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Kansas' policy conflicts

One of the common complaints citizens register about federal systems like the United States is the potential always exists for the federal and state governments to conflict over policy. The result usually is confusion at best, and a fundamental contradiction that renders the citizen the only loser in a tug-of-war over policy authority at worst. Whether it is Medicaid, Obamacare, immigration or tax policy, many times the states and federal government disagree on the best way to implement a policy designed to have the two levels of government cooperate. Kansas finds itself in the latest in a series of such conflicts now, over tax filing policy for same-sex couples.

The fight over same-sex rights has become a proxy for the federal-state battle for power during the last decade, and the federal government issued its biggest attack yet In August, when the Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service announced same-sex couples who previously had needed to file separate tax returns would be allowed to file jointly beginning with their 2013 returns. One caveat: The couple has to be legally married, meaning they must have formally filed marriage papers in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. Couples simply cannot declare themselves married in states that do not recognize same-sex unions. If taxes were only filed at the federal level, or if states automatically followed the federal government's lead, then there would be no issue. Since Kansas does not recognize same-sex marriage, there is an obvious conflict between the state's existing system requiring separate filings and the federal government's allowance of same-sex couple filing.

Kansas has a history of rejecting federal policy attempts it deems overreaching, and this is no exception. Gov. Sam Brownback emphatically rejected federal Obamacare exchange participation since its passage in 2010, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach's pet voting laws -- requiring birth certificates to register and photo identification to vote -- represent Kansas' reticence to cooperate with federal policy the state believes are illegitimate intrusions into state sovereignty. Most of the time the state fighting such federal policy ends up on the losing end of the conflict, but that does not stop the state from fighting, at least for electoral or symbolic political reasons.

In October, the Kansas Department of Revenue ruled requiring same-sex couples here to continue filing separately. A clause in state statute calls for the use of federal definitions of marriage in state tax filings, so the October revenue ruling represents a change of policy that might in fact be illegal. Hence, the Kansas Equality Coalition filed suit on New Year's Eve to force the state to follow the new federal guidelines and allow joint filing.

At stake is not just a technical argument but a pitched battle in the war about same-sex rights in America today. President Barack Obama changed his stance to support same-sex marriage during the 2012 campaign. Then June's Supreme Court decision striking down the bedrock of traditional-marriage legislation, the Defense of Marriage Act, opened a policy window the Obama administration has seized upon.

Kansas probably will be one of the last states to accept such federal efforts, though. As recently as 2005, state voters rejected gay marriage with Amendment 1. The referendum wrote a prohibition against the performance or recognition of same-sex marriages within the state into the Kansas constitution by a 70-30 vote.

The federal government's change of attitude might signal an overall shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Eighteen states now recognize same-sex unions in some form, an increase from just two a decade ago. Those states have no conflict between state and federal policy, but that leaves 32 states with some form of conflict. The decision on Kansas' policy will serve as a template for other states in conflict with the federal rules. Furthermore, the number of states that do not recognize same-sex marriage but accept the federal government's tax filing policy will be a telling statistic to trace momentum in the continuing fight over same-sex marriage.

As the federal and state governments hash out their ideological differences, those caught in the middle are regular citizens who are uncertain about something as basic as filing their taxes.

Chapman Rackaway is a Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University.