Undoubtedly many informed Kansans were upset by events in the Kansas Capitol last week.
Deliberating at nearly the speed of prairie lightning the Kansas House and Senate had considered and passed, by nearly veto-proof margins, tax legislation that made progress toward resolving the structural deficit that has disordered the state’s finances for the past four years.
They accomplished this in a little over four weeks – laying it on the governor’s desk just in time for him to pan the effort before a friendly Kansas Chamber of Commerce audience. There he gave progressives the raspberry for even thinking he would deny his signature program, added a little tease (“I will not sign this bill”) that suggested it might become law without his signature, and then threw the work of moderate Republican and Democratic legislators (House Bill 2178) into the ash bin with an early-morning veto on Feb. 21 — 29 days into the session.
Should Brownback opponents despair? Partisan leaders in both the Kansas House and Senate have shown themselves able “to give peace a chance.” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., and less enthusiastically, Senate President Susan Wagle, appear intent upon resolving the tax problem with bipartisan support. Indeed they must try again and perhaps embrace a better product. There is no alternative to finding a structural fix to the fiscal crisis confronting Kansas, and HB2178, good as it was, still came up short of a complete solution.
Without the return of the tax on LLC pass-through profits and reinstatement of a third income tax bracket Kansas has no humane and effective means of covering the ongoing and rising disparity between revenue and expected state spending. In the coming fiscal year the gap may reach a half-billion dollars and go on climbing given existing spending commitments and the state’s predicted economic and demographic trends.
HB2178 gets the problem about half fixed, which still means that an additional $350-450 million in cuts or revenue have to be found for the years after Fiscal 2018. The governor’s proposals for increased consumption taxes, more one-time cash roundups, deferring pension obligations and another daylight robbery of the Kansas Bank of KDOT have been scorned by progressives and conservatives alike.
The House mustered a veto override majority in response to the governor’s veto. As the Senate override failed, Wagle remained above the fray, expressing hope for significant spending reductions in the state budget to reduce the need for increased revenue. In the past Wagle has demonstrated pragmatism. If she aspires to higher office in 2018, she’ll have to show effective bargaining skills. She can start by holding a majority of moderate Senate Republicans, retaining needed Democrats and persuading three or four more conservatives for a veto override majority on an effective, durable revenue solution.
Slashing spending alone is fantasy given rising needs of an aging population, little expansion in the earning workforce, low but economically unstoppable inflation and the necessity to repay what has been “borrowed” to cover the financial shortfalls of the last four years. Cooperation between the moderates, progressives and realist conservatives negotiating serious, meaningful and effective fixes to things like KPERS, the “suitable provision for finance” in K-12 education, and an adequate health care support system focusing on the needs of poor families with minor children and the disabled must be accomplished and will require leadership.
If Kansans really wanted to get on the Brownback “glidepath to zero” program they would not have dumped all those conservatives and backed all those moderates and Democrats in the last election cycle. If Wagle wants the next job, she’ll need to put daylight between herself and the governor, make the bargain of a lifetime with 27 members of the Kansas Senate and show Kansans generally that she is the leader they need.
— Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.