Topeka — Plenty of Kansas legislators' fingerprints are on the aggressive income tax cuts signed into law this week by conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, including those of some GOP moderates now describing it as a budget crisis in the making.
But Brownback now owns the legislation, even though it strayed significantly from the tax plan he outlined in January and he and his allies sought less aggressive alternatives in the legislative session's final days. He not only signed the bill, but he pushed for the debate making it possible and ultimately embraced what passed.
He's likely to get most of the blame if critics turn out to be right that the state will need close massive budget shortfalls over the next six years. Conversely, he'll deserve most of the credit if the plan works as intended by giving the state economy a job-generating boost.
In signing the bill, Brownback invoked President Ronald Reagan, and his administration paid for advice from Arthur Laffer, a conservative economist and former Reagan adviser. Laffer came to the Statehouse in January, and many Republican conservatives already were converts to his position that states should eliminate income taxes to spur growth. The environment nurtured aggressive tax plans and dreams of ending state income taxes.
"The idea was, the faster to zero, the better," said Rep. Anthony Brown, a conservative Eudora Republican.
The bill Brownback signed is a long way from zero, but it cuts individual income tax rates significantly for 2013 and exempts the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes.
Coupled with a previously scheduled sales tax decrease, the income tax reductions will provide $231 million in tax relief during the fiscal year beginning July 1, with the annual figure growing to $934 million after six years.
The Legislature's research staff projected a budget shortfall would emerge by July 2014 and, if left unchecked, grow to $2.5 billion by July 2018. Because the state constitution prohibits a deficit, spending cuts would come in each of the next six years, with lawmakers going deeper into funding for public schools, social services and other programs.
But Brownback's administration has treated the projections as a political problem rather than a solid forecast of what the state faces. He and top aides have repeatedly described the legislative researchers' analysis as "static," predicting steady 4 percent growth in revenues, outside of the tax cuts. The administration thinks such a forecast is too pessimistic.
Their views led to mixed messages during the final two weeks of the Legislature's session, when the aggressive tax cuts passed but Brownback encouraged lawmakers to keep working on alternatives. He signaled early that he wasn't afraid to sign big tax cuts, though he preferred to phase them in what he called "an easier glide path."
Two days before the bill for aggressive tax cuts cleared the Legislature, Brownback told The Associated Press, "We've been reviewing it, and we think we can make it work."
The Senate's moderate GOP leaders described the bill Brownback signed as irresponsible, but it passed their chamber first in March.
It emerged because GOP senators wouldn't back off the core components of Brownback's plan, cutting individual income tax rates and the tax break for business owners. They also rejected proposals from Brownback to offset those cuts, such as eliminating an income tax credit for poor workers or keeping the sales tax at 6.3 percent instead of dropping it to 5.7 percent as planned in July 2013.
The Senate initially rejected the bill on a 20-20 vote. But after Brownback intervened, the chamber reversed course two hours later and approved it. GOP moderates said they wanted to keep tax legislation moving and had assurances the final package would be far different.
Democrats warned that GOP moderates were being set up.
Two weeks ago, when the Senate appeared ready to reject a compromise drafted by House and Senate negotiators, the conservative-led House passed the aggressive tax cuts, sending them to Brownback. Conservatives said they were pushing the Senate toward passing the negotiators' compromise, and Brownback helped his allies build pressure by promising repeatedly to sign the bill.
"The governor has gotten his way on the tax discussion," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. "He has choreographed this tax debate clear to the end."
The bill Brownback signed isn't exactly what he proposed. But just as every child inherits physical and personality traits from parents and even grandparents, this legislative baby is the governor's.