget and a school finance formula. He didn’t appear unsettled that lawmakers have several major tasks when they return.

“When you get in a difficult situation,” Brownback said, “it almost always moves to the end of the session.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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