When a coalition of chambers of commerce sent a letter to top state officials saying they could accept a tax increase to protect core public services such as schools and roads, one chamber was noticeably absent: Lawrence.
After all, there are few places in Kansas that haven’t felt the sting of recent budget cuts more than Lawrence, a city linked to state funding through the state’s flagship institute, Kansas University, as well as through social services, public schools, highways and many other areas.
But the tax discussion isn’t over, according to Tom Kern, president and chief executive officer of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
Kern said the question of whether the chamber should support a tax increase continues to be debated.
“We’ve heard opinions on both sides,” Kern said. He said the chamber’s officers’ committee would consider the subject during a meeting on April 28, which happens to be the first day of the wrap-up session for the Kansas Legislature.
The state has cut nearly $1 billion from what was once a $6.4 billion budget, and still faces an estimated $500 million revenue shortfall, which must be addressed during the wrap-up.
In March, a coalition of local chambers of commerce sent a letter to Gov. Mark Parkinson and legislative leaders. The letter said relying only on further budget cuts would harm basic services that provide the quality of life that helps economic development.
“If revenue must be enhanced for basic government services, our chambers can support rational state revenue enhancements,” the letter said.
But even though the Lawrence chamber is a member of that coalition of local chambers, it did not join in signing the letter.
The question of whether to sign was discussed at two meetings of the Lawrence chamber’s government and community affairs committee, Kern said.
The committee membership represents a wide cross-section of business interests. Both times the committee rejected signing onto the letter. Some members said they were uncomfortable with the letter because it didn’t say which taxes should be increased, Kern said.
But the other 14 local chambers, which have become known as the “Gang of 14” went ahead and voiced their opinion. Many of the 14 are home to institutions of higher education.
The action was in direct conflict with the statewide Kansas Chamber, which opposes any tax increase. The state chamber’s interim president, Kent Beisner, issued a news release rebuking the locals.
Beisner said the Kansas Chamber has heard from many business owners who feel they were “thrown under the bus” by the positions of the local chambers.
Kern said the statewide chamber’s reaction was unfortunate. “I’m hopeful we can create an environment where we can respectfully disagree with each other,” he said. The Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, one of the 14, has since suspended its membership with the statewide chamber.
The coalition of local chambers started meeting in October, Kern said, to provide “another voice” when it came to statewide issues.
He said the coalition drew up a list of priorities that it wants to focus on, which includes transportation, higher education, public schools, economic incentives for businesses and the state tax code.
In working on these issues, Kern said, sometimes the coalition will be in agreement with the statewide chamber and sometimes it won’t.
The chambers that signed the tax-increase letter were Arkansas City, Dodge City, Emporia Area, Grant County, Greater Kansas City, Greater Topeka, Hutchinson-Reno County, Hays Area, Kansas City, Kan., Manhattan Area, Northeast Johnson County, Olathe, Overland Park and Salina Area.