Gov. Bill Graves and three former Kansas governors had a clear message Thursday for state legislators: Raise taxes.
Graves and former Govs. Mike Hayden, William Avery and John Anderson Jr. were in Lawrence for a roundtable discussion as part of Kansas University's Kansas Economic Policy Conference.
With state legislators facing a budget deficit expected to be at least $200 million by the time they convene in January, all four Republicans said they believed a tax increase had to top the list of items for consideration.
"Significant tax increases are going to have to be considered unless you want to stop building highway projects or open the prison doors and let them out," said Hayden, who served as governor from 1987 to 1991. "I think we're looking at another session where legislators are going to have to consider raising taxes and making budget cuts.
"It will be one of the toughest sessions in modern history."
Anderson, who was governor from 1961 to 1965, said the financial situation was too tough to avoid a tax increase.
"In these times, we're going to have to see taxes go up, not down," Anderson said.
Whether legislators actually will take the politically unpopular step to raise taxes during the next session is a different matter. Hayden called a tax increase "inevitable," but Graves, who sought more tax increases than the Legislature ultimately approved in the 2002 session, was pessimistic about the chances.
"I think it will be difficult for legislators to agree on any type of revenue package," Graves said. "They'll consider a revenue package, certainly, but getting agreement I'm doubtful."
But if taxes aren't increased at the state level, they almost certainly will have to go up at the local level, said Avery, who served as governor from 1965 to 1967.
"If a candidate says they're not going to raise your taxes, that is a buzzword for saying we'll let your school board and your county commission raise your taxes," he said.
All four governors agreed voters shouldn't expect either of the major gubernatorial candidates to talk about the necessity of raising taxes between now and the Nov. 5 election. That doesn't mean, though, that the next governor won't support a tax increase after the election.
"It's one thing to campaign but another to govern, but you can't govern if you don't get elected," said Hayden, who serves as secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "But that next day (after the election), you have to take that campaign hat off."
Avery, though, said it might be difficult for legislators and the next governor to support a tax increase because they were all well aware of the potential political consequences.
Avery said he was a perfect example. When he took office in 1965, the state faced a $50 million shortfall. Avery pushed through legislation raising taxes that ultimately created a $95 million budget surplus. Despite leading the state out of budget problems, he lost his re-election bid to Democrat Robert Docking.
"I did what I thought had to be done, and it worked for everyone but me," Avery said.
The roundtable was sponsored by KU Continuing Education and the Dole Institute of Politics. Event organizers estimated 400 people attended.
Former Gov. John Carlin was invited to participate in the event, but he was unable to attend.