Kansas lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Wednesday still facing the largest challenge of this year’s session: balancing the budget and responding to a court order to spend more on schools.
In recent years, though, lawmakers plucked the low-hanging fruit when it comes to finding cash. That makes any revenue harvest ahead that much more difficult.
To help weather budget crunches in recent years, lawmakers have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s highway fund. The current and coming year budgets already rely on about $580 million in diverted highway money to help balance the books.
Republican Rep. Steven Johnson, chair of the House Taxation Committee, said they’ve also turned to tax hikes in recent years along with reliance on highway money. Lawmakers have raised the sales tax and last year overturned the state’s 2012 tax cuts by overriding a veto from then-Gov. Sam Brownback.
Johnson said lawmakers might be tired of debates about raising taxes.
“I don’t see a tax plan that I am excited about that comes together out of that,” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson said his committee will discuss property taxes next week. The goal is to gauge how much of an increase lawmakers and the public would be willing to accept.
“And if you say ‘none,’ weigh in on how we address the courts,” Johnson said. “That’s the discussion that we need to have in earnest in the next week.”
Whatever lawmakers come up with, they’ll have to consider Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer’s position. He hasn’t given them a mandate, but outlined what he wants to see in the plan.
“Increased investments in K-12 education must come through a phased-in approach that doesn’t increase the tax burden on Kansas families,” Colyer said during a speech to lawmakers this month.
That adds further difficulty to passing a tax increase. Johnson said it would be especially difficult to gather enough votes to override Colyer’s veto.
Legislators could also consider budget cuts to other services to boost spending on schools. Across-the-board cuts of 18 percent could be needed to come up with additional funding for Kansas schools.
Some lawmakers argued the state should have looked at spending cuts last year instead of raising taxes. That debate could be repeated this year if tax increases are on the table.
There’s another area of tax policy lawmakers have discussed in recent years: tax exemptions that give breaks to certain entities. The exemptions from sales tax range from haircuts and other services to Girl Scout cookies.
The challenge is that recipients of tax exemptions often fight hard to keep them.
“The resistance is very large,” Johnson said. “In fact, we have a very long list of requests for additional tax exemptions.”
House lawmakers passed a bill to repeal $60 million in sales tax exemptions last year, but it died in the Senate.
Tax collections consistently beating estimates will help the financial situation, but Johnson said there are other areas lawmakers also hope to boost spending. He said they’d like to invest in state mental health services and repay a missed payment into the state pension plan.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @KPRKoranda.
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