In a flurry of statehouse drama rarely seen, Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the monumental tax bill Wednesday morning; within a couple hours the House overrode the veto, and that afternoon the Senate narrowly sustained the governor.
In the end Brownback had obstructed the will of legislative majorities and struck down the best legislative work Kansans have seen for many years. Two of every three state representatives and three of every five state senators voted to override the governor’s veto, falling short by only three votes in the Senate.
A bipartisan legislative coalition had crafted and passed a tax bill that responsibly addressed the billion-dollar financial crisis confronting state government. The bill would have:
• Ended Brownback’s failed tax experiment that exempted many businesses from income taxes and repealed the governor’s fantastical “glide path to zero” currently in state statutes.
• Revised income tax rates mostly upward and making them more progressive, that is, slightly higher rates for higher-income taxpayers. Tax rates in the bill would actually be lower for all income categories, compared with rates in place during the years 1992-2012.
• Restored balance and fairness in the overall tax structure, which would help reduce tax competition with other states and resist pressures to boost sales and property taxes.
• Filled in much of the deep financial hole left by the tax experiment.
The tax bill deserved a sustained, standing applause, not the governor’s veto. Many share credit for the Legislature’s quick, decisive action:
First, last August and November attentive Kansas voters elected state lawmakers dedicated to cleaning up the state’s financial mess. They chose 25 centrist Republicans and 15 Democrats in key races contested by far-right ideologues.
Second, House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, both of whom have been part of the problem for the last four years, correctly read the shifting political climate this year. Even though neither leader voted for the final bill or the override, they made correcting state finance the first order of business, allowed open and timely consideration of options and scheduled early action on the option with the widest support. The tax bill cleared the Legislature on the 29th day of the 90-day session.
Third, House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, and Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, stood up and spoke courageously on behalf of centrist Republicans who were willing to face the state’s grim fiscal reality and vote for increased taxes. Minority Leaders Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, deserve a hand as well for convincing their members to support a good bill rather than holding out for a perfect one.
Fourth, 85 house members and 24 senators — 60 Republicans and 49 Democrats — made fixing the state’s financial mess a higher priority than political maneuvering for their next elections.
But the governor remains mired in an ideological stew that has produced five years of unbalanced budgets, unfair tax increases and historic levels of new debt. Yet he continues to call for more of the same — more debt through one-time fixes and tax hikes on consumers.
Brownback fittingly announced his veto intention to his adoring patrons of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. A few businesses with deep pockets have spent millions over recent years through the chamber, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth to exempt themselves from state income taxes and hold on to that exemption. For now they have reasserted their stranglehold on the governor and a minority of right-wing legislators.
The governor’s obstruction assures a more contentious, protracted and likely chaotic legislative session. However, a fresh crew of legislative leaders and legislators have shown the resolve to tackle the state’s financial mess — either with or without the governor’s support. Speaker Ryckman and President Wagle, both of whom voted against the override, now bear primary responsibility for finding a resolution to the tax issue.
— H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.