The Legislature keeps using ‘gut and go’ — and it could cost Kansas millions

Gene Bicknell.
Gene Bicknell.

On March 24, 2015, the Kansas Senate unanimously passed a bill relating to retail sales tax in Bourbon and Thomas counties. Gene Bicknell could’ve never guessed Senate Bill 280 could someday make him $42.5 million richer.

Yet somehow, here we are. “Gut and go” strikes again.

This latest example of the Legislature’s ambivalence to transparency and accountability is maddening and supports the need for lawmakers to thoroughly examine its process — not just keep assuring the public things will get better.

Back in 2015, the Senate sent the bill to the House, which shelved it for the rest of the session. A year later, the bill was gutted for new contents.

An 18-page Senate bill became 42 pages in the House. Sales tax authority in Bourbon and Thomas counties instead became a statewide measure allowing citizens to take their appeals past the state Board of Tax Appeals, plus amending more than 30 existing statutes.

It passed 123-0 in the House, and once senators got a look at the gutted bill, the Senate passed it 40-0 and it went to then-Gov. Sam Brownback. He vetoed it, saying the Board of Appeals should be the last word on tax obligations (Bicknell was also a campaign contributor and Brownback took the high road). Both chambers voted to override with one dissenting vote.

The new law enabled Bicknell, a two-time gubernatorial candidate, to file suit last fall in Crawford County District Court, reviving a six-year-old fight over whether Bicknell lived in Kansas or Florida in 2006, when he sold National Pizza Co., the nation’s largest Pizza Hut franchise holder.

Bicknell disputed a $42.5 million tax bill from the Kansas Department of Revenue, yet paid it in 2013 and began the fight to get it back. Last October, the Board of Tax Appeals concluded Bicknell was a Kansas resident in 2006.

Bicknell’s lawyers put SB 280 into action a month later.

To be clear, the core of the refurbished bill was worth debate. Should a Kansan be able to make his or her case to a district court if unhappy with a Board of Tax Appeals ruling? The 2016 Legislature decided nearly unanimously it was.

In an interesting turnabout, the Department of Revenue now argues in the Bicknell case that stuffing the bill with new language included violating the state constitution by covering more than one topic in the legislation.

Last year’s Kansas City Star series on secretive Kansas government — a Pulitzer Prize finalist — spurred promises of better transparency during the current legislative session. But the improvements haven’t overtaken traditional problems such as stripping bills and inserting new language, and submitting bills without an author’s name.

Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, introduced a bill in February that would ban gut-and-gos. It sits dormant in the Appropriations committee. Not shocking, but disappointing.

Regardless of where Bicknell lived in 2006 and regardless of how a district court rules, Kansas government has an ongoing problem. It may not cost $42.5 million, but it’s continuing to cost lawmakers in terms of trust with their constituents.