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Analysis: Kan. GOP pushed tax plan as old business

John Hanna, AP Political Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Gov. Sam Brownback and his Republican allies pushed new revenue-raising proposals through the Kansas Legislature this year by portraying them as unfinished business from the massive personal income tax cuts approved last year.

This year's plan will have Kansas collectively paying $777 million more in sales and income taxes over the next five years than if lawmakers had left tax laws alone. That made the plan — and others with similar revenue-raising measures — a tough sell in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

But Brownback and his allies sold the plan by arguing that its revenue-raising measures should have passed last year as part of a package that cut individual income taxes. Now, supporters said, the state needed additional dollars to make tax cuts work without sacrificing education funding and spending on core government programs.

The governor's team also pointed out that last year's tax cuts are worth more than $4.6 billion over the next five years. They argued that Kansans won't mind a little retrenching to stabilize the budget and sweetened the deal with further cuts in income tax rates.

"Tax reform isn't just a snapshot of one year," said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican who serves on the House Taxation Committee. "This is a work in progress."

Brownback and other Republicans still tout last year's tax-cutting measure as landmark legislation to make the state more economically competitive and generate jobs. The state cut individual income tax rates, boosted the standard deduction for married couples and single parents and exempted the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses from income taxes.

But without a package of offsets proposed by Brownback, last year's aggressive tax-cutting left the state with projected budget shortfalls into the future. Among other things, Brownback last year proposed keeping the sales tax at its current rate of 6.3 percent, rather than letting it drop this July to 5.7 percent. The decline was promised by a 2010 law that temporarily boosted the tax to balance the budget before Brownback took office.

Last year's tax bill emerged from legislative infighting among Republicans that had GOP conservatives pushing through a plan they acknowledged was too aggressive to avoid getting nothing at all.

This year's tax bill sets the sales tax at 6.15 percent in July, decreases income tax deductions over time and makes standard deductions less generous. It also cuts the state's top personal income tax rate to 3.9 percent for 2018, from 4.9 percent, and promises future reductions in following years when revenues grow more than 2 percent.

Several freshman GOP House members said during debates week that this year's proposals tried to fix the mistake the Legislature made last year in passing an incomplete tax package. Other Republicans said Kansas would still be positioned to phase out personal income taxes.

Still, five GOP senators and 19 House Republicans voted against the final tax plan this year, joining Democrats in opposing the measure.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Hiawatha Republican, scoffed at the notion that legislators should consider anything more than the fiscal year starting in July in assessing this year's tax bill. The measure is projected to boost state revenues $308 million during that year.

"If you define all of the property to the west of the Arizona border as beach-front, you can buy some property in Arizona that's ocean-front," Pyle said. "Don't buy it."

Democratic leaders weren't involved in the negotiations between Brownback and top Republican legislators that led to the final tax plan. Democrats described last year's tax cuts as reckless and have criticized the GOP's efforts to shift the burden of funding state government mostly to the sales tax as unfair to poor and middle-class families.

In the final hours of the session, they tested potential campaign themes, too. Democrats argued that Brownback and his allies were passing a massive, unfair tax increase that still won't produce enough revenue long-term to keep the budget balanced after mid-2018.

"It's a road map to unsustainable tax policy," said Rep. Julie Menghini, a Pittsburg Democrat.

Brownback said during a Saturday night news conference that this year's "fabulous package" is part of larger efforts to make Kansas the best place for raising a family and starting a business. He said the plan should be viewed in the context of what happened last year and the benefits to the state's economy lasting longer than five years.

His allies picked up on those themes in pushing this year's bill to passage.

"This is merely an extension of the process last year," Kleeb told his colleagues during the last debate. "I'm not going to go home and have any trouble trying to defend that."


Political Writer John Hanna has covered Kansas politics and government since 1987. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna