POLITICS
05/31/2013 05:19 pm ET

Kansas Tax Debate Splits GOP, Pushes Legislature Into Overtime

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Republican Party infighting over the size of the state sales tax has led to gridlock in the Kansas Legislature as lawmakers continue in overtime.

The Republicans control both the state House of Representatives and state Senate, but continue to be at an impasse over whether the state's 3-year-old sales tax hike should continue. The one-time, 1 percent hike -- which brought the state sales tax from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent in 2010 -- is a key component of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's goal of reducing the state's income tax to zero. The House continues to refuse to go along with Brownback and the Senate, both which wish to extend the sales tax hike. It is set to expire on July 1, and would revert sales tax in the state to 5.7 percent. Lawmakers are now eight days past the constitutional end of the annual legislative session.

Each additional legislative day costs the state roughly $45,000.

“We are not adopting the Senate plan," state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Huffington Post of the House. "We are not adopting the governor’s plan.”

The impasse comes down to pure politics, along with economics. In 2010, the Legislature voted for the three-year increase in the sales tax, with the increase set to revert to 5.7 percent on July 1, 2013. The remaining .4 percent is dedicated to transportation. Last year, lawmakers passed significant cuts to the state income tax, causing a revenue gap Brownback is looking to offset by continuing the 6.3 percent sales tax. During the 2012 election, Democratic and moderate Republican lawmakers found themselves attacked by conservative groups for supporting the sales tax hike.

Claeys noted that conservative Republican freshmen in the state House will not vote for a tax hike this year, because they were not around in 2012 to have a tax decrease -- often politically popular -- on their record. The House looked at several other tax plans with higher sales tax rates that failed, including one that received only 19 votes from 125 House members on Thursday night.

"If you are freshman legislators, 42 of whom are Republicans, they are all in a position where this is their tax vote," Claeys said. "We are voting only on this tax plan. No matter what the tax plan, it is a tax increase on our record."

State House Democrats have been united in opposing the plan. At the same time, moderate House Republicans, many of whose seats were targeted by Brownback and his allies during elections last year, are not going along with the governor's plan.

State Sen. Tom Holland (D-Baldwin City), the Democratic Senate Caucus' chief tax policy spokesman, said that he wants lawmakers to adopt a budget now and then figure out a tax plan for the next year. He said the state has the money to get through next year, but then would need to figure out how to plug projected state budget gaps resulting from the 2012 income tax cuts during the 2014 legislative session. Under Holland's proposal, the state sales tax would revert to the 5.7 percent rate, thus delivering a victory for conservatives like Claeys.

Holland, who lost to Brownback in the 2010 governor's race, said that the Republican's tax plan cannot work.

"His fantasy of going to zero and the reality of running a state are crashing head long into each other right now," Holland said.

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag told HuffPost in an email that the governor believes that lawmakers will be able to develop a plan that "continues to reduce the tax burden on all Kansans." Brownback told the Topeka Capitol-Journal that lawmakers should stay in session until a tax plan is adopted.

This year's legislative gridlock follows last year's stalemate, which was based on a civil war between moderates and conservatives in the state GOP. Kansas lawmakers have a 90-day annual legislative session, with Friday being the 98th day they have been in session. At the beginning of the year, legislative leaders had promised an 80-day session. Last year, lawmakers met for 99 days.

With negotiations tasked to a small group of the 165-member legislature, most lawmakers have nothing to do but wait. Among the official actions the House has taken this week -- outside of voting down tax proposals -- have been honoring the Kansas State University athletic program and being briefed on a prayer breakfast agenda.

Claeys said he is surprised by the session ending up at this impasse.

"At the beginning I would have said it would be 80 days," he said. "We were moving through bills."

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