House candidates divided on future of sales tax

By Bryan Richardson

Candidates in three state House races stated their cases during Monday’s forum.

The races were for the 51st House district between Republican Ron Highland and Democrat Richard Pikul; 66th House district between incumbent Democrat Sydney Carlin and Republican Lee Modesitt; and the 67th House district between incumbent Republican Tom Phillips and Democrat Aaron Estabrook.

Here’s a synopsis of what the candidates said on several topics.

Sales tax

Six-tenths of a statewide one percent sales tax enacted a few years ago is to expire next June. The candidates were asked whether they would vote to extend that tax in the face of the tax policy changes signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback. Most didn’t offer a firm commitment to repeal it, the exceptions being Highland and Estabrook.

Pikul said he wouldn’t like to extend the sale tax because it treats low-income groups unfairly. However, he said the tax policy signed last session has backed legislators into a corner on how to make up the projected 10 percent loss in revenue. “The only way we’ll be able to do that is to pass that or reverse the prior tax policy,” he said.

Highland said a legislature should keep its promise to the public, in this case to let the tax expire. Should there be a revenue loss, he said the legislature will have to figure out another way to address it.

Carlin said the state is going into the hole $900 million due to cuts to corporate income tax and the reduction to personal income tax. “It’s going to be a tough vote,” she said. “I want to repeal it. I hope I can repeal it.”

Modesitt said he’s not committed to repealing or keeping the sales tax. “Higher education and K-12 have had negative impacts over the last decade,” he said. “I want to reverse that and I think that starts by not boxing yourself into a corner by pledging to support or oppose any given tax plan or proposal.”

Phillips said he doesn’t know whether the best solution will be reinstituting the sales tax or other policy tweaks. He said he has concerns that the tax policy bundled too many tax cuts together, which could cause an adverse effect on the state. “My job as a legislator is to go back this session to find a workable solution,” he said.

Estabrook said his approach is to keep promises met by the legislature, but the real issue is tax reform. He called it a “debacle” that won’t be fixed simply by extending the sales tax. “We need to come back to the drawing board, focus our efforts on that income tax exemption for those 190,000 businesses and figure out a solution from there,” he said.

State services

Estabrook said there can’t be realistic talk of expanding state services with Brownback’s tax cuts. He also said state agencies are being asked to develop proposals for 10 percent cuts in their fiscal year 2014 budgets.

The funding for the veterans’ affairs commission is a priority area for Estabrook, a veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan. “We’re ending the longest war in U.S. history and a lot of those men are coming back to Fort Riley,” he said.

Phillips said the mission of state government won’t change from promoting public health, welfare and safety, education and transportation. But, he said, efficiencies need to be found. He said one area that could be consolidated is information technology to reduce the cost of having a different IT department for each state department.

Carlin said she talks about cuts every morning on the legislative sessions as a member of the appropriations committee. “When I think of eliminating anything, it gives me a headache because we’ve cut them so much,” she said. She said one priority is to take care of K-12 and higher education in Manhattan.

Modesitt said a friend who works for the transportation department told him that areas where KDOT found potential efficiencies weren’t pursued due to fear of losing the money. He said Kansas has a system that encourages wasteful spending.  “We got to change how we incentivize our agencies to run efficiently,” he said.

Highland said he would like to address the accounting practices. “If you have money left over, they take it,” he said of the legislature. “If you run efficiently, you should be able to save that money and carry it over to the next year.”

Pikul said he thinks state agencies are already “lean and mean” operations. “They’ve already cut things so far that to do it further would start endangering the health, safety and welfare of the Kansas residents,” he said.


Advocating for constituents

The candidates addressed how they would follow the will of their constituents rather than the party’s will. That also became a discussion on how they would work with the opposing party.

Phillips used his vote against Brownback’s tax plan as an example of how he would continue to stray from party lines when necessary for the community. “I am an independent thinker and I’ll tell where I am on issues,” he said. “We have a responsibility to represent all of our constituents, not just the Republican Party.”

Through his deployment in Afghanistan, Estabrook said he understands the importance of creating bridges to get results, which he said the legislature failed to do much of last year. He specifically mentioned the legislature’s inability to create a redistricting map. “There’s too much partisan politics going on, and that’s what got us in the situation where the moderates have been chased out,” he said.

Carlin said following the will of the constituents rather than the party isn’t an issue for her because of the makeup of the legislature. “Democrats always have to be looking for allies to get our work done,” she said.

Modesitt said he will seek out all ideas, even from Democrats, whose voices, he said, are unlikely to be heard with an expected Republican super-majority after the election. “One, it helps me better sharpen my ideas,” he said. “Two, I never believe I have a monopoly on ideas. No one does.” He said certain principles won’t be compromised, but he’ll advocate an idea no matter the source if it’s good.

Highland said he’ll work to ignore those lobbying in the legislature.

Pikul said he considers himself an independent person who makes decisions based on his education, training and background. He said he will also discuss with people in his district about the best way to go. “Taking all that into account, I’ll then make my decision,” he said.

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