Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback swung for the fences Tuesday night, calling for even deeper income tax cuts while holding onto a penny sales tax that was intended to bridge the state through the recession.
The Republican chief executive told lawmakers he wants to slash income taxes for the state's lowest wage earners by more than a third while keeping the current state sales tax rate at the current level of 6.3 cents on the dollar.
Eventually, Brownback wants to phase out the income tax, as Texas has done.
"Look out Texas," he said in his annual State of the State address to the Legislature, "here comes Kansas."
Amid the depths of the recession, legislators approved a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax in 2010. That was to be a temporary boost, with six-tenths of a cent scheduled to go away this summer on the expectation that other revenue would trickle in with an improving economy.
Now Brownback suggests rethinking the sales-tax rollback.
He wants to use it as a lever to further reduce income tax rates, piling on more cuts to those passed by the Legislature last year. Brownback wants to lower the rate in the highest income tax bracket to 3.5 percent from 4.9 percent. The rate for the lowest bracket would drop to 1.9 percent from 3 percent.
"While others choose to raise taxes, we will lower them so our people have more money, not the government," Brownback said. "Where other governments expand, we grow smaller. Where others choose to grow spending, Kansas grows jobs."
Democrats questioned how Brownback could cut taxes even more while promising not to slice into key government programs like schools, public safety and services for the poor.
"The math just doesn't add up," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "As someone recently said, 'It's called arithmetic' -- a skill that (the former U.S. Sen.) Sam Brownback forgot in Washington, D.C."
Brownback has promised he would protect funds for key services as the state moves toward eliminating the income tax. At the same time, he proposes keeping enough money in reserve to meet state law.
The Brownback administration will present a budget for the next two fiscal years this morning, giving a more detailed picture of the governor's spending priorities and its attempts to balance spending and taxes.
Also Tuesday, Brownback called on the Legislature to address a recent court ruling ordering the state to put as much as $500 million in new funds into elementary and secondary education.
The governor criticized the courts for ordering more money for schools, repeating his argument that the Legislature -- not the judiciary -- has the "power of the purse."
He asked legislators to clarify the state constitution's requirement of providing "suitable" funds for education, a clearing-up he has sought since taking office two years ago.
The ambiguous wording in the constitution has befuddled lawmakers, who say it's hard to know whether Kansas is spending enough.
Changing the constitution could prove tough. It would require support from two-thirds of the Legislature and statewide backing from voters. There has been talk about trying to get the issue on the ballot this spring before the pending case can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
"This is nothing but an end-run to shirk the state's responsibility to fund a suitable education for every child in Kansas," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
In other highlights from the governor's speech:
- Brownback called for remaking how appellate judges are selected in Kansas. He said he would endorse elections of judges to the Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals. Alternatively, he said he would favor moving to the governor picking nominees subject to Senate confirmation.
Brownback and conservative lawmakers have been critical of the current system where a nominating commission controlled by lawyers recommends candidates to the governor. Critics say the system is undemocratic and unaccountable to the public.
- Building on earlier efforts to streamline state government, Brownback recommended combining the Kansas Turnpike Authority with the state's transportation department.
"We don't need two highway departments in Kansas. One is enough."
Brownback administration officials said a merger might make it easier to link feeder roads into the turnpike.
- Brownback also announced an initiative to improve student reading skills by the time youngsters reach the fourth grade. In broad terms, Brownback proposed putting $12 million toward "innovative programs" to help struggling readers. He also backed legislation that would require third-graders to be held back if they are not reading proficiently.
But the big hurdle for Brownback is keeping the entire penny sales tax increase, a move many conservative Republicans ran against when they swept into office in 2010.
That additional penny sales tax appeared to be no more appetizing Tuesday, despite the governor's attempt to reduce income taxes at the same time.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, one of Brownback's allies, came out against keeping the tax under certain conditions.
"Legislators did make a promise to taxpayers to allow ... the sales tax increase from 2010 to expire this year," said chamber President Mike O'Neal, the former Kansas House speaker. "We will oppose any effort to break that promise to Kansas taxpayers to justify government spending status quo."
Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, said he didn't think the sales tax was any more palatable -- even if it were linked to reducing the income tax.
"People look at that as a bad policy move by (former Gov.) Mark Parkinson," said Schwab, vice chairman of the House tax committee. "To keep it would be to condone what Mark Parkinson shoved through this Legislature. I don't think people are going to grab onto that."
That view was echoed by Rep. Richard Carlson, a St. Marys Republican who is the House tax committee's chairman. Carlson said the governor had one idea for balancing out income tax cuts, but other proposals should be in play.
"There are always other ways to put together a tax plan," he said.
Sen. Les Donovan, a Wichita Republican and chairman of the Senate tax committee, said linking the sales tax to a reduction in income taxes was a plausible idea.
"It has to be tied together," Donovan said. "If we can't cut income taxes further, then putting a new increase of the sales tax in place won't get many voters in my mind."