Gov. Sam Brownback’s office announced it would unveil a tax plan Friday evening to close the state’s $400 million budget hole, but a half-hour later announced it wasn’t unveiling the plan just yet.
The canceled news conference was the capper to a long day in Topeka – the 99th of the legislative session – which saw the Kansas Senate erupt in conflict as lawmakers feuded over tax policy and accused each other of trying to circumvent the democratic process.
Brownback’s spokeswoman said the governor would instead meet with legislative leaders Friday evening before unveiling the plan this weekend.
The Kansas House inched forward toward a fix, passing a bill, SB 270, that will raise an estimated $30 million in revenue. The bill – which passed 64-54 without any debate – will grant amnesty to people who owe back taxes in hopes of bringing revenue.
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That won’t go very far toward filling the state’s $400 million shortfall on its own, but it would enable House and Senate negotiators to go into a conference committee now and work toward a final plan.
But that plan almost backfired on Republican leaders when the Senate’s top Democrat made a motion to send the bill straight to the governor’s desk.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a history teacher, argued that handing the power to craft tax policy to a six-member conference committee would transform the state from a representative democracy into an oligarchy. Hensley’s motion found support among frustrated conservatives in the Senate, who overwhelmingly voted down a tax bill earlier this week.
“You put this bill in committee … every one of those amendments we fought over two or three days ago are going to show up again and you’re not going to have a voice,” said Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park.
Before voting on Hensley’s motion, the Senate adjourned until the evening so that Republicans could hash out their differences in an emotional caucus meeting.
Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, the Senate Taxation chair, made his frustration clear.
“Nobody has an idea of what the heck they want to do this year,” he said, offering to resign his chairmanship.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, tried to calm tempers.
“We’re on day 99. Tensions are high. Tempers are short,” he said. The session is normally scheduled for 90 days.
Republicans have been divided on whether to include income tax increases as part of a fix to the state’s $400 million deficit or to rely solely on sales and other consumption taxes to fill the hole. Others say that budget cuts need to be part of the equation before they can consider tax increases.
“Where are the cuts?” asked Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth. “We all ran on less government spending, lower government taxes. Well, we didn’t do the first part.”
Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, blamed the situation on the governor, who he said had failed to lead on the issue.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, asked lawmakers what they needed to “stay on the team” and Senate leadership agreed to have a tax debate on Sunday before negotiators would agree to anything in the conference committee.
After the caucus, Hensley’s motion was voted down 11-28.
The uproar in the Senate was markedly different from the House, where there was no resistance from any faction against leadership’s push to put tax policy in the hands of the conference committee of four Republicans and two Democrats.
Before the final House vote were near-unanimous votes to gut most of the contents of SB 270 – a bill that relied mainly on consumption taxes to fill the state’s revenue hole – and leave a tax amnesty piece and a few popular provisions unrelated to tax policy.
Only a few faint voices objected to the amendment and to a subsequent motion to close on the bill without any debate.
“I would say it was an act of legislative cowardice,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, one of the only lawmakers to oppose the motions. “It was an example of legislators avoiding their responsibility.”
“Our constituents will never know where legislators really stand on these issues unless we debate these issues on the House floor in public,” Carmichael continued. “And what took place here today is an attempt, sadly I fear on the part of both parties, to obfuscate the issues so the electorate doesn’t really know who voted for what, when and where.”
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, defended his decision to help GOP leaders avoid debate, arguing that lawmakers were putting policy ahead of politics.
“We may not always like the process, but at least we’re finally making progress,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, the House Tax chairman, however, said that the procedure will allow lawmakers to make progress toward a final solution to the budget woes sooner and ensure the state avoids the consequences of not passing a budget fix before June, such as furloughs for state workers.
He argued that a lengthy debate during which lawmakers from across the political spectrum brought a host of amendments would not be productive.
“Specifically when it comes to tax policy, it really isn’t the sort of discussion that you should have out on the floor, putting all the pieces together, especially with this type of money that needs be done,” Kleeb said. “Every amendment will affect the bottom line. … That would just be a cumbersome process.”
Wagle said in the Senate GOP caucus meeting later in the day that House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, had told her that House members wanted to avoid multiple tough votes on tax policy.
That didn’t jibe with Melcher.
“I couldn’t care less about the House freshmen’s re-elections,” he replied. “That doesn’t have anything to do with crafting good legislation.”
Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle