Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Conservatives at odds over budget, taxes as wrap-up session drags on

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Kansas' elected leaders may describe themselves as conservative Republicans, but, at this point, they aren't getting along, and that means the state's budget and tax system remained up in the air Tuesday as the 2013 wrap-up session dragged on.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, have endorsed a plan to keep the state sales tax at 6.3 percent instead of allowing it to fall to 5.7 percent on July 1 as current law dictates.

The higher sales tax would be used to cushion the budget blow from last year's income tax cuts and help pay for future income tax cuts, according to Wagle.

But House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, wants the sales tax to fall to 5.7 percent, which means budget cuts below what Brownback has endorsed, including the kind of cuts to universities that higher education officials have said would be devastating.

The Legislature returned last Wednesday to start the wrap-up session, but not much headway has been made on these issues since then.

One of the major obstacles to hammering out a budget agreement concerns funding of higher education.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the House continues to endorse a cap on salaries and wages at post-secondary schools. But Merrick said he is trying to find common ground with the Senate. "I'm willing to compromise," he said.

And some name-calling, or alleged name-calling, has surfaced.

During a Senate Republican caucus meeting, state Sen. Michael O'Donnell, R-Wichita, said he heard that Merrick called Wagle "childish."

Merrick denied saying that, but added that if he did, he would apologize. His office released a list of Merrick's talking points that did criticize the Senate, but didn't include any name-calling.

Senate GOP leaders roundly criticized their House counterparts, saying their proposals were based on false budget assumptions, unrealistic revenue projections and would produce long-term funding problems.

Wagle urged her colleagues to be ready for a long standoff. "Bottom line, put on your seat belts," she said.

But that didn't sit too well with some senators who are left with nothing to do all day.

State Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said, "My district would rather see me home doing my job and being in my community and listening to them, than sitting up here waiting. With two conservative leaders in two chambers, I'm disappointed, really."

Others said that they felt like they weren't getting enough information since all the discussions are held behind closed doors between Merrick, Wagle and Brownback. Typically, budget and tax negotiations are hammered out in House-Senate conference committee meetings open to the public. Merrick said he wanted the conference committees to meet but Wagle wouldn't let them.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he was surprised that the conservatives were having so much difficulty seeing eye to eye. "The blame used to be always on the Senate moderate Republicans because they weren't willing to compromise with the conservative House. You can't blame them for that now because they're gone," he said.

A slew of moderate Republican senators were defeated in the Republican Party primary last August, putting the Senate under the control of conservatives.

One of those defeated in the GOP primary was former Senate President Steve Morris, whose name has surfaced in political circles as possibly running against Brownback in 2014.

Contacted by phone, Morris, a Republican from Hugoton, said he has no plans to run for governor, but he added, "In this business, you never want to say never."

Morris said there was been discussion around the state of trying to challenge Brownback, a conservative Republican, with an independent or third-party candidate. He said there is probably no way a moderate Republican could defeat Brownback during the GOP primary because of the strength of conservatives within the party.

Morris said Brownback's income tax cuts are hurting the state.

"The tax plan that the governor engineered last year was a big mistake, and this (Brownback's desire to eliminate the state income tax altogether) would just compound that mistake," he said.

Morris was one of nine moderate Republican senators who were defeated in the GOP primary in August 2012. The moderates were targeted by Wichita-based Koch Industries and groups loyal to Brownback, such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Kansans for Life.