Kansas lawmakers wrestle with tax, school funding issues

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators sorted through proposals Wednesday for raising new revenue to fix the state budget and wrestled with how much they need to increase spending on public schools to meet a court mandate.

The state faces projected budget shortfalls totaling $887 million through June 2019, and the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in March that the state’s education funding is inadequate. The court gave lawmakers until June 30 to write a new school funding law.

Highlights of legislative debates Wednesday:

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NEW TAX PROPOSALS

The Republican-controlled Legislature is having trouble agreeing on the details of a plan for raising new revenue.

Lawmakers expect to at least partially roll back past income tax cuts touted by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback as pro-growth policies, but some Republicans want to hold the hikes in check by tapping other tax sources.

The House passed a bill earlier this week to impose the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax on a few services that aren’t taxed now, such as towing, pet boarding and overdue bill collecting. The Senate tax committee reviewed the measure Wednesday and was cold to it.

The bill would raise about $110 million over two years. Senators heard testimony from collection agency operators saying the measure would harm their businesses in competition with out-of-state firms.

But House members are pressing ahead. Republican Rep. Kristey Williams, of Augusta, said she and other backers of the bill are working on an even more aggressive proposal to raise $330 million over two years by eliminating sales tax exemptions.

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UTILITY SURCHARGE

Legislators have considered several dozen tax proposals, including various income tax plans. They’ve also talked about boosting cigarette and liquor taxes.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he wants to raise $300 million for schools over two years with a surcharge on water, electric and natural gas bills. Residential customers would pay $2.25 per month on each bill and commercial customers $10 a month.

Denning said a surcharge would create a stable source of funding for schools. But the idea faces strong opposition.

“Utility rates are high enough,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

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BOOSTING SCHOOL FUNDING

Legislators also haven’t agreed on how much they should increase the state’s aid to its 286 local school districts, now about $4 billion a year.

A House committee has drafted a plan to phase in a $280 million increase over two years. A Senate committee reviewed the plan Wednesday and found much to dislike but didn’t have a figure for how large members thought the increase should be.

Hensley and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, outlined a plan to phase in a $400 million increase over two years, boosting the total to $600 million after three years.

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BUDGET IN LIMBO

Without agreements on taxes and a school funding plan, legislators can’t finish budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and the following one. They had no debates on budget issues Wednesday, the 93rd day of what is supposed to be a 100-day legislative session.

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