2013 Preview: Conservative charge looming in next session of Kansas Legislature

? When the 2013 Kansas Legislature begins work Jan. 14, buckle your seatbelts. Gov. Sam Brownback will be leading a conservative charge, guiding a House and Senate chamber that he campaigned to make in his image.

The partisan makeup of the Legislature remains at 92 Republicans over 33 Democrats in the House, and 32 Republicans over 8 Democrats in the Senate. But it’s the players within the Republican majorities that will make the difference.

Brownback, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the billionaire Koch brothers and advocacy group Americans for Prosperity teamed up to replace eight moderate Republicans in the Senate with eight conservative Republicans, which put conservatives in firm control of the upper chamber under new Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

The House, already in conservative hands, has 50 new members, many of them tea party Republicans, some of whom have gone so far as to voice support for legislation to authorize state and local law enforcement to arrest federal officials attempting to implement the Affordable Care Act.

The outgoing House speaker — Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson — is moving across the street to become chief executive of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, and the incoming speaker — Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell — serves on the board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, and is state chairman for that group.

It is difficult to imagine a greater consolidation of state government under one political philosophy.

In a recent forum, longtime Kansas political observer Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University, said, “The governor is going to be able to push through his legislative agenda in a very meaningful way. We are going to see a very strong pendulum swing to the right.”

Not that Brownback has had much trouble before in achieving his agenda.

In 2012, he pushed and threatened and followed through with his threats, and signed into law the state’s most radical change of tax policy, calling it a shot of adrenaline in the heart of the Kansas economy. Nearly 200,000 business owners will no longer pay state income taxes, while the top rate will drop from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent, and the standard deduction available to married couples and heads of household will increase.

Brownback said the legislation “will create tens of thousands of new jobs and help make Kansas the best place in America to start and grow a small business.”

The Brownback tax cuts also got rid of some tax credits aimed at helping low-income Kansans, such as the tax credit to offset sales tax paid on groceries, an adoption tax credit and child care tax credits. In addition, renters will no longer qualify for a low-income property tax credit.

As predicted, the cuts are producing seismic quakes in a state budget that had already been cut repeatedly during the recession. Legislative researchers have estimated the Brownback tax cuts will produce budget shortfalls of $2.5 billion over six years.

Revenue for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is projected to total $5.464 billion, which is $705 million less than the current fiscal year revenue estimates. That decrease will eat up the state’s current balances and still produce a nearly $300 million budget shortfall that legislators will have to start dealing with as soon as they return to work.

Given that the current state budget weighs in at less than $6.2 billion per year, that means significant cuts, tax increases, or a combination will be needed to reach a balanced budget.

“A $705 million drop in revenue is only the beginning,” said Terry Forsyth, president of the Working Kansas Alliance. “The magical growth model that the governor talks about only exists for the wealthiest Kansans who benefit from his tax plan. For working families and Kansans who are fighting to get into the middle class, we get deep cuts to essential services and higher property taxes.”

Brownback has promised to protect education, Medicaid and public safety funding, but Budget Director Steve Anderson has asked agencies to propose cuts of 10 percent in their budget submissions.

In addition, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and some conservative legislators are clamoring for more spending and tax cuts. The Chamber has endorsed keeping the 6.3 percent state sales tax, which was to fall back to 5.7 percent on July 1, and using that revenue to reduce the income tax further.

Democrats, who voted for the temporary sales tax increase in 2010, have said they oppose making the increase permanent. The problem for them is that the moderate Republican-Democratic majority that existed then is now history.

The Kansas Chamber also wants to take another crack at changing the public pension system into a 401(k)-style plan for new teachers and government workers.

And Brownback and conservative groups are pushing for changes that would give the governor more power in appointing appeals court judges.

Meanwhile, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has taken his lawyer skills across the country to fight for tougher laws against undocumented workers, will be helping legislators in Kansas push for those measures. Kobach also wants the Legislature to approve granting his office prosecutorial authority in alleged voter fraud cases.

And on another front, most political observers believer a bill called the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act will pass. Supporters say it will protect religious rights, but opponents say it can be used to discriminate against gays. Last session, the House approved the bill, but Senate leaders, who have since been defeated, wouldn’t consider the bill.