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Kansas Senate Abruptly Cancels Tax And Budget Debate

Stephen Koranda
Kansas Public Radio/File photo
Senate President Susan Wagle speaking to reporters after the debate was delayed.

A tax and budget debate fizzled in the Kansas Senate Thursday, before it had even started. As Stephen Koranda reports, the situation reveals just how divided lawmakers have become as they work to solve the state's budget crisis.

The gallery in the Kansas Senate was full of spectators. Reporters were ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight over the the tax and budget plan. But it never happened.

Senate President Susan Wagle swung the gavel and closed the meeting shortly after the debate was about to begin. Republican Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine said earlier in the week they thought they had the needed 21 votes.

“We felt like we had consensus, but I think a number of people heard from school groups and other people heard from people who were concerned about raising taxes, so we don’t have the support for those two bills at this point,” Longbine said.

The budget plan would have cut education spending, eliminated a tax exemption for thousands of business owners and raised income tax rates. Different groups opposed it for different reasons. The numbers didn't add up for centrist Republican Sen. John Skubal.

“I want a structurally fixed budget to where we’re not doing one-time money. This does not work for me,” Skubal said.

He said he wants to take a solid look at the tax cuts passed in 2012.

“If I had my way, I would dial back to 2012 and look at the lower end to make sure we’re not taxing people too much. If government’s worth anything, we have to fund it,” he said.

Moderate Republicans, like Skubal, and Democrats want to look more at taxes. The two groups also don’t like the cuts to public schools, especially this far into the school year.

“They went way too far in terms of proposing cuts to K-12 education," Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley said. "These cuts would come in a very untimely manner because there’s four months left of school."

For others, the plan Senate leaders put forward relies too much on taxes and not enough on cutting.

“You can see the habit. You can see that addiction to spending here, and that’s a problem. It’s a real problem," said conservative Republican Dennis Pyle, who said he wants to start with just spending cuts to balance the budget.

“We’ve had three tax increases now, 2013, 2015 and here we are again in 2017 with another proposed tax increase. That’s a pattern, and it’s a bad pattern,” Pyle said.

Further complicating the budget picture is what Gov. Sam Brownback might do. He blasted the tax plan proposed by Senate leaders earlier this week, saying it would hurt job creators and Kansas families. The governor has consistently defended the tax exemption for 330,000 business owners, saying it grows jobs.

Sen. Hensley said the governor’s opposition means they’ll need to get a two-thirds vote so they can override a veto.

“I think Governor Brownback has pretty much drawn a line in the sand in terms of making sure the LLC loophole stays in place. That’s his so-called legacy,” Hensley said.

Senate President Susan Wagle said she doesn’t agree that the governor would automatically veto the plan. She said voters have said they want the business tax exemption rolled back.

“They want a fair tax plan that taxes all Kansans in an equitable manner. I would hope he would work with us if that bill goes to his desk," Wagle said.

Wagle and other leaders are now cranking up the pressure on lawmakers. She said they won’t take up anything on the Senate floor except tax and budget plans.

“The budget crisis we are facing right now should be our number one focus. We are happy to run bills once we address the current deficit we are in,” Wagle said.

There’s a legislative deadline later this month: By Feb. 23, most bills need to have passed out of one chamber, or they’re lost for this session. Until tax and budget issues are resolved, other kinds of legislation could get knocked out of consideration altogether for this year.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Radio covering health, education and politics.