Conservative Republicans, some of whom voted for sweeping tax cuts in 2012 or defended them in the years since, parted ways with Gov. Sam Brownback on tax policy Tuesday — at least long enough to side with moderates and Democrats in overriding his veto of a $1.2 billion tax increase.
The law to increase taxes over the next two years comes as legislators seek to close a projected $900 million budget gap for that same period and bolster funding for K-12 schools under a Kansas Supreme Court order.
“It’s a huge vote,” said Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican and chairman of the House tax panel, adding that legislative leadership had explored many routes to find a tax solution that would gain sufficient support in both chambers. “It’s a huge vote for looking for an option for Kansas among limited options.”
Passage of Senate Bill 30 with two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate brings to an end signature tax policies of the Brownback administration. Most of those policies were part of a 2012 law that exempted owners of more than 300,000 small businesses and became a political flashpoint in recent elections.
At 109 days on Tuesday and counting, this year’s legislative session is now just five days from the longest, in 2015. With a tax plan complete and new school finance formula sent to the governor, the Legislature still must agree on the state budget.
Floor debates on taxes ran late into Tuesday evening, but in the end, 27 senators and 88 representatives rendered Brownback’s veto — which had been handed down just hours earlier — irrelevant.
— Sam Brownback (@govsambrownback) June 6, 2017
It was the second time this session the governor sought to block legislation that would unravel 2012 tax reforms and raise revenue through a three-bracket income tax structure. The first time, in February, lawmakers fell three votes short in the Senate of pushing past his opposition.
The veto nearly survived this time, too: Though the House exceeded the override threshold by four votes, the Senate results came in at exactly the minimum needed.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman was among those supporting the override and brought several conservative Republicans with him.
The 88 yes votes included Republican Rep. Dan Hawkins of Wichita.
“When our speaker hit green right away, he was trying to send a message to this whole body that he’s leading, come on and get it done. I couldn’t let him do it alone,” Hawkins said.
Ryckman didn’t speak to reporters after the vote, but some of the people he brought on board, like Hawkins, are conservatives who do not like the idea of a tax increase.
“I look at this as bittersweet. I don’t like the bill. I hate the bill, but we have to move forward as a state,” Hawkins said.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, described feeling tremendous relief, and said she believes many Kansans will share that sensation.
“Now we have a source of money. Then we can work our way out of the hole that we’re in,” she said. “It’s almost like you can breathe.”
Mopping it up
Senate leadership split on the vote, with Vice President Jeff Longbine and Majority Leader Jim Denning supporting the override and laying out their reasoning on the floor. Senate President Susan Wagle, without comment, voted no.
Denning said lawmakers had known since May 2014 that the tax cuts were leading to fiscal woes and not playing out as intended. He said while he voted for the 2012 changes, he believes in cleaning up one’s messes in life and planned to cast his vote accordingly.
“I’m going to mop it up,” he said.
Conservative Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha, drew on the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty in his appeal that colleagues uphold the veto. He suggested some lawmakers might think Brownback is like the main character in that poem, but it is in fact the spend-happy legislators who are shattered.
“They continue to want more and more,” he said. “They want to interfere in people’s lives.”
Pyle accused Wagle of seeking to block a filibuster through procedure — a claim that she rebuffed — and Sen. Gene Suellentrop urged lawmakers to pass on voting until she voted first.
Her last name means she comes second to last on the chamber’s alphabetical roll.
“I want to know where our Senate president, our leader, what her position is, before I vote,” Suellentrop said, though when it came time, other lawmakers followed alphabetical order.
Three-tier tax plan
The tax plan sets three income tax tiers: 3.1 percent, 5.25 percent and 5.7 percent. Kansas currently has two rates, 2.6 percent and 4.6 percent, for tax year 2018.
Much of the impassioned debate in the Senate came from conservative opponents of the bill, while many moderate Republicans and Democrats sat silent. Those who rose to comment rejected conservative’s claims that increasing taxes defies common sense.
“From our side of the aisle, that tax plan didn’t receive a single vote,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said of the 2012 cuts, adding that Democrats had foreseen repercussions for the state’s financial health.
Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, said Kansas had been riding “the crazy train” and was long overdue for a solution.
Some lawmakers expressed hope after Tuesday night that the Legislature could finish its work in Topeka this week. However, critics of the school finance bill that passed Monday have speculated the Kansas Supreme Court will likely strike down that legislation, sending lawmakers back to the drawing board, potentially necessitating a special legislative session later this summer.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.
Kansas Public Radio Statehouse reporter Stephen Koranda contributed to this story.