How about for a few minutes before we start sobbing and rending our garments because the Kansas Legislature didn’t pass what the newspaper headlines near-universally refer to as “tax reform,” we take a minute to look at that tax bill that froze to death on a 59-59 vote of the Kansas House last Friday?
Now, “reform,” well that’s just gotta be good. Who doesn’t want reform of nearly everything from being trapped in the check-out line while the customer ahead fishes coupons out of his pocket/her purse or when the other table’s salads at the restaurant look better than the ones you got?
Reform on taxes, though, is one of those things everyone sees a little differently.
The tax bill the House killed would have reapportioned among many classes of Kansas taxpayers their Kansas income tax liability next year. Not evenly among Kansans, but selectively.
Remember last December’s federal tax law changed the federal standard deduction, from about $6,000 to $12,000 for single taxpayers and from $12,700 to $24,000 for marrieds filing a joint return.
Now, that’s a pretty good bump, and it likely will cut the federal income tax bill of about 80 percent of Kansans. And because the Legislature last week didn’t pass tax “reform,” that boosted federal standard deduction leaves more money for the state to levy income taxes against.
That reduction in federal income taxes provides the boost in state taxable income that creates the majority of the “windfall” lawmakers were trying to use up with its now-deceased tax bill.
The Legislature never got a reliable, firm figure on just how much the lower federal taxes would increase the amount of Kansas taxable income — and therefore, Kansas tax receipts.
That’s a little like not knowing how thick the ice is before wandering out onto the lake in winter. Nice, thick ice: Have a good time; thin ice, stay on the dirt.
Next year, lawmakers will know how thick that ice is and can make informed decisions on whether they can walk on it without risk.
That risk is the one all — or, rather, some — lawmakers fear, that they would give away too much income tax revenue they need to operate the state and fund schools and highways and pension systems and social service programs without raising taxes again, as they did last year.
Oh, and that “reform” bill didn’t increase the standard deduction for Kansas taxpayers, that baseline for computing just how much money you will send to Topeka from the money freed up by sending less to Washington. It favored those with middle-range or higher incomes, probably more Republicans than Democrats, though we recall that you don’t have to check off political affiliation on your tax forms.
Yes, lawmakers could have passed a tax cut bill, and it would sure look nice on a House member’s campaign literature this summer and fall. But we’re doubting that there would have been a footnote saying who got the tax cut.
And members of the Senate, well, only one is running for retention this year, the other 39 won’t be printing up campaign literature for another two years, and they can just sigh and say, “wait until next year,” we’ll get you that tax break we tried for this year.
So, how’s this balance out? Legislators didn’t take a risk this year if the federal trickle-down doesn’t produce as much benefit for Kansas as had been guessed, and they won’t have to back up and trim a tax bill they didn’t pass.
If it turns out the federal tax cuts produce more revenue than expected? Bigger tax cuts, next year.
And nobody doesn’t want that …
Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report.