GOP: Failure of Kansas tax bill may mean spending cuts, smaller school funding plan

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

? The Kansas Senate’s failure to pass a $1 billion tax package this week reverberated on both sides of the Statehouse Thursday as Republican leaders began talking about working on a smaller school finance package and possible spending cuts in other areas of the state budget.

“I made it very clear that I thought we should have cleared the tax policy yesterday because that would have structurally balanced the budget,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said. “We would have had two items off the table — that being the budget and tax — in one fell swoop. The body did not agree with me, it failed, and so now we have three major items in play. The budget is now in play.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House committee working on a new school funding formula suggested Thursday that they may pare back the size of that plan before sending it on to the full House, which may happen Friday.

“No matter what I do want or expect, I can’t make the Senate pass a tax increase. I just can’t do it,” Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, said at the end of the committee’s meeting Thursday.

The tax bill failed in the Senate Wednesday, 18-22, when the majority of Democrats refused to support it, arguing that it wasn’t big enough to balance the budget and pay for a school funding increase.

They have been holding out on supporting any tax plan until the Legislature first passes a new school funding formula.

The House committee has been working on a new funding formula since the session began in January. In early April, the panel agreed on the basic framework of a plan that would phase in a $750 million per-year increase in five $150 million increments. That would be on top of the roughly $3 billion a year the state currently spends from its general fund for K-12 education.

The committee has met every day this week, voting on dozens of amendments to that bill, most of which dealt with different aspects of education policy, not the core amount of money that would go into it. On Thursday, though, some Republicans said they may want to revisit the amount of money they want to put in the bill.

“So far we’ve not been able to raise the revenue for it,” committee chairman Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, said after the meeting. “That’s what our job is, to stay within our means and raise as much as we can and adequately fund schools.”

Some lawmakers had talked earlier in the session about putting into the bill tax increases that would be specifically for K-12 education. But the committee balked at that suggestion last week, with the majority of members saying they did not want to tackle the job of writing a new formula and coming up with tax proposals to pay for it at the same time.

Campbell said he hopes to send the bill to the full House on Friday after considering at least two more proposed, somewhat technical, amendments. But he said he cannot control what other amendments some members may want to offer.

In a series of close votes this week, the panel has split 9-8 in favor of amendments being offered by conservatives.

The idea of reopening discussion on the amount of new funding the bill would provide, however, appeared to catch Democrats and moderate Republicans by surprise.

“I just think it’s extremely important that on the last day of this hearing possibly, we’re suddenly changing the amount of money that we may or may not have available,” Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, said. “I’m kind of flabbergasted … I think this room would be packed tomorrow with people telling us exactly what they think about cutting back from the funding that goes to public education.”

As for the Senate, Denning said he plans to start working on a smaller tax bill that would leave the state’s existing two-bracket income tax system in place, and which he said Brownback would not veto.

“He has always been more favorable to a two-tier (plan),” Denning said. “He says if we can bring a two-tier (plan), he will let that become law. Three, he says that he will veto.”

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, however, said he doesn’t think that kind of bill can pass the Legislature.

“I’d be very surprised if that got 21 votes (needed to pass the Senate), and I think it would face some pretty rough sledding in the House,” Hensley said. “A two-tiered tax plan is just going in the opposite direction of where we need to go. It won’t raise a sufficient amount of revenue we need to balance our budget into the future and fund a school finance plan.”