Kan. GOP leaders say talks on tax issues stalled
By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA -- The Kansas Legislature's top Republicans acknowledged Tuesday that their private negotiations over tax issues have stalled as other lawmakers complained about having too little to do and too little information while waiting for the leaders to broker a deal.
The talks are aimed at finding a compromise between the House and Senate on proposals to follow up massive income tax cuts enacted last year with additional cuts in rates. The state also must stabilize its budget, and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback wants to cancel a decrease in the sales tax scheduled by law for July.
The Senate approved Brownback's proposals on income tax cuts and keeping the sales tax rate at 6.3 percent. The House has passed legislation allowing the sales tax to drop to 5.7 percent as planned and making less aggressive income tax cuts. Senate GOP leaders contend the House's proposals won't allow significant, new income tax cuts or stabilize the budget past mid-2015, while top House Republicans believe Kansans want the sales tax to decline as promised.
Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita told fellow GOP senators during a caucus that the two chambers can't even agree on basic assumptions lawmakers should use in projecting revenues and spending. She said House leaders want to use "unrealistic" figures to make their proposals look better.
"Put on your seatbelts," Wagle said. "We thought this would be a cheap ride across an open road, and it might turn into a roller coaster."
House Speaker Ray Merrick of Stilwell said the economic assumptions from his chamber come from the Legislature's staff or the governor's office and, "We're not making those numbers up."
"You can't move forward if you're not moving," he told reporters. "I'm willing to compromise, and that's still the mode I'm in, but there's only so far you can push."
Some GOP senators suggested an extraordinary meeting of all Republican legislators to discuss tax issues, but House leaders haven't made a decision. Wagle and Merrick acknowledged their impasse a day after Brownback said the private talks were "going well" but wouldn't predict when a deal might emerge.
The talks exclude Democrats, whose leaders have said their members aren't likely to vote for any compromise that emerges anyway. Democrats see last year's income tax cuts as reckless and oppose the GOP's goal of shifting most of the burden of funding state government to the sales tax, because poor families tend to pay a higher percentage of their incomes than wealthy ones.
Legislators must resolve tax issues to finish a state budget of roughly $14.5 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and wrap up business for the year. Republican leaders had promised the Legislature would finish in 80 days -- shortening the normal scheduled time of its annual session by 10 days -- but Monday was the 80th day.
Most legislators have relatively little to do, and GOP leaders even set a light schedule Monday so farmer-members could finish planting corn crops. Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Grinnell Republican, said without more work at the Statehouse, lawmakers would be better off staying away from Topeka while their leaders work on a tax deal.
"My district would rather see me home, doing my job, being in my community and listening to them, than sitting up here, waiting," Ostmeyer said.
GOP leaders appointed three senators and three House members to resolve the two chambers' differences on tax issues, but those negotiators aren't having public meetings. Wagle, Merrick and Brownback have taken over talks -- and have been disclosing relatively little.
"I would like to feel that I have more knowledge than I do of what's being offered and what's being done," said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican.
Yet Sen. Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican, encouraged Wagle to continue her tact in negotiations with Merrick.
"I just think we've got to just buckle in," Apple said. "However long it takes, is however long it takes."
The House tax plan is House Sub for SB 84. The Senate plan is contained in HB 2059.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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