Doubts grow about tax plan passing to fix Kansas budget

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2015 10:19 PM
Doubts grow about tax plan passing to fix Kansas budget

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Doubts grew among Kansas legislators Tuesday about whether they can approve tax increases necessary to balance the state budget without deep spending cuts that could lead to more-crowded classrooms and even layoffs of prison guards.

Three Senate and three House negotiators canceled a second consecutive day of public talks on tax issues. The Republican-dominated Senate approved a bill Sunday that would raise sales and cigarette taxes to help raise $423 million during the fiscal year beginning July 1, but members of the GOP-controlled House doubt it can pass their chamber.

"I hope we get something done, but I'm losing hope," said Republican Sen. Les Donovan, of Wichita, his chamber's lead negotiator on tax issues.

The state's budget problems arose after legislators slashed income taxes at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging in what he described as a nationally watched experiment in stimulating economic growth. He and many Republican legislators want to preserve those tax policies as much as possible, but they have shown no appetite for cutting spending enough to avoid raising taxes.

Legislators have approved a budget, but it doesn't balance. Because the Kansas Constitution requires a balanced budget, Brownback's budget director has told lawmakers that if they don't pass tax increases, the governor's most likely response will be to cut $400 million from the spending blueprint.

With Republicans disagreeing over tax issues, the Legislature's annual session reached its 110th day Tuesday, making it the longest in state history.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, of Wichita, said fellow House Republicans were negotiating in private over a new tax plan to present to the negotiators.

"There'll be nothing until we can come together with an understanding on the House side," he said. "Otherwise it's just an exercise in futility."

But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce said he doubts his chamber can pass another plan.

"The tax package we approved the other night is about as good as it gets for our members," said Bruce, a Nickerson Republican.

Budget Director Shawn Sullivan on Monday night told a group of House Republicans that if lawmakers can't pass a tax bill, Brownback is most likely to impose an across-the-board cut of 6.2 percent in what the Legislature has budgeted for the next fiscal year.

He said public schools would lose $197 million in aid, and a Kansas Association of School Boards lobbyist said that would like force schools to increase class sizes. Sullivan also said state prisons could be forced to cut "front-line staffing."

Some legislators viewed his comments as an attempt to push the House into passing the tax bill approved by the Senate. Sullivan said he was asked to answer questions about the consequences of not passing a tax bill.

Republican legislators are divided over how much to increase the state's 6.15 percent sales tax and how much to raise taxes for more than 330,000 business owners and farmers who stopped paying income taxes on their profits under a 2012 policy championed by Brownback.

The bill approved by the Senate would increase the sales tax to 6.55 percent, while dropping the rate on food to 4.95 percent in July 2016. It would increase the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, to $1.29, and increase taxes on business owners by $24 million during the next fiscal year.

Brownback has promised to veto any plan raising taxes on business owners by more than $24 million, but some House Republicans want to defy him and raise as much as $101 million.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow Nicholas Clayton on Twitter at https://twitter.com@ClaytonNicholas and John Hanna at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .