Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday called for a fresh round of aggressive cuts in Kansas’ income taxes and changes in the state constitution to rein in the judiciary, outlining proposals for a GOP-dominated Legislature in defiance of both a budget shortfall and a court order on education funding.
Brownback also used his State of the State address to defend massive income tax reductions enacted last year and reaffirm his goal is to eventually eliminate income taxes. But his plan for further reductions is tied to a proposal to keep the state’s sales tax at its current rate, rather than letting it drop in July as previously planned.
Rep. Don Schroeder, R-Hesston, who represents the Moundridge area of McPherson County, said he would be very cautious about any movement to take the state income tax to zero.
“Well, I have to admit it is a good goal, but I’m skeptical that we will be able to do that,” Schroeder said. “I’m also leery because I think that would tend to destabilize the state’s revenue stream with economic ups and downs.”
Rep. Clark Shultz, R-McPherson, said he wanted to know more specifics how the governor plans to reduce income taxes, finish the T-works infrastructure program, and create a $12 million fourth-grade reading program.
“I am very curious what the budget is going to look like,” he said of the governor’s budget, which was released this morning.
Shultz said he does not want the state to solely rely on sales tax.
“If we are going to reduce the income tax, I think we need to do it slowly,” he said. “I hope he doesn’t try to do it all in one year, but gradually.”
The governor spoke to a joint session of the Legislature a week after a three-judge panel in Shawnee County ruled the state must boost its annual aid to public schools by at least $440 million to meet its constitutional responsibility to provide a suitable education for every child. Also, in a move that irritated Brownback’s fellow GOP conservatives, the court criticized legislators for claiming the state couldn’t afford to spend more on schools while enacting last year’s tax cuts to stimulate the economy.
Brownback proposed amending the state constitution to declare that only legislators can determine when education funding is suitable, a proposal many GOP lawmakers are ready to pursue.
Local legislators said they agreed the legislature should be the government branch putting dollar figures on school funding.
However, Schroeder and Shultz both said they were not sure they could get behind a proposal by the governor to change how judicial appointments are made.
Page 2 of 3 - The governor endorsed changing how appellate court members are chosen, and said he could support electing members of the state Supreme Court instead of having them appointed, or modifying the appointment process to give legislators a role.
“I think the system we are using now is serving us fairly well. I would go cautiously. I would have to see the plan and decide at that point in time,” Schroeder said.
Brownback turned to our state’s motto to summarize pro-small government views.
“When our country seems adrift, Kansas leads to the stars through difficulty,” Brownback said. “Where other governments expand, we grow smaller. Where others choose to grow spending, Kansas grows jobs.”
Democrats have long criticized the tax cuts as financially ruinous for the state and favoring the wealthy over working-class Kansans, and they’ve promised to resist any plan to cancel the sales tax decrease.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said in a response prepared before the governor’s speech that lawmakers need to focus on adequately funding schools, “not on efforts to punish our state’s judicial branch of government.”
“Members of the Legislature took an oath just yesterday swearing to uphold the Constitution of Kansas,” Hensley said in his prepared response, referring to the start of the Legislature’s annual session. “What is our oath worth if we renege on our constitutional duty to adequately and fairly fund our schools?”
Several local Democrats were contacted for this story, but none were able to comment by press time.
Balancing the budget
Brownback and legislators must close a projected $267 million gap between anticipated revenues and existing spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — a shortfall caused by the income tax cuts enacted last year. But Brownback said the detailed budget proposals his administration will release today will erase the shortfall, protect aid to public schools, finance core social services and leave the state with healthy cash reserves.
The governor also is breaking with almost six decades of tradition by proposing a two-year budget that would carry the state through June 2015. He promised that his administration would continue working to make state government more efficient — and proposed merging the Kansas Turnpike Authority, which operates the state’s only toll road, with the state Department of Transportation.
Schroeder said he was very pleased to hear the governor was proposing a two-year budget. He said the move will allow schools and other local governments to plan further into the future.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Cristina Janney at cristina.janney
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