Wagle discusses 2015 session, role of lobbyists, during Dole Institute talk

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, discusses the 2015 legislative session during an appearance at the Dole Institute of Politics on the Kansas University campus.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle said lawmakers had known since 2012 that the massive tax cuts enacted that year eventually would have to be fixed.

But speaking to an audience at the Dole Institute of Politics on the Kansas University campus Tuesday, Wagle said the financial crisis the state encountered this year was deeper than leaders predicted. That, combined with an unusually large number of freshman legislators in the House, made the 2015 session especially difficult.

“This year, because of the tremendous shortfall, and because the economy hasn’t taken like we had hoped it would, we had to debate tax policy,” Wagle said. “And there’s no more difficult of an issue for a legislator to work on than taxes.”

Wagle, R-Wichita, is serving her fourth term in the Senate. She is the first woman to hold a top leadership position in either chamber. She previously served 10 years in the Kansas House where, in 1994, she became the first woman ever chosen as Speaker Pro Tem, one of the top three leadership positions in the House.

Her appearance at the Dole Institute was part of a series of programs focusing on the role and influence of lobbyists at both the state and national levels. But much of the discussion focused on the just-ended 2015 session, which lasted a record-breaking 113 days, largely owing to disagreements over how to fill a projected $400 million budget shortfall.

Wagle traced the origin of this year’s difficulties to that 2012 tax bill, which dramatically lowered income tax rates, eliminating the top marginal bracket altogether and exempting more than 330,000 business owners from paying any income tax on their non-wage business income.

Both supporters and critics of that action called it one of the most daring and ambitious — not to mention dangerous — tax plans any state had enacted in modern times, and it immediately thrust Kansas into the national spotlight as a laboratory test for “supply side economics.”

But Wagle said the law enacted in 2012 was even more ambitious than Republican Gov. Sam Brownback had wanted.

“The governor signed a bill that wasn’t the bill he introduced, and that legislators thought we’d have a chance to conference on and resolve our differences,” Wagle said, recalling the 2012 session. “The governor was having a struggle getting the bill he wanted through the Legislature. And he chose to sign a bill that really slashed income taxes, but was not funded. We knew that we’d have to come back and fix it.”

The pressure to fix the tax bill mounted this year when new revenue estimates in November showed the state facing a roughly $800 million shortfall. Brownback proposed filling about half of that with transfers of money out of the state highway fund and other programs to shore up the general fund, but that still left lawmakers with another $400 million gap to fill.

Wagle said the process this year was made even more difficult by the fact that legislative districts were redrawn in 2012, and many veteran lawmakers lost their seats when they were pitted against other incumbents in Republican primaries.

“One of the limits we faced this year was the fact that we had a House with a lot of freshman members,” she said.

Lawmakers finally adjourned June 12 after passing a tax bill that fell about $50 million short of what was needed to fully fund the budget and leave the state with a small cushion of cash when the fiscal year ends in June 2016.