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Kansas lawmakers return to tax cut debate; maps scrutinized

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The Republican-controlled Legislature was set to reconvene Monday to wrap up its business for the year. Lawmakers must complete a $22 billion-plus budget for the 12 months beginning July 1.

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers returned to work Monday with more room to cut taxes and boost state spending than they had even a few weeks ago but not knowing whether they'll be debating political redistricting again.

The Republican-controlled Legislature is reconvening after a three-week hiatus to wrap up its business for the year, though state court cases involving the new political boundaries drawn by GOP lawmakers create some uncertainty over how long they'll be in session. They have yet to finalize a more than $22 billion budget for the 12 months that begin July 1, and Republican leaders and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly are at odds over how to cut taxes now that the state is flush with cash.

New congressional districts inspired three lawsuits and a state court judge in Wyandotte County was set to rule on them Monday, with an appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court expected no matter what he decides. The state Supreme Court also is required to review legislative district lines by early June.

A new fiscal forecast for state government issued last week was even more optimistic than a rosy one state officials and university economists issued in November, projecting an extra $760 million in tax collections over the next 15 months. But the forecasters also warned that the highest inflation in the U.S. since the early 1980s is fueling much of that.

Republican legislators are poised to cut income, sales and property taxes by a total of $1.5 billion over three years. The bulk of those cuts are in two measures that are ready for final votes in the House and Senate.

Kelly recently intensified her campaign to eliminate the state's 6.5% sales tax on groceries, which is one of the nation's highest. Last week, she revived a proposal that GOP lawmakers have ignored that would give a $250 rebate to each Kansas resident who filed a 2020 income tax return last year.

"Especially right now, when we are all experiencing the impact of rising costs at the pump and the grocery store, the state can make an immediate and direct impact to help Kansas families pay their bills and save for the future,” Kelly said in proposing the rebate again.

But Republicans view the rebate proposal as a gimmick designed to send checks to taxpayers just ahead of the fall election with Kelly facing a tough reelection race.

GOP lawmakers have proposed phasing out the sales tax on groceries over three years, starting Jan. 1. In recent days, they've responded to Democrats' criticism that it's not enough by noting that a provision was tucked into a tax bill that Kelly vetoed in 2019 and would have phased out the tax on groceries as of Jan. 1, according to data compiled by legislative researchers.

The bill Kelly vetoed in 2019 also contained income tax cuts that fellow Democrats opposed, and the governor said in her veto message that the state needed “thoughtful" tax policy, not “a rushed attempt to achieve an immediately political victory.”

While Republicans relitigate the 2019 veto, more recent ones from Kelly also are an issue for them.

Kelly vetoed GOP measures to ban transgender athletes from girls and women's sports in K-12 schools and colleges; make it easier for parents to try to remove materials from public school classrooms and libraries; impose new restrictions for food assistance for non-disabled adults without children; and bar cities and counties from banning, restricting, or taxing plastic straws, bags and food containers. None of the measures passed with the two-thirds majorities that were needed in both chambers to override a veto.

The biggest budget issue remaining is funding for public K-12 schools, with more than $6 billion at stake. Some school districts and the State Board of Education want to boost spending on special education programs by $155 million.