Editorial: Unnecessary risk on taxes
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Republican legislators are playing a dangerous game with state tax funding given some of the crises the state faces.
Last week, lawmakers advanced out of committee a tax relief bill designed to prevent the state from collecting new tax revenue because of changes in federal tax law that simplified the tax code, increased standard deductions and discouraged individual taxpayers from itemizing. Under existing Kansas law, Kansas taxpayers can’t itemize if they didn’t itemize on their federal returns.
Estimates are the bill could cost the state $192 million in tax revenue.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly opposes revising tax policies until the state knows it has enough funding to meet its financial obligations, first and foremost increased funding for public education. Kansas remains under a court order to provide adequate funding for K-12 education during the current legislative session, and Kelly’s plan is to phase in $364 million in additional money for public schools over four years. Legislative researchers estimate the state can’t implement Republicans’ tax reform and fund Kelly’s public school plan.
And K-12 education is not the only area of pressing need. Higher education has suffered years of cuts and is seeking to have funding restored to levels in place before emergency cuts were implemented in 2016. Transportation funding has suffered from years of legislators using funds set aside for transportation elsewhere.
Roger Werholtz, the interim secretary of corrections, has said the state’s prisons face a crisis far worse than legislators had previously known, because of crowding and a lack of personnel. The state has expanded the practice of double bunking — putting two inmates in a cell meant for one — and simultaneously collapsed guard posts because of a lack of personnel. Werholtz released photos that showed serious injuries to inmates and extensive damage from what Werholtz said were two riots at the state prison in El Dorado. Previously, the state has acknowledged only that there were “incidents” at El Dorado.
“I think we’re all thankful that we now have a much clearer picture of what’s really going on,” Republican House committee Chairman Russ Jennings said after being briefed by Werholtz. “The whole story wasn’t told.”
As of last week, the state had 100 more inmates than it had capacity to house, even with double bunking. Kelly has proposed help — her budget includes $3 million in new funding to help prisons fill vacant positions — but it isn’t clear those funds will be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
It hasn’t even been two years since legislators from both sides of the aisle worked together to reverse the disastrous tax policies implemented during Sam Brownback’s tenure as governor. The state is still recovering from that era, yet Republicans are already eager to go back.
They’re playing with fire. Before revising the state’s tax policies yet again, lawmakers should make sure the state has the funds necessary to fix its schools, highways and prisons.