Kansas lawmakers advance proposals to lessen income tax hike

(KSNT File photo)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas advanced proposals Monday that would lessen the need for lawmakers to roll back past income tax cuts championed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback to fix the state budget and boost spending on public schools.

A House committee approved a plan to phase in a $280 million increase in aid to schools over two years in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in March that the state’s education funding is inadequate. Committee members whittled down a plan calling for phasing in a $783 million increase over five years to get past opposition from Republicans who doubted lawmakers would increase taxes enough to pay for it.

The committee’s action came after the House approved, 78-42, a bill to raise about $110 million over two years by imposing the state’s sales tax on a few services that aren’t taxed now, including towing and pet boarding. While the state is facing projected budget shortfalls totaling $887 million through June 2019, passing such a bill would allow GOP lawmakers to embrace smaller income tax increases. The bill goes next to the Senate.

Democrats and moderate Republicans have been working together on income tax proposals but have failed to garner the two-thirds majorities necessary to override a potential veto from Brownback. Meanwhile, GOP leaders haven’t given up on unifying Republicans around proposals the conservative governor would sign.

“I can’t say for certain which route we’ll wind up going down, but both are still in play,” said House Taxation Committee Chairman Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican.

The state’s budget problems arose after massive personal income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 that Brownback touted as pro-growth policies and persisted following economic slumps in agriculture and energy production. Legislators already were looking at big tax increases when the court ruled in an education funding lawsuit filed by four school districts in 2010, directing lawmakers to pass a new school finance law by June 30.

The House committee has been mired in several weeks of discussions about the details of a new per-student formula for distributing state dollars to Kansas’ 286 school districts. It’s designed to ensure that enough of the money helps students who are at-risk of failing. Disagreements over the total size of the spending increase threatened to hold up further work on the school finance bill, so some moderate Republicans accepted a smaller plan — temporarily, they said.

“We were at a brick wall,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Fairway Republican.

The Supreme Court did not say how much lawmakers must increase state aid to schools, now about $4 billion a year. But John Robb, an attorney representing the districts suing the state, said last week that even the committee’s larger plan was inadequate.

And Democratic Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita, said with the smaller plan, “We will get laughed out of court.”

Meanwhile, in raising revenue, Kansas generally doesn’t levy its 6.5 percent sales tax on services. Some lawmakers have talked for several decades about eliminating sales tax exemptions, though without much success.

The bill approved by the House would impose the tax also on storage, detective, security and non-residential cleaning services.

To make those changes go down easier for consumers, the bill would cut the sales tax on groceries to 5.5 percent in July 2020. But some Democrats predicted legislators would renege on the promise if the state faces further budget problems.

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