Kansas GOP leaders struggle with divisions on taxes, schools

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republicans in the Kansas Legislature sought Monday to bridge deep divisions among GOP lawmakers over a package that would tie higher spending for public schools to an increase in income taxes, in a single mega-deal aimed at meeting a court mandate on education and fixing the cash-strapped state’s budget.

The House hoped to vote by Monday afternoon in a bill that would raise more than $1 billion over two years by raising income tax rates and ending an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners, largely rolling back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. The measure also would phase in a $293 million increase in aid to public schools over two years.

If the House approves the bill, the Senate would vote on the package to determine whether it goes to Brownback.

Kansas faces budget shortfalls totaling $889 million through June 2019, and the state Supreme Court ruled in March that its $4 billion a year in education funding is inadequate. Members of the GOP-controlled House have struggled to agree on raising income taxes, and the impasse has made this year’s annual legislative session among the longest ever, with lawmakers meeting Monday for the 108th day of what was supposed to be a 100-day session.

Bulking a tax measure with spending or policy measures is highly unusual; Kansas legislators usually vet such issues separately. Democrats strongly object to the tactic and a few likened the package to Frankenstein’s monster. Some GOP moderates don’t like the tactic either and objected to both tax and education provisions. Conservative Republicans decried the tax hike and higher spending.

“It’s not a compromise. It’s a total sellout,” said Rep. Randy Garber, a conservative Sabetha Republican.

The House’s GOP leaders settled upon a single, big package Sunday, believing the tax increase would have a greater chance of passing if it were tied to extra money for public schools. They also believe tying the two together would make it difficult for Brownback to veto a bill that would undo his signature policies.

Many legislators in both parties also were skeptical that the increase in spending on schools would satisfy the Supreme Court, though the justices did not say exactly how much funding must increase when they set a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to pass a new school finance law. Attorneys for four school districts that sued the state in 2010 have said the increase needs to be much larger, and Democrats have argued that the minimum is phasing in a $400 million increase over two years.

Democrats and many GOP moderates also object to a proposal in the school funding plan that would expand a program giving income tax credits to corporations that donate money to private-school scholarships for students in poorly performing public schools. GOP conservatives created the program in 2014, and this year’s proposal would allow individuals and partnerships to claim the tax credit as well.

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