The state nearly took a major step toward stabilizing its finances last week. But the obstinacy of Gov. Sam Brownback – and the abdication of leadership at a critical time by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita – prevented that progress.
If Brownback didn’t own the state’s budget problems before, he does now.
The week began with Brownback announcing at a Kansas Chamber of Commerce banquet that he planned to veto a bill that would reverse some of the state’s previous tax cuts. He then held a press conference Wednesday morning to make a public display of his veto.
But within hours, the Kansas House voted 85-40 to override that veto – a remarkable show of bipartisan resolve. That meant the fate of the bill rested with the Senate.
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The Senate initially approved the tax bill with 22 votes. It needed an additional five votes to override – a challenge, but also reachable with some strong leadership by Wagle.
Wagle has been a vocal critic of Brownback’s budget and tax policies. She wrote in a recent commentary that his budget plan was “neither structurally sound nor fiscally conservative,” and she vowed not to “kick this can down the road any longer.”
Yet when it came time to step up and change course, Wagle – along with Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park – opposed the override. This even though calls from Wagle’s constituents ran 10 to one in support of the override, and Denning reportedly promised to vote for the override if it cleared the House.
In the end, the override attempt fell three votes short.
Wagle objected that the new income tax rates would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. But lawmakers, including Wagle and Denning, have approved retroactive tax increases before.
Waiting until 2018 for the tax increases to go into effect makes it even more difficult to plug the state’s budget shortfall – which now totals about $900 million over the next 16 months.
Wagle and Brownback both expressed confidence that an alternative solution is possible. Perhaps so, but it is unclear what that would be.
What was particularly remarkable about this tax vote was the time it occurred and the amount of support it received. Typically, lawmakers refuse to make such tough decisions until the very end of the legislative session – and with the bare minimum of votes needed to pass.
In 2015, for example, the Legislature didn’t approve a tax plan until 4 a.m. on June 12 – the 113th day of the session. And that occurred only after threats and pleading by Brownback.
Having killed this bipartisan solution, the burden is now on Brownback and Wagle to deliver something better.