Hesston Rep. Stephen Owens said Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly missed an opportunity to collaborate with Republicans in the Legislature by vetoing a tax reform bill that would have provided an estimated $1.4 billion reduction in state revenue over three years. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Hesston state Rep. Stephen Owens expressed dismay Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bill reducing state taxes by a combined $1.4 billion over three years and had the audacity to recommend the one-time handout of $820 million to Kansas taxpayers.
He said jettison of Senate Bill 169 endorsed by most Republican legislators, and Kelly’s proposal to send each Kansas resident taxpayer a check for $450 this summer, didn’t match her campaign rhetoric to seek the political center and collaborate with GOP lawmakers in her second term.
“You know,” said Owens, a Republican, “this idea that we like to talk about of meeting in the middle was just vetoed.”
Kansas budget director Adam Proffitt, who also serves as Kelly’s secretary at the Department of Administration, said much of the state’s massive budget surplus came from infusion of federal funding. The vetoed bill would drive the state budget in the red by shifting Kansas to a flat individual income tax rate that was “fiscally unsustainable,” he said. The governor’s proposal for one-time direct payments wouldn’t drain the treasury to the point expenditures surpassed revenue, he said.
“Is there any proof that a one-time payment makes the state more attractive … than long term systematic reductions in taxes over time?” Owens said.
In her veto message on the bill, Kelly seemed to anticipate the inquiry. She pointed to parallels between the newly vetoed tax bill and the 2012-2013 tax reform that defined Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. Brownback’s dogged quest to grow the economy by eliminating the state income tax cratered the budget and prompted an increase in state sales tax. His tax program was mostly repealed in a bipartisan vote in 2017.
“Kansans know all too well where irresponsible, costly tax experiments lead — to underfunded schools, to deteriorating roads and bridges, and to essential services being cut,” Kelly said.
The bill rejected by Kelly would reduce the state income tax on Social Security benefits, speed elimination of the state sales tax on groceries, tackle residential property taxes and implement a single 5.15% state income tax bracket. It cleared the House 85-38, which would be sufficient to advance a veto override. The Senate adopted the bill by a 24-13 margin. That’s three votes short of the magic number.
“This tax relief passed the House with a bipartisan supermajority and we intend to override the governor’s veto for the benefit of all Kansas taxpayers,” said House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita.
While the Legislature took a spring break, Kelly orchestrated an unusually high number of vetoes. Her pen struck legislation restraining transgender and abortion rights. She waded into issues of education, human smuggling and voting. She weighed in on food insecurity and child care.
Since January, she vetoed 15 individual bills. She line-item vetoed more than two dozen items in the sweeping budget bill.
GOP leaders in the House and Senate vowed to seek overrides of Kelly’s vetoes, but during her first term the Legislature reversed Kelly on only nine of 28 vetoes. In the 2023 session, the Legislature is one for one — rebuffing her on House Bill 2238. That override enshrined in state law a requirement participation in sports from kindergarten through college must be based on an individual’s gender determination at birth. It was the first of five anti-transgender measures vetoed by Kelly.
She also rejected four pieces of legislation regulating abortion and a pair of controversial education bills.
“Kansas has money in the bank,” said House Democratic Leader Vic Miller of Topeka. “Most Republicans in the Legislature seem to be okay with using that excess revenue to defend unconstitutional, discriminatory legislation in court where it’s guaranteed to lose as it has in other states already.”
At the Capitol, passing a bill and moving it to a governor required simple majorities in the House and Senate. The House must pull together 63 votes from among 125 members. In the Senate, 21 of 40 members can advance a bill. On overrides, two-thirds majorities were necessary to outmaneuver a governor. The bottom line on veto overrides: It cannot happen without 84 House votes and 27 Senate votes.
Republicans in both chambers have the personnel to repulse Kelly’s vetoes, but the GOP has little wiggle room. The House and Senate reconvene Wednesday in an attempt to complete the annual session.
Focus on abortion
State Treasurer Steven Johnson, a former Republican legislator, lamented Kelly’s veto of a $2 million program to assist women with unwanted pregