Clash over tax cuts coming in Kansas’ 2023 legislative session; also, abortion foes unsure how to proceed
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TOPEKA — Kansas’ recently reelected Democratic governor and Republican legislators are headed for a clash over how their financially flush state should cut taxes, and abortion opponents are wrestling with what ideas to pursue following last year’s decisive statewide vote favoring abortion rights.
Gov. Laura Kelly is scheduled to take the oath of office for her second four-year term in a ceremony at noon Monday. The Republican-controlled Legislature is set to convene in the afternoon for an annual session that’s expected to last into early May.
Both Kelly and leaders of the Republicans’ supermajorities in both chambers are making tax cuts a top priority, but they differ on what taxes to cut.
Besides abortion, almost a perennial issue for them, lawmakers expect to tackle education issues and water policy. Republicans also plan to pass another version of a bill to ban transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s college and K-12 sports, despite two past vetoes from Kelly.
Here is a look at key issues before Kansas lawmakers:
Abortion opponents are constrained by a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that abortion access is a “fundamental” right under the state constitution. GOP lawmakers pushed to amend the constitution to say it doesn’t grant a right to abortion — allowing lawmakers to ban it — but voters rejected the proposed change in August.
While key anti-abortion groups haven’t announced their plans, GOP lawmakers have floated several ideas, including an increase in the state’s minimal aid to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers or a largely symbolic law telling doctors they must do everything they can to prevent newborns from dying, even following a botched abortion.
Abortion opponents also are upset that abortion medications are becoming more accessible in Kansas. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently finalized a rule allowing more pharmacies to dispense the medications. In November a state court judge blocked enforcement of the state’s requirement that doctors providing the medication be in the same room when patients take it, allowing teleconferencing.
Kansas garnered national attention for slashing income taxes in 2012 and 2013 and the persistent budget shortfalls that followed. But now, more than five years after lawmakers repealed most of the experiment, the state is headed toward ending June 2024 with $4.2 billion in surplus cash.
Kelly last year pushed to eliminate the sales tax on groceries, but lawmakers instead phased it out over three years, so that it dropped to 4% from 6.5% at the start of this year and won’t disappear until 2025. The Democratic governor wants to zero out the tax as of April, but many Republicans are resisting.
Kelly also has proposed lower taxes on incomes in retirement, but many Republicans are more ambitious, with some wanting to eliminate it altogether.
And Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said he’d like to see Kansas move to a “flat” income tax, with one rate for all individual and corporate filers, instead of three for individuals and two for corporations. He argues that the simpler tax system would boost Kansas economically.
“I’m optimistic about a combination” that includes some version of what the governor has proposed, he said.
Conservative Republicans haven’t given up on proposals that they believe will make public K-12 schools more transparent and give parents more choices about where to educate their kids, despite Kelly’s veto last year of a “parents’ rights” measure. Critics, particularly Democratic lawmakers, see them as attacks on public schools.
GOP lawmakers expect again to pursue proposals that would require schools to post more information about what’s being taught online and to make it easier for parents to seek the removal of materials and books that they find objectionable from classrooms and libraries. It’s part of a push by Republicans across the U.S. to limit what’s taught about gender, sexuality and the role of racism in U.S. history and society.
While voters across the U.S. last year rejected candidates promoting baseless election conspiracies, tightening Kansas election laws remains a priority for many Republicans. They expect to pursue proposals to limit or eliminate ballot drop boxes and end the state’s three-day grace period for mail ballots to arrive after an election.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican who vouches for the integrity of Kansas elections and defeated an election conspiracy promoter in last year’s GOP primary, says he will have his own package of proposals to prevent voter intimidation and protect their privacy, though he hasn’t made specific proposals public.
Medicaid and marijuana
Kelly promised throughout her successful reelection campaign that she’d push again to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage to another 150,000 people, and she supports legalizing marijuana for medical uses.
Despite a perception that both ideas are widely popular among Kansas residents, neither appears likely to pass this year.
Kelly pushed Medicaid expansion throughout her first term and could put together working majorities for it in both chambers, but Republicans in key positions blocked it. Both Masterson and new Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, are vocal foes, as are the chairs of the chambers’ health committees.
As for medical marijuana, a measure passed the House in 2021. But it didn’t get even a committee vote in the Senate, where top GOP leaders are wary of such a law leading to pot’s legalization for recreational use.