Tim Carpenter
June 15, 2015

More than 50 Kansas legislators made no-nonsense promises to agitate against state tax increases and comply with pledges that served as currency to secure endorsements from conservative political groups.

The compacts delivered the kind of small-government credential proven to be part of winning campaign strategies in red-state Kansas.

In all, 53 of 165 legislators signed pledges since 2012 offered by Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, as well as Americans for Tax Reform, led by devoted tax-cut crusader Grover Norquist.

Only six kept their word by voting consistently against a package dramatically expanding the annual tax liability of Kansans.

Twenty-nine representatives and 10 senators — all Republicans — entering into formal anti-tax arrangements ended up voting to provide the majority necessary to send the largest tax increase in Kansas history to Gov. Sam Brownback.

Seven legislators voted for at least one of the companion bills, while one pledge-club member was absent at crunch time.

Intense pressure was applied to legislators by House and Senate GOP leaders, as well as by Brownback, who begged for new tax revenue to close a budget deficit. Cash problems arose after Republican lawmakers agreed in 2012 and 2013 to slash income taxes in a supply-side bid to fire up the economy.

Adjustment of the state revenue stream became the political duty of the GOP, which holds a 32-8 edge in the Senate and 97-28 advantage in the House.

Democrats resisted appeals to help bail Brownback out of the budget quagmire. When House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, rallied Democrats before a pivotal floor vote, he sent them off with this admonition: “Make them own this mess.”

Doubling down

GOP Sen. Rob Olson, of Olathe, was among 14 lawmakers who signed both the ATR and AFP pacts. Olson affirmed in an April interview he wouldn’t ignore those commitments.

“I’m not going back on the no-tax pledge,” Olson said.

He wasn’t in Topeka one week ago when the Senate endorsed House Bill 2109, which formed the skeleton of the tax-hike deal.

He was present Friday when the Senate adopted Senate Bill 270 to flesh out a package featuring $384 million in tax increases in the fiscal year starting July 1 and requiring Brownback to trim spending $50 million. Combined with a new $47 million tax on managed care organizations in Kansas, state revenue growth next year was pegged to grow by about $430 million.

The bill would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent, end nearly $100 million in itemized income tax deductions, boost the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack to $1.29 and embed in law a collection of controversial tax policies.

With the Senate vote snagged at 20-20, Olson stood.

He flipped his “no” vote to “yes” to provide the minimum 21 necessary to place the package on the governor’s desk.

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said an affirmative vote on tax increases, rather than budget cuts, was “in clear violation” of the pledge.

Legislators who declined to divorce themselves from the anti-tax agreements: Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka; Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco; Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane; Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville; Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita; and Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha.

House thinking

Rep. Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican, signed both anti-tax pledges.

During the 2014 election cycle, Brunk said, his mind hadn’t yet absorbed the uncomfortable reality that budget cuts alone couldn’t resolve a projected deficit in the upcoming year of more than $400 million.

His opposition to taxes melted away as the session motored into the 113th day — far beyond the typical 90-day session. He voted for both pieces of legislation raising taxes, and explained himself to House peers.

“Colleagues,” he said, “we’ve had a long session, but our diligence has paid off and we’re making an additional $50 million in cuts to the budget. Our goal is to enact a long-term stable and predictable revenue source to provide necessary services while protecting taxpayers’ pocketbooks. This bill accomplishes that.”

Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, assured Americans for Prosperity he would vote to elevate state taxes only in an emergency. The deficit ought to be handled through spending reductions, he said.

The tax agreement submitted to Brownback would alter state law designed to gradually shrink the state income tax to zero. The legislation freezes current rates for two years, drops the rate a bit in 2018 and makes future adjustments contingent on ballooning state tax revenues.

“By far, the most hated tax — the most detested, the most resented of all the types of tax we impose on the state of Kansas — is the income tax,” Rubin said. “It is used for social engineering. It has been used as a method for government to pick winners and losers among businesses and others. It invites fraud and favoritism. This bill effectively ends the march to zero.”

When the final roll-call votes were cast, nevertheless, Rubin voted for both bills.

‘Harmful bill’

Larry Meeker, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said passage of GOP-inspired legislation raising taxes shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“The Republican Party’s irresponsible policymaking is now common practice,” he said. “Republican legislators know that the only honest way to fix the state budget crisis is to reverse Governor Brownback’s failed experiment.”

By that, he meant overhauling the state income tax exemption granted limited liability companies and other businesses in 2012. That bill was accompanied by reductions in individual income tax rates.

“Instead,” Meeker said, “leaders within the Republican Party used political arm twisting and blackmail to force the majority vote on this harmful bill.”

Annie McKay, who serves as executive director of the moderate-leaning Kansas Center for Economic Growth, said action by the 2015 Legislature deepened inequity folded into the tax code in the past three years.

More than 330,000 Kansas businesses will continue to pay no state income tax, while Kansas families absorb the fourth tax increase in six years, she said.

“Lawmakers promised Kansans ‘pro-growth’ tax policy, but all this legislation will grow is the number of families struggling to make ends meet,” McKay said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who voted against the tax bills, said the governor faltered by refusing to reconsider state income tax cuts, insisting on raiding the state highway fund and pressing forward with a goal of shifting to the sales tax to fund Kansas government.

“The Republican legislators who support this bill are foisting on the people of Kansas the highest, most regressive sales tax on food in the nation,” Hensley said.

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal here

KendraTOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Of 53 lawmakers, six keep no-tax pledges