Brownback critics push Kansas toward debate on big tax hike

(AP Photo/John Hanna, File)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democrats and moderate Republicans are pushing the Kansas Legislature to consider a big tax increase next year as they campaign against conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s fiscal policies.

The vision they’re presenting to voters would include increasing aid to public schools, undoing cuts in higher education and protecting highway funding. Following through would force lawmakers to undo key parts of Brownback’s tax-cutting legacy and raise taxes, possibly by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Ongoing budget problems have fueled a backlash against Brownback’s allies ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. While Republicans are likely to retain solid majorities, Democrats hope to pick up enough seats to keep conservatives from controlling each chamber on their own and to form governing coalitions with GOP moderates.

The scenario is plausible because 14 conservatives lost legislative seats in the August primary. State Rep. Melissa Rooker, of Fairway, a moderate GOP leader, said the message from voters has been clear and simple: “Fix it.”

“We have deep problems,” she said. “They see the potential harm to the things they value, quality public schools and the amenities that make up what we refer to as quality of life. And public safety, good roads — all of those things matter.”

Brownback successfully pushed GOP legislators in 2012 and 2013 to slash personal income taxes, in a nationally watched experiment aimed at stimulating the economy. He won re-election in 2014 by telling voters that economic growth would protect schools, roads and social services.

But Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the first income tax cuts. The state faces at least a $60 million shortfall in its current budget and spending cuts in the fiscal year that begins in July 2017. A coming state Supreme Court ruling on a lawsuit filed by four school districts also could direct lawmakers to boost funding for public schools.

The term-limited governor blames the state’s fiscal woes on sluggishness in parts of the economy affecting many states, particularly agriculture and energy production. Still, anti-Brownback voters are aligning with other anti-incumbent voters who “just feel uncomfortable” about the budget, said Clay Barker, the state GOP’s executive director.

“I’ve heard it from all sides: We’re living on the fiscal edge,” Barker said.

Brownback allies such as state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Olathe Republican, argue that there’s plenty of room to eliminate duplicate programs and make government agencies more efficient.

And critics such as Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, expect Brownback to propose diverting highway funds to school funding or other programs, which he and other governors have done repeatedly. Democrats and moderate Republicans are campaigning against continued “raids” on transportation.

Incumbents and challengers in both parties have advocated reversing a key Brownback policy, a personal income tax exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners. They argue that it’s grossly unfair for lawyers, doctors and accountants to avoid paying state income taxes while their secretaries and assistants still do. The governor so far has strongly defended the policy as pro-growth.

Eliminating the exemption could raise $200 million a year — not enough to address the budget gaps seen by Brownback’s critics. Kelly acknowledged, “We’re going to have to do more.”

“What I’ve been telling folks is that we ought to take this opportunity to do a comprehensive reform of our tax structure,” Kelly said. Rooker agreed.

Other Brownback critics argue for repealing most or all of the personal income tax cuts the governor has championed. Besides the exemption for farmers and business owners, the state dropped its top personal income tax rate by 29 percent, to 4.6 percent.

State Democratic Party Chairman Lee Kinch said the pre-Brownback top rate of 6.45 percent was “hardly confiscatory” for wealthy taxpayers.

“We have a revenue problem, and any thoughtful, decent individual would agree with that,” Kinch said.

Brownback has given no sign that he’s ready to go along. But House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a conservative Louisburg Republican and Brownback ally, said if the governor’s critics don’t pursue a huge tax increase, they’ll have to back off what they’ve promised voters.

“There’s just no way to deny the math,” Vickrey said.

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