Politics & Government

Brownback takes Kansas lawmakers ‘to the brink’ with latest veto

Gov. Sam Brownback shakes hands with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer in 2012 after signing into law one of the largest tax cut bills in Kansas history.
Gov. Sam Brownback shakes hands with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer in 2012 after signing into law one of the largest tax cut bills in Kansas history. File photo

Gov. Sam Brownback’s commitment to his signature tax cuts has not wavered despite multiple attempts by lawmakers to undo them.

Brownback’s veto of a tax increase package on Tuesday afternoon set off another override fight in a session that has already featured a couple of efforts by lawmakers – so far unsuccessful – to override the governor.

If the Legislature forces a bill into law to raise more than $1.2 billion over the next two years over Brownback’s objections, the Republican governor will suffer his most substantial legislative defeat in his two terms in office.

But if tax plan supporters fail to round up the necessary two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to override the veto, Kansas could face a shutdown of schools and state agencies soon – unless another plan emerges that Brownback will sign.

“There’s no question that he’s taking us to the brink,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka and longest-serving member of the Legislature.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s completely unprecedented … this late in the session when we have a June 30 deadline,” Hensley said, referring to the court-ordered deadline for Kansas to enact a new school finance formula.

Brownback has continued to say what he has said all along.

We have worked hard in Kansas to move our tax policy to a pro-growth orientation. This bill undoes much of that progress. It will substantially damage job creation and leave our citizens poorer in the future.

Gov. Sam Brownback in a veto message

“We have worked hard in Kansas to move our tax policy to a pro-growth orientation. This bill undoes much of that progress. It will substantially damage job creation and leave our citizens poorer in the future,” he said in his veto statement.

Sen. Bruce Givens, R-El Dorado, called the governor hypocritical for denouncing the income tax bill he vetoed after helping to push through a sales tax increase in 2015. That year, lawmakers raised the sales tax rate to close another budget gap.

Givens said the veto amounted to the governor saying “I dare you” to lawmakers.

“His logic does not make sense to me,” Givens said.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Brownback has shown an inability to revisit his policies.

“Does he want his last hurrah to be negating basically the point of his governorship, admitting that his trademark policy has not worked?” Miller said. “He called it an experiment. Experiments in theory stop at some point if they don’t work.”

Brownback did say earlier in the session that he would sign a flat tax bill that featured a single individual income tax rate. That same bill also ended the LLC exemption publicly touted by the governor. It was defeated in the Senate 3-37. But the governor, and some lawmakers, continue to push a flat tax as an alternative to close the budget gap.

Veto override fight

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 30 early Tuesday. The bill raises personal income tax rates and repeals an exemption for certain kinds of business income. The bill represents lawmakers’ efforts to close a projected budget shortfall of more than $900 million over the next two years and pay for expected new school spending.

The House passed the bill 69-52. The Senate passed it 26-14. Brownback vetoed it Tuesday afternoon.

The veto override fight represents the culmination of a process that began nearly a year ago. A number of more conservative Republican lawmakers who supported the 2012 tax cuts were ousted in the August primary by more moderate Republicans who campaigned on rolling back the cuts. Additional Democrats were elected in November.

As a result, Brownback has fewer allies in the Legislature than he did a year ago. Policies that previously could not advance through the legislative process – such as Medicaid expansion – have landed on his desk.

But he still has some allies.

“I think there probably are some people who are absolutely, identically ideologically aligned with him who may think we want to protect his legacy,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, wouldn’t directly answer how he would vote on an override of Brownback’s latest veto. He would not discuss what Brownback’s most recent veto declaration says about Brownback’s legacy as governor and how wedded he is to the tax policies that brought him national attention.

“I’m trying to do what I can to get us out of session,” Ryckman said Tuesday. “We’ll let the historians answer that question.”

Former Gov. John Carlin, a Democrat, said he expected lawmakers to support an override.

“It’s a high-risk veto. … I don’t know what he’s thinking,” Carlin said.

‘Financial straits’

Some Republicans have become more open to the income tax increases opposed by Brownback as the session has dragged on.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, helped change the course of the session when he refused to vote to override the governor’s veto of a tax bill in February. The effort fell 3 votes short in the Senate.

By the time the session crossed into overtime in recent weeks, Denning had voted multiple times for the tax increases.  

During the vote early Tuesday, Sen. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, joined him to support the bill.

The tax vote was a difficult one for Estes, who said he considers himself a conservative Republican. He said the governor had nothing but the “best of intentions” with the 2012 tax policy.

But he described his choice to support the tax plan as one that comes as Kansas is in “financial straits.”

“We have to do some things that normally a conservative would definitely not want to consider,” Estes said. “There’s some conservatives that still won’t consider it.”

Contributing: Daniel Salazar of The Eagle and Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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