Topeka — The two candidates for governor in Kansas reignited an age-old semantic debate over what constitutes a “tax increase.”
In June, Democrat Paul Davis proposed freezing income tax rates in 2015, the year he would take office if he wins the race, and preventing any further scheduled tax cuts from taking effect, at least until state funding for K-12 education returns to its pre-recession level.
Friday, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's campaign released a statement saying that amounts to a tax increase on low-income Kansans making less than $10,000 a year, and a tax break for married couples making more than $200,000 a year.
“It is appalling that the one and only economic vision that Paul Davis has articulated is a 17 percent tax increase on the poorest Kansans,” Brownback's spokesman John Milburn said in a news release. “The effect of this so-called economic plan would be to make it harder for struggling Kansans to make ends meet and provide for their families. Kansans should be outraged.”
The Davis campaign quickly fired back.
“Unlike the Brownback experiment, the Davis proposal does not raise tax rates on a single Kansan,” Davis said in a statement issued 10 minutes later.
At issue are two major tax bills that passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, at Brownback's urging, in 2012 and 2013. Those bills phase in a series of income tax cuts through tax year 2018. The latter bill also included what legislators called a “haircut” to the itemized deductions allowed under previous law.
Milburn cited a memo written Aug. 15 by Chris Courtwright, principal economist for the Legislature's non-partisan Research Department. The memo was in response to a request from Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, who asked for an analysis of Davis' tax proposal.
Although Courtwright cautioned that Davis has not proposed a formal bill, and everything known about his tax proposal comes from a press release, he concludes that, “this would result in a net tax increase of $20.5 million in (fiscal year) 2016; and a cumulative tax increase of $735.0 million by the end of FY 2019.”
The memo also included tables showing that, as the law stands now, a single individual making $10,000 a year would pay $128.25 in tax year 2015. But that is scheduled to go down to $114 in 2016, and $109.25 in 2017.
At the other end of the scale, the changes to itemized deductions under existing law mean that a married couple making over $200,000 a year would see their tax bill go up by $2 in 2016 and by another $64 in 2017, bringing their tax bill to $7,383 – an increase of less than 1 percent over the 2015 amount. But by preventing those changes from taking effect, Brownback says Davis' plan amounts to a tax cut for those couples because would pay less than they otherwise would.
But Davis argues they are not tax hikes for the poor, or tax cuts for the wealthy, because the amount of tax those people would pay would remain unchanged from 2015. He also said Brownback's tax cuts are putting the state in financial jeopardy, which could force further cuts to education and other state services in future years.
Earlier this month, the Research Department issued a report this month that with the tax cuts scheduled to take effect, the state faces a budget shortfall of $238 million by the end of fiscal year 2016.