The motto of the Kansas Legislature ought to be “A Day Late and a Dollar Short.”
Yes, it is too charitable. If the state were only a dollar short, lawmakers likely could solve that problem with a mere two or three weeks of debate and finger pointing. But, of course, the state is about a billion dollars short.
On Friday, the Legislature again proved that it often is many days late as well.
In case you missed it, the Kansas House — out of the blue — gave preliminary approval to a bill that would charge sales taxes on a small list of services. State law generally doesn’t charge a sales tax on services, so adding a sales tax is a relatively big deal.
Importantly, the same bill also would reduce the sales tax on groceries by a penny per every dollar spent, beginning in 2020. That part of the bill appears to be pretty popular. It passed the House on a vote of 117-3.
The measures may have some merits. Reducing the sales tax on food could certainly help many families across the state. The idea that a sales tax could be charged on a service also is a reasonable discussion to have, especially given the state’s budget shortfall.
But in a sign of the times at the Kansas Statehouse, even when lawmakers have a reasonable idea they make sure to foul it up in some regard. In this case, this issue was timing. There was no advance warning that legislators were intending to debate a major change in state tax policy. Lawmakers were scheduled to discuss a rather mundane issue related to sales tax authority in Marion County. Then the amendments began to be added to that Marion County bill.
The list of service business that may be required to charge sales taxes is small. Among them: towing firms, commercial cleaning services, pet day cares, detective and security services, mini-storage services and collection agencies.
Lawmakers ought to take some pride in the principle of good government. These industries deserved more notice than they received about these potential changes. The Legislature has been in session since January. Lawmakers have done exceedingly little this legislative session. If there are 117 members of the House that think the sales tax on groceries should be reduced, why couldn’t that topic have received serious discussion much earlier in the session? As part of that discussion, lawmakers could have reviewed — had hearings even – on a list of services that could become subject to sales taxes. Proponents and opponents of the proposals would have had time to make their cases.
Granted, the legislative process will never be perfect. Last-minute bills and ideas are going to emerge as a part of compromise and deal-making. But too often, that is not why the Kansas Legislature acts as it does. It delays discussions and then rushes through them because there is a lack of political courage. Political courage is the largest deficit Kansas faces. Lawmakers don’t want to go on the record before they have to, out of fear their positions will be used against them. Think of the horror of having to defend your position.
While the timing is not perfect, lawmakers should have a serious discussion about trading the grocery sales tax for new sales taxes on a variety of services. It likely won’t fix the state’s budget deficit, but it could bring some needed fairness to the state’s tax system.