Dear friends, I firmly believe that tax reform is an effective economic growth tool and that it is imperative for Kansas to do something this year to change our dismal economic path. For the past decade our history has been to grow taxes and increase state spending. This has led to job loss in the private sector and one of the slowest growth rates in the nation.
The Kansas Legislature has produced very few bills this election year that will actually become law. Shared goals and easy to enact legislation has been caught in heated battles, each faction adding language that infuriates others. The moderate-republican/democratic led Senate and the conservative-republican run House have written legislation that dies right away or is assured of going nowhere in the other chamber. This tactic is known as a “poison pill”, because most of the time it causes the bill to be killed. This year this has been exceptionally painful because we are facing the”perfect political storm” of slow economic recovery, high unemployment, changing all the legislative districts (as a result of the census), the state senate running for reelection, and a new Governor, who is committed to fulfill his campaign promises of growth and increased jobs.
In my opinion, based on the letters and emails that I receive, constituents are not fully informed about the legislative process, and as they look at some of the votes, they do not know the details of what really happened. I know that sometimes these details are difficult to understand. The media can put legislators in a tough spot because voters not being fully informed about why members voted in a certain way can be led to the wrong conclusions. The only way to combat this situation is through communications. In my case, I do not have a staff or a budget to communicate with my constituents, and I cannot depend on the newspapers to get the message right. I often wonder if the reporter attended the same meeting that I did. I can send news releases to the local newspaper, but quite often they will not be published.
The 2012 tax reform bill just highlighted the details of this struggle. The House has been working with the Governor to lower personal income taxes for Kansans and to make our state more competitive in our region. Our logic is that when taxpayers have more money, they have higher levels of economic activity which in turn drives up state revenues and creates a lot of additional jobs,”the multiplier effect.” This is demonstrated by low-tax high growth states throughout the country.
This brings us to my front-line-trench observations of what happened on the tax bill. The Senate, earlier this session, loaded-up the Governor’s tax-cutting bill with a lot of sparkling cuts designed to generate campaign fodder for themselves. But this bill had so many large tax cuts, which they thought it would be assurance of a defeat in the House. The Senate expressed their excuse that the purpose was to get a bill to take into a House-Senate conference committee where it could be pared back to an affordable level. However, the issue is never the issue. The real political reason, in my opinion, was to have an Etch-a-Sketch ability to change positions for the election. The senate moderates saw this as a way to win both ways: brag about cutting taxes in postcards in the upcoming election, and at the same time spend a lot of money in state services, to the satisfaction of their political supporters, since they thought that once their tax bill was killed there will be no reduction in taxes this session. The factions often disagree over whether a provision is a purposeful poison pill or simply a demonstration of the majority’s ability to write bills reflecting their own priorities, you can be the judge.
We witnessed an historic parliamentary battle. Earlier in the day we received credible information that the senate leadership planned to break its promise on the tax conference committee agreement. Instead of passing the agreed-to compromise they planned to kill the conference committee report with the resulting procedural effect of killing the underlying Senate tax plan, which they had passed earlier in the session. This would have left Kansas without a tax reduction this year to prime the lagging economy.
Concerned about this imminent procedural move, the Governor asked to address our House caucus. He urged us to protect progress on the tax reform by concurring in the Senate amendments to the tax plan. He did this in good faith as the only remaining pathway available to prevent the Senate from killing all hope of tax reform in 2012.
In an unprecedented conflict, the Kansas House and Senate went head-to-head in a procedural/filibuster battle. Each legislative body used parliamentary moves in an effort to be the first chamber to take the deciding action.
The result was almost identical rules, by the Senate President and House Speaker, forcing an end to filibuster debate and a vote on the respective tax programs. The interruption of debate drew outraged comments on both floors.
In the House, the howls of protest came from democrats and moderate republicans who opposed the measure before the House. But in the Senate, the same howls of protest came from conservative republicans, using the same indignant words that cited the unfairness of limiting debate of an important issue. Although the politics in either chamber sharply contrast each other, the rhetoric of indignation was virtually identical. The words were used interchangeably by conservative-republicans in the Senate and moderate-republicans/democrats on the House floor.
As the drama continued to unfold the opposition voices used explanation of vote to prolong the filibuster in both chambers, the leadership imposed time limits to reduce debate. This was done to allow the competing chamber an opportunity to approve their version. Since the senate is a smaller body, they were at a disadvantage to the House. So opposition members extended their filibuster by rising and requesting that they be allowed to “join” another member in that member’s remarks, this took several additional minutes.
Every single member was undoubtedly aware of what was happening. The Senate was racing to kill tax reform before the House had a chance to save it. In the House we followed the Rules of the House and Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure. Mason’s specifically addresses the dilatory tactics by members intending to delay consideration of legislative business. This is what the Speaker used to end debate. Parliamentary rules are in place to protect both the members and the institution. They should neither be abused nor ignored. However, a lot of people were upset by the process. I think that it will take a lot of diplomacy and political pragmatism to bring this session to a reasonable end.
House Speaker, Mike O’Neal, won the day by summarily cutting-off debate. Thus, the House won the stand-off, gaining a final action vote on its version of the tax bill and approving it on a 64-59 margin. Moments later, the President of the Senate conceded defeat by announcing that the House action had effectively killed the Senate’s debate. The bill that was sent to the Governor is the Senate’s own plan (It passed the Senate on a vote of 29-11).
This tax bill, approved by the House, has been dubbed the “nuclear option” because it projects state government deficits of more than $2 billion in coming years. Meanwhile, the failed conference committee report before the Senate had a much lower price tag and was the product of both chambers’ committees.
Where does that leave the tax issue? The Governor is faced with either signing a bill with a huge price tag that can only be offset by the very optimistic and unrealistic projections of economic growth, or the other option is to hold this tax bill and await receipt of a new tax compromise. If he gets the compromise, he’ll sign it. If he doesn’t, he’ll sign the original bill. The bottom line is that the Senate has the ultimate control over what choice the Governor makes.
Although this tax plan is not the House’s first choice, the House is committed to enact reform this year, and hopes that the Senate will take action on the proposal previously agreed upon during the conference committee. The final budget agreement is contingent on whether such a tax compromise is reached and passed. Passage of a tax compromise would give the Budget Conference Committee more flexibility toward meeting budget goals and maintaining a healthy ending balance. In my opinion both of these issues are also dependant on having an agreement on re-districting.
There are concerns by many people on the impact of this dramatic tax reform. I hope that you take the time to share your thoughts on this issue. We all have the same goal for our state, growth and quality of life; we just might have different perspectives on how we get there.