Face fiscal reality

Lawmakers on both sides of the Statehouse need to wake up – and look around.
Lawmakers on both sides of the Statehouse need to wake up – and look around. AP

Friday’s painful debate and subsequent defeat of a proposal to raise the statewide sales tax showed that the fiscal reality has dawned on only part of the Kansas House.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Statehouse need to wake up – and look around, including at what their decisions are doing to schools in their districts.

The failure of the bill, which would have raised sales tax from 6.15 to 6.85 percent while cutting the sales tax on food to 5.9 percent, at least engaged one of the full chambers in the decision making necessary to adjourn the session. The sales tax increase would have raised $270 million of the $400 million needed to bridge a projected budget gap for fiscal 2016.

During the floor debate you could hear the fear among House lawmakers, none of whom ran for office so they could raise taxes. But their chief concern should not be whether a 2015 vote to raise taxes will turn into a 2016 primary challenge, or otherwise put them crosswise with Gov. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Club for Growth.

They need to listen hard to their colleagues who’ve already grasped the hard facts, including Wichita Republicans such as Senate President Susan Wagle, Rep. Mark Hutton and Sen. Les Donovan, and to the public.

Taxing the income of employees but not certain business owners is unfair – an offense that some in the Legislature now want to compound by jacking up the sales tax so business owners can continue to pay nothing in income tax. An amendment offered Friday to address the business exemption also failed.

And the contention that zeroing out tax on pass-through business income would cause a surge in hiring and economic growth? That has proved false, despite what some of the House holdouts argued.

Finding the revenue to pass a two-year budget should not be lawmakers’ only concern. Back home in their districts, many schools are suffering serious consequences from the recently approved block-grant bill, which repealed the two-decade-old school-finance formula. Some are ending the semester early, cutting programs, raising fees or a combination. The superintendent of the Skyline district in Pratt County even resigned Wednesday to save the district his $81,000 salary, on top of $477,000 in other personnel cutbacks.

And more cuts could be coming, as the Senate Ways and Means Committee advanced legislation that would counter falling oil-and-gas valuations by reducing the promised block-grant funding by $30.5 million. Meanwhile, a three-judge panel in Topeka is considering school districts’ request to overturn the block-grant bill, as it continues to work through the ongoing school-finance case testing the constitutionality of state K-12 funding generally.

Stressing school budgets, robbing the highway fund, borrowing cash to prop up the pension system – the responsibility for all of it falls on state leaders. Between now and the final gavel, more of them will need to recognize that doing what’s right and fair for the state, at least this time, will not be fun.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman