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Lawmakers head into 'turnaround week' while waiting for Brownback tax decision

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Kansas lawmakers have a big question hanging over their heads as they head toward the midpoint of the session, known as "turnaround" day. The question is, what will Gov. Sam Brownback do with the $1 billion tax bill they just sent him that would reverse many of the signature tax cuts he championed in 2012?

So far, Brownback has said only that he won't sign the bill into law, but that leaves two other options: vetoing the bill, or letting it become law without his signature.

The bill came close to getting the two-thirds majority needed on a preliminary vote in the House on Wednesday last week, but a number of those peeled off on final action the next day, when it passed, 76-48. It takes 84 votes in the House to override a veto.

Still, there is some belief in the House that it could pick up votes on a veto override, if only because House members are ready to move on to other issues — passing a new school finance formula being chief among them — and they don't want to take any more tax-increasing votes than they absolutely have to.

It's a different story on the Senate side where the tax bill only got 22 votes — one more than the minimum needed for passage, but five short of the two-thirds needed for a veto override. Some of those yes votes came with a good deal of reluctance, and a veto could be seen as an opportunity to go back to the bargaining table and work something out with the governor's office.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, however, has laid down a challenge. If Brownback does opt to veto the bill, the onus will be on him to come up with a budget plan for the next two years that doesn't rely on delayed payments to schools or the state pension system, or other kinds of one-time money. And with a looming Kansas Supreme Court decision on school finance hanging over everyone's heads, cutting K-12 education — which is half the state budget — is probably off the table as well.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen when, or even if, Brownback will have to concede that one of the hallmarks of his tax policy cannot be salvaged in this environment. That's the so-called LLC "loophole" that allows more than 330,000 farmers and business owners to pay no state income tax at all on their nonwage business income.

That costs the state treasury an estimated $230 million a year by itself, a sizeable sum to be sure, but far short of what is needed to balance the state's budget over the next two years without significant spending cuts.

The tax bill was just passed by the Senate on Friday, and it usually takes at least a few days for the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate to produce the official copy that goes to the governor, with signatures from the House Speaker and Senate President. Once it lands on his desk, the clock starts ticking and Brownback will have 10 days to make a decision one way or the other.

In the meantime, lawmakers will not be sitting idly by waiting for that decision. Monday starts the beginning of "turnaround week," when the House and Senate spend the majority of their time working bills on the floor of each chamber until Thursday, which is the deadline for each chamber to pass most of their own bills.

That deadline applies to all bills except those that have been in an "exempt" committee, which are mainly the budget and tax committees, and Federal and State Affairs.

There is a process that each chamber's leadership uses to get around that deadline known as the "blessing" of bills that are high priority, but which still need more time. It's the kind of process that usually makes people's eyes glaze over when it's explained, but it involves removing a bill from a committee and referring it to an exempt committee for a day or so, then referring it back to the original committee. Once a bill has touched an exempt committee, even if only for a few hours, it's considered "blessed" and therefore exempt from the deadline.

The order in which bills come up for debate on the calendar is entirely at the discretion of leadership, so it's nearly impossible to know more than a day in advance which bills are coming up.

On Monday, though, the House takes up a few interesting bills, including one creating a new business category known as "public benefit corporations," which are for-profit businesses that include as part of their business plans some kind of public benefit, such as environmental sustainability or some kind of social justice issue. Presumably, that could shield such businesses from shareholder lawsuits if they pursue activities that aren't necessarily in line with maximizing stock value.

Another bill dealing with bicycle safety could generate some debate. It would require cyclists riding at night to have either a red reflector that's visible from a certain distance or a red lamp that is also visible from a distance. Current law requires both, as well as a front light. Law enforcement officials have expressed concern that when a cyclist who has only one rear device gets struck by a vehicle from behind, the vehicle driver can use as a defense the fact that the cyclist wasn't in compliance with the two-device law.

Another bill would clarify a procedure about advance voting to make sure that a ballot would still be counted if it is mailed and postmarked before Election Day but doesn't arrive at the county election office until after polls closed. Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said that has been an issue in many counties, including Shawnee County which recently lost its central mail distribution center. As a result of that, mail sent and received within the city could take a number of days to arrive because it is now routed through Kansas City, Mo., for processing.

The Senate's debate calendar for Monday was not officially posted as of Sunday afternoon.

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