At session’s halfway point, lawmakers see only uncertainty on funding issues

By Bill Felber

Even with presumed veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature on his side, it looks like Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to implement a series of budget and spending changes will still go down to the session’s last moments, if they pass at all.

That’s the assessment of members of the area legislative delegation as the annual 90-day session passes the halfway point.

Area lawmakers aren’t sure what in the way of tax or spending reforms the governor will have the votes to enact, but they do tend to think that despite lopsided conservative majorities, the proposals do not face smooth sailing.

State Rep. Tom Phillips, a Republican, said he senses an unwillingness to keep intact one linchpin of the governor’s agenda, restoration of the full 6 percent sales tax. Part of that tax was supposed to be terminated this year, but Brownback has asked lawmakers to restore it in order to facilitate his proposal to move toward elimination of the state income tax.

“Either they don’t have the votes… or they’re trying to position themselves to tell constituents here’s the programs that will have to be cut,” Phillips said of assertions last week by Senate and House leadership that action on the sales tax measure would be delayed.

Phillips said the question “all comes down to who’s going to be willing to keep or not keep the sales tax.” But while he said he has heard discussion about a compromise that would extend the sunset for one additional year, Phillips also sensed trepidation among some to vote that way for fear of being attacked for supporting a tax hike.

For his own part Phillips was not prepared to say whether he’d support such an extension, describing himself as wanting to “not to lay all my cards on the table yet.”

But State Sen. Tom Hawk, a Democrat, was willing to. Hawk, who supported passage of the three-year tax when it was originally approved, isn’t buying any extensions at all.

“Why would I vote for it?” asked Hawk, who felt his support of the tax as a House member was used to defeat him when he ran for re-election in 2010. Beyond that, he added, all the extension would do “is allow the governor to get to his goal of eliminating income taxes faster. I think the sales tax is high enough…”

State Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Democrat, isn’t sure how the issue will eventually play out, but expects Brownback to “push till he gets it.” She reads the delays being suggested by Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ray Merrick as evidence that “the communities they live in are talking to them…that would be the most meaningful thing that could happen.”

Carlin said most of the important budget issues, among them K-12 education and mental health funding, are “ just lurking under the surface.” She said only clarification on taxes would determine their status.

She also decried proposals affecting the ability of teachers’ unions to operate, notably what is referred to as “paycheck protection,” which affects automatic deductions for union dues. She also cited changes affecting workers compensation and unemployment issues. “There is a war being waged on unions,” Carlin said.

Phillips believes that intense lobbying by real estate professionals may have thwarted efforts to repeal the mortgage interest deduction. Carlin noted surveys finding that the deduction is popular even among those who do not use it.

Hawk agreed that the mortgage exemption would probably survive, although he thought the state deduction for property tax still might be removed.

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