Senate committee advances constitutional amendment limiting new taxes, rate increases

Skeptics say ‘dangerous’ measure ties hands of lawmakers who need to be nimble

By: - March 11, 2022 2:17 pm
Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, and Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, look to a TV screen during online testimony on a proposed constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds majority votes of the House and Senate for any new tax or rate increase of an existing tax. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, and Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, look to a TV screen during online testimony on a proposed constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds majority votes of the House and Senate for any new tax or rate increase of an existing tax. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate’s tax committee advanced a proposed state constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds majority votes of the House and Senate to create a new tax or to increase the rate of an existing tax.

Chief proponent Sen. Virgil Peck and central critic Sen. Tom Holland, not surprisingly of different political parties, touched on why Senate Concurrent Resolution 1620 could be viewed as an important restraint on growth of government or an abandonment of the democratic process. The committee sent it to the full Senate on a partisan voice vote Thursday after receiving ideologically clashing testimony from lobbyists.

“This is something I have wanted to see the Legislature pass since I first heard of the idea around 2003,” said Peck, a Havana Republican who has been in House or Senate for 13 years. “Hopefully, it would make it through the process.”

Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat also on the tax committee, said he was disappointed the GOP-led committee moved ahead with a sweeping piece of legislation without resolving core questions, including determination of whether the amendment raised the bar on imposition of state fees.

He said the amendment trampled territory reserved for the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s members responsible for crafting a blueprint of the state budget.

“To have a tax committee charge off and go down this path and … basically shackle our budgeting committee with this to me is inane. This is basically undemocratic legislation,” Holland said. “This bill is not only dangerous, now it has devolved into stupidity.”

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, opposed a constitutional amendment blocking tax increases unless passed by two-thirds majorities of the House and Senate, noting the idea was "dangerous" and driven by "stupidity." (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, expressed opposition to a state constitutional amendment blocking tax increases unless passed by two-thirds majorities of the House and Senate, noting the idea was “dangerous” and driven by “stupidity.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

To place the amendment to the Kansas Constitution on statewide ballots in November, the current House and Senate would need to affirm the resolution by two-thirds majorities. Republicans have the capacity to accomplish that feat because they hold supermajorities in both chambers, but passage of the amendment wouldn’t be a political slam dunk.

Gov. Laura Kelly doesn’t have veto authority over placement of constitutional amendments on the ballot. Registered Republicans, independents and Democrats would be asked to make the call on basis of a simple majority vote in the upcoming general election.

Nuts and bolts

If approved by Kansas voters, the addition to Article 11 in the Kansas Constitution would fundamentally alter the Legislature’s budget process. The House and Senate would be able to initiate tax rate increases or impose new taxes only with support of 27 of 40 senators and 84 of 125 representatives. A governor could veto such a tax bill, but the House and Senate would retain the right to override the governor with backing from two-thirds of members in both chambers.

The roster of taxes falling under the Senate resolution would include property, income, sales, compensating use, excise, estate or inheritance taxes.

Then-Gov. Sam Brownback signed a budget bill in 2015 raising the state’s sales and cigarette taxes in anticipation of generating $384 million annually in new revenue. Controversially, he argued it didn’t amount to a tax hike. The bill was passed by the House and Senate with simple majorities. Under the amendment, that tax hike agreed to by Brownback would have required two-thirds majorities of the Legislature to reach his desk.

In 2017, the Legislature rolled back deep tax cuts championed by Brownback. He was the force behind adoption in 2012 of the aggressive income tax reductions, but the policy created massive revenue shortfalls that placed state government in dire financial straits. Brownback vetoed the tax repeal bill, but was overridden by the GOP-led House and Senate with two-thirds majority votes.

Emily Fetsch, lobbyist with Kansas Action for Children, said the organization opposed the amendment because it would limit legitimate options of elected representatives in state government.

“A constitutional amendment will make it difficult for lawmakers to respond to constituent needs and honor the democratic process,” Fetsch said. “Policies like 1620 can be harmful during unexpected events like recessions, natural disasters, pandemics or terrorist actions.”

Highways, budgets

Branden Lowe, representing businesses and organizations involved in Economic Lifelines, and Michael White, executive director of the Kansas Contractors Association, said the constitutional amendment could make it difficult to finance highway construction in the future as the transportation system became more reliant on electric and hybrid vehicles. A chunk of state highway funding is linked to revenue from gasoline taxes, which could drop as the fleet mix transitioned.

Looking ahead, for example, would enactment by the state of a $250 annual charge on all electric vehicles to gain access to paved roads in Kansas be viewed as a tax or a fee?

Eric Stafford, who represents the Kansas Chamber, said about 15 states had some form of majority-vote restraint on tax increases. He said Arizona and Florida had a two-thirds metric, while Delaware adopted a three-fifths barrier and Arkansas had a three-fourths limit that excluded sales and liquor taxes.

“Ultimately,” he said, “this encourages the Legislature to consider cuts versus automatically looking to raise taxes when faced with tough budget decisions.”

Elizabeth Patton, a lobbyist with Americans for Prosperity, said the organization supported the proposed amendment because it would encourage legislators “to consider more effective and efficient spending strategies.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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