Local reps balk at tax cut measure

By The Mercury

A Manhattan lawmaker joined a chorus of criticism Wednesday as House conservatives sent a tax cut measure to Gov. Sam Brownback.

The House approved a bill to cut income and sales taxes by an estimated $233 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, with the annual tax relief growing to $911 million after four years. They did so following a political maneuver by House leaders that took advantage of the fact the Senate had already passed the same bill two months ago.

When they approved it in March, the moderate Senate GOP leadership and Democrats said they didn’t like large parts of the plan and worried about its potential effects on the budget. But they said they allowed the bill to go forward so negotiators from both chambers could work out a compromise.

The House’s conservative GOP leaders had initially favored a less aggressive plan drafted by negotiators, but fearing that proposal would fail in the Senate — where rumors floated that leaders would let any tax bill die — they forced a quick vote on deeper tax cuts Wednesday in a maneuver that bypassed the Senate.

With the bill most legislators don’t like headed to Brownback, conservatives hope to push Senate GOP leaders to pass something else.

The maneuvering outraged moderates and Democrats. Manhattan State Reps. Tom Phillips, a Republican, and Sydney Carlin, a Democrat, both voted against it, with Carlin especially vociferous in her condemnation of the House leadership and Brownback.

“It was an exceptionally disturbing experience,” she said of the late afternoon maneuvering, which included a cutoff of debate and a refusal by the House leadership to allow lawmakers to read explanations of their votes into the record.  Carlin said the bill, if signed by Brownback, would produce an $857.9 million deficit as soon as 2014, with annual deficits continuing at those levels through 2017.

Phillips also characterized the measure as fiscally “irresponsible” due to the projected negative ending balances. “It puts the state in a terrible financial position,” he said.

Opponents expressed a concern that the state would be forced to slash aid to public schools and spending on social services and other programs.

Brownback and House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said the bill’s passage was a step toward meaningful tax reform that will stimulate economic growth and create jobs.

But they also suggested they viewed passage as merely a tool to motivate the Senate to consider spending cuts more seriously.

“I am prepared to sign the bill,” the governor said in a statement, but he said the GOP-controlled Legislature should keep working on tax issues and send him additional legislation with offsets to the tax cuts they’ve approved.

The bill drops the top rate to 4.9 percent from the present 6.45 percent. It ends some tax credits and deductions but increases the standard deduction for all individual filers, and it eliminates income taxes for 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses. It drops the sales tax to 5.7 percent in July 2013, from its present 6.3 percent.

The House started debating the plan as the Senate prepared to take up the less aggressive, compromise measure. The alternative phased in lower income tax rates and the business tax break over six years.

Senate leaders had conceded that their chamber’s vote would be close. Democrats and some Republicans had misgivings about how it would affect the budget, and some believed it would shift part of the state’s tax burden from the wealthy to working-class and poor families.

“The House took necessary action to ensure Kansas is moving in the right direction when it comes to reforming our state’s income tax policy,” O’Neal said in a statement after his chamber’s vote.

He and Rep. Richard Carlson, a St. Marys Republican and the House’s lead negotiator on tax issues, said they’re hoping to resume talks with senators to draft another package.

“If they are serious about having good tax policy in Kansas, we will negotiate,” Carlson said.

But Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican who was skeptical of the less aggressive tax plan, said he assumed that when House members approved the more aggressive plan, “They were willing to live with what they passed.”

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