Recent Kansas Editorials
Wichita Eagle, June 9
It’s difficult to say a tax increase is a good idea.
It’s even more difficult for a politician to cast a vote in support of a tax increase.
But sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
This week, a majority of our state senators and representatives made the right decision.
They voted for a plan to partially roll back the income tax cuts of 2012 and eliminate a tax exemption for some types of businesses that was simply unfair to every Kansan who draws a traditional paycheck.
Legislators voted to change course from a tax experiment that, while well intentioned, did not produce significant positive results for the Kansas economy. In fact, the very tax cuts and exemptions that were meant to bring more prosperity to Kansas had our state government pointed toward bankruptcy.
Legislators not only made the difficult decision to support a tax increase, they then were forced to override a veto from Gov. Sam Brownback, who has refused to adapt on a tax policy that has not delivered as promised.
Brownback turned his back on the will of the people in Kansas who voted last fall for a change in Topeka. Those voters ushered out ultra-conservatives and voted in Democrats and moderate Republicans to get the job done. Those legislators, and others who were already in office, did that this week, showing integrity and a refreshing spirit of compromise.
Do we like everything about the plan that was approved? No.
Ideally, it would have been paired with spending cuts to help eliminate the state’s budget deficit. We are certain there is still excessive spending and inefficiency to be rooted out in state government, state agencies and public school systems across the state.
But spending cuts alone would not have been enough. Brownback abdicated his chance to provide leadership in that area last fall as deficits mounted and he failed to implement spending cuts. Instead, he pushed the problem to the Legislature.
While most of us will pay higher income taxes under the plan that was approved, the rates will still be lower than they were before 2012. The plan also restores a child and dependent care credit, increases itemized deductions for mortgage interest and allows for the deduction of a portion of medical expenses - all good things for our state’s taxpayers.
The elimination of the tax exemption for non-wage business income for the owners of LLCs is key to restoring fairness to our state tax system. The owners of LLCs will now pay taxes on their profits just as most of us pay taxes on our income. They will be able to claim their losses, as well.
We were most encouraged by the recognition by legislators from both parties that nothing would get accomplished without compromise. The energy for this came from a coalition of Republicans and Democrats called the women’s caucus. We commend members of the group, who encouraged their fellow legislators to focus on common ground rather than differences.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman of Olathe and Sen. Rick Wilborn of McPherson, both Republicans, should also be commended. They, along with some other House members, voted no on the tax package but voted in favor of an override of Brownback’s veto. Wilborn said he realized there was no chance that a bill more to his liking would be approved.
This new-found atmosphere of compromise gives us hope for the Legislature’s ability to solve challenging problems in the future.
This week, though, that willingness to compromise resulted in a course correction that puts our state on a path toward financial security.
Topeka Capital-Journal, June 10
Secretary of State Kris Kobach just announced that he’s running for governor, and he assured Kansans that he’ll “drain the swamp” in Topeka and rid the state government of its “culture of corruption.” He’ll also work against the “obscene” tax increase that was just passed by the Legislature: “Kansas doesn’t have a revenue problem,” he said, echoing our most conservative lawmakers. “Kansas has a spending problem.” And he’ll expand his obsessive crusade against undocumented immigrants — the issue that has made him notorious in Kansas and around the country.
A survey released by Fort Hays State University last month found that 77 percent of Kansans have heard of Kobach — more than any of the other politicians (including Paul Davis, Susan Wagle, Derek Schmidt and Jeff Colyer) whom researchers “specifically identified as potential gubernatorial candidates in 2018.” However, Kobach’s average favorability rating is lower than all of the other politicians on the list, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following his career over the past few years.
Kobach is convinced that illegal voting (especially among undocumented immigrants) is a vast crisis, but the evidence just isn’t there. Since the Legislature granted him the authority to prosecute voter fraud two years ago, he has convicted nine people — only one of whom wasn’t a citizen. This is consistent with the negligible level of fraudulent voting that has been identified in the past — between 1995 and 2013, a total of three non-citizens voted in federal elections in Kansas. Kobach also championed restrictive voter ID laws that disenfranchised more than 17,000 Kansans who had registered to vote in the 2016 election. But he consistently failed to defend these laws in federal and district court, and he was eventually ordered to allow these voters to cast their ballots.
Kobach predictably regurgitated a few of President Trump’s slogans during his announcement speech (“drain the swamp,” ″Kansans first”) — a sign that he intends to exploit the same populist resentment that turned out to be so powerful in 2016.
When Trump complained about the “millions of people who voted illegally” after the 2016 election, Kobach shamelessly defended him: “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin . ” This was a particularly sordid and humiliating moment for Kansas — while the rest of the GOP was backing away from what was obviously a preposterous, politically-motivated claim, our secretary of state saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the new president. Since then, Kobach has been on hand to support other unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud — Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller even recently told George Stephanopoulus to “invite Kris Kobach onto your show” to discuss the issue. And just last month, Trump appointed Kobach vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
Kansans don’t need a governor who has a long history of suppressing our fellow citizens’ votes. Nor do we need a governor who flagrantly contorts facts to fit his political narrative. And we certainly don’t need a governor who is openly modeling his economic policy on the supply-side disaster that our lawmakers finally abandoned earlier this week. Kris Kobach is bad for our state on almost every level, and this has been clear to most Kansans for a long time.
Lawrence Journal-World, June 12
Kansas legislators were right to award a small pay raise to state employees in the two-year spending plan approved Saturday.
Considering that many state employees haven’t received a pay increase in nearly a decade, the pay bump was overdue.
