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Tax Debate Plods along at the Kansas Statehouse

Kansas Statehouse (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

Thursday marks the 105th day of the 2015 Kansas legislative session, making it the second longest in state history. Legislators are looking for more than $400 million to close a gaping hole in the state budget.  KPR’s Stephen Koranda reports on how the last several days have played out in Topeka. 

There was hope last weekend that the logjam could break when Governor Sam Brownback introduced his tax plan. It relies mostly on sales taxes and tobacco taxes to generate revenue. The bill mostly leaves business income tax cuts in place, because Brownback says they’re spurring economic growth.

“So we’ve got to keep that economy growing and we’re moving in the right direction to get that to take place, so I think we want to continue that and not put policies forward and enacted that harm small business growth because that’s your primary job creating machine,” says Brownback.

But there are Democrats and Republicans who don’t agree that the business tax cut is working.

Democratic State Representative Barbara Ballard says Democrats probably won’t agree to any bill unless it amends the 2012 tax cuts.

“We don’t want to be the people standing in the way, but we also have to say ‘you’re not looking in all the right places here, we’re not dealing with what really is the issue,’” says Ballard.

There are other Republicans who don’t want to raise taxes at all, or would prefer to eliminate tax exemptions, including Republican Senator Jeff Melcher.

“I’m thinking back on my campaign, I don’t remember going door to door saying ‘I just can’t wait to get to Topeka to raise your taxes,’ that didn’t happen,” says Melcher.

Ultimately, House leaders decided they wanted a small group of House and Senate negotiators to come up with a compromise that could pass both chambers. Here’s Republican Representative Marvin Kleeb.

“It really isn’t the sort of discussion you should have out on the floor, putting all the pieces together, especially with this kind of money that needs to be done,” say Kleeb.

Some Senate Republicans objected. Steve Abrams, who’s on the Senate Tax Committee, said they should try to build a tax plan publicly on the Senate floor.

“It is a difficult process, but I believe we should be having those hard discussions, we need to have those discussions,” says Abrams.

So the Kansas Senate embarked on several days of tax debate.

“Does any Senator wish to change their vote? The clerk will close the roll and tally the vote. Eight having voted in favor and 30 against, the motion fails.”

That’s the sound of a tax plan failing in the Kansas Senate.

“This whole situation is ridiculous,” says Les Donovan, chair of the Senate Tax Committee, By Tuesday he was getting impatient.

“And I don’t mean just ridiculous, it’s worse than that. We know better than what we’re doing here. We’re standing here acting like children,” says Donovan.

Senators eventually agreed to the original House strategy, in which a small group of House and Senate negotiators would try to build a tax agreement.

Senate President Susan Wagle says while they didn’t pass any major tax bills, the debate wasn’t wasted time.

“It has helped build consensus. We aren’t there yet, we don’t have a majority for one plan, but I think consensus is starting to build,” says Wagle.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are facing down a Sunday deadline to either pass a budget or send thousands of state employees home without pay. Democratic Senator Laura Kelly believes the Legislature will not reach a tax agreement in time, but she expects they will avoid furloughs.

“There’s more than one way to get out of doing furloughs and I think we’ll figure out a way to not do the furloughs. I would be very surprised if they let that happen because of the political fallout from it,” says Kelly

The question now is whether lawmakers will be able to close out this session as the second-longest in state history, or if they’ll breeze past the previous record of 107 days.

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