Kan. Senate panel aims to avoid education cuts; chairman says $350M in tax increases needed

By John Hanna, AP
Monday, April 19, 2010

Kan. lawmaker says tax increase looks more likely

TOPEKA, Kan. — A legislative committee chairman said Monday that $350 million in tax increases will be needed to avoid further cuts to education and still have a balanced state budget.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee worked Monday on a $13 billion-plus budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. State officials and economists now project a $510 million gap between anticipated revenues and spending commitments.

Several members said they don’t expect the Republican-dominated committee to keep reducing state aid to public schools, after multiple rounds of cuts last year. Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson opposes more education cuts and has proposed raising sales and tobacco taxes.

And committee Chairman Jay Emler said because of the governor’s opposition to further cuts, “There’s no point in even going there.”

“I don’t see how you do it without revenue enhancements,” Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said during a break in the committee’s daylong meeting.

The committee expected to finish its proposed budget Tuesday, then work on a tax plan, hoping wrap up Thursday. The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to begin working Thursday on its budget proposal, and the entire Legislature returns April 28 from its annual spring break.

Legislators often have the bulk of the budget finished before they begin their spring break, but this year, they decided to wait on a new fiscal forecast for the state. Officials and economists issued it Friday.

Pressure from educators and social service advocates has been building to raise taxes, but neither chamber has voted on any proposals.

“We haven’t had that conversation,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the Ways and Means Committee’s ranking Democrat. “Anything we do, we’ll have to find a way to pay for it.”

Some Republicans still worry that raising taxes will slow any economic recovery.

“I think history has shown us that higher taxes slow down economies,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican on the Ways and Means Committee. “I don’t think it’s a question of, will it slow us down? It’s a question of, how much will it slow us down?”

But critics of further spending cuts argue they would hurt the economy, too.

The Kansas Economic Progress Council, a Topeka nonprofit group, pointed to a new Wichita State University study that said raising taxes to preserve state services would hurt the economy less than cutting services to close the budget gap.

John Wong, director of urban studies and public finance centers at the university, said during a news conference that state budget cuts would ripple through the economy as the state and its employees spend less on goods and services. The study said the harm from cuts is likely to be more concentrated than a broad tax increase.

Aid to public schools is at the center of the debate because it consumes about half of the state’s tax dollars.

House Republican leaders, hoping to avoid any tax increases, support a proposal under which the state wouldn’t replace $172 million in one-time federal economic stimulus funds for schools. Local districts would then have to choose between reducing services or raising property taxes to make up for the lost money.

On the Net:

Kansas Legislature: www.kslegislature.org

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