The bill calls for $31.3 billion in spending, $15.5 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $15.8 billion next year. State employees who have been on the job less than five years will get a 2.5 percent pay raise starting July 1, as will all judicial branch employees. Those who have been on the job longer but have not seen any salary adjustment in five years would get a 5 percent pay raise.
Caregivers who are reimbursed through Medicaid for taking care of people receiving home- and community-based services, who have not seen a rate increase since 2002, would see a 3 percent pay raise starting July 1 and an additional 1 percent next year.
The bill includes other funding decisions that should be applauded, including the restoration of some funding that was cut from the budgets of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University.
All Regents universities were cut an average of 4 percent in the face of revenue shortfalls last year, but KU and Kansas State took 5 percent cuts. The spending bill restores the additional 1 percent.
The bill also provides increased funding for community mental health centers and $4.7 million to add 20 psychiatric beds at Osawatomie State Hospital.
If there is a concern about the spending bill, it is that it continues the risky strategy of delaying payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. The bill did not include funding to repay quarterly payments into KPERS that was delayed in 2016 and calls for delaying more payments this year and in 2019. The bill calls for the payments to be repaid with interest over a 20-year period, but messing around with long-term pension fund obligations have landed many states in financial hot water.
Still, there’s a lot to like in the 2017 budget bill. Legislators finished the session, tied for the longest in state history, with something that has been absent from recent sessions: optimism that the state is back on the right fiscal track.
Kansas City Star, June 7
Kansas’ failed experiment in supply-side economics came to an end late Tuesday night.
Members of the Kansas House joined colleagues in the Senate to enact a broad tax increase package worth $1.2 billion over two years. The additional money is meant to cover a budget deficit and improve funding for the state’s schools.
It was a stunning and historic repudiation of Gov. Sam Brownback, as lawmakers of all political stripes voted to override his veto.
The tax measure eliminates the fatally flawed small business exemption and adds back a third tax bracket, essentially repealing most of the governor’s 2012 tax plan.
Members of the Legislature should be commended for their hard work and courage in reaching this decision. Many toiled long hours in Topeka discussing alternative approaches to address the state’s budget mess.
Conservative members who showed flexibility and common sense in voting to override the governor deserve credit, as do lawmakers who met regularly with constituents and heard a clear message: Fix the budget problem permanently.
Voters who made their wishes known also helped move the state in the right direction.
Yet passage of the tax package isn’t exactly a cause for celebration. Kansans will send more of their money to Topeka over the next years, and the government has an obligation to make sure those funds are spent efficiently and wisely.
The tax increase was a critical step in rebalancing the state’s budget and clarifying priorities, but it was only one step. There is more work to do starting next year.
Kansas’ extraordinarily high and regressive sales taxes remain a concern. In our area, those high sales taxes chase thousands of shoppers across the state line into Missouri, where grocery store food is cheaper.
In 2018, the Legislature should closely examine the state sales tax on grocery store food, with the goal of phasing it out.
In return, lawmakers should continue to work on reducing or eliminating special-interest exemptions in the sales tax code.
Lawmakers must also repair the damage caused by years of budget shortfalls and spending cuts. That means a new focus on restoring highway construction funds, which were diverted to cover deficits.
Borrowing from the state’s long-term investment fund must be repaid. Pension fund borrowing must stop (and pension reform should move to the top of the state’s agenda).
A solid budget may mean credit upgrades in Kansas, which will make state borrowing cheaper.
If expanded Medicaid remains an option, the Legislature should consider it. Tens of thousands of Kansans would benefit from access to health coverage, and rural hospitals now struggling to pay the bills would be helped.
Cuts to higher education should be restored. Making it harder for Kansans to afford college is short-sighted and counterproductive.
The constitutional requirement to pay for K-12 education remains a challenge. Lawmakers must be vigilant in ensuring that a new school spending plan provides adequate resources for poorer districts, allowing all the state’s children access to a quality education.
We harbor no illusions about how long all of this will take. It may be a generation or more before Kansas fully recovers from the Brownback tax experiment. Kansans will need to be patient — passing two major tax increases in two years will put the state in the black, but that won’t solve every problem in the state’s economy.
Finally, a word about Brownback.
We have been sharply critical of the governor since 2012, when the tax cuts passed. We worried the package would not be the “shot of adrenaline” that Brownback and his supply-side advisers predicted.
Our concerns and those of other economists, lawmakers and outside observers were never enough to convince the governor to change course. Today, we acknowledge the governor’s firm belief in the correctness of his policy approach. He never wavered.
Yet that inflexibility almost inevitably led to Tuesday’s historic defeat. In the face of irrefutable evidence of continuing budget problems in Kansas, the governor chose not to lead. Instead, he simply ignored reality.
Kansans were always ready to give Brownback the benefit of the doubt. But that patience was not inexhaustible. Eventually, voters grew weary enough to toss the governor’s allies out of the Legislature and replace them with commonsense candidates.
That’s a lesson for the governor, whose time here may soon come to an end. But it’s also a lesson for those who want to replace him in 2018.
Kansans do not need or want an ideologue in the governor’s mansion. They need a practical, problem-solving governor.
Perhaps President Donald Trump and his colleagues in Washington will hear that message as well and abandon plans to replicate Kansas’ disastrous approach to tax cuts.
The vote Tuesday serves as an important reminder of a fundamental truth: The people still rule. Not the so-called experts, the partisans, the special interests or even the pundits. The people of Kansas stood up and said “enough.”
Their representatives heard those voices and voted accordingly.
The page has turned, and the work begins anew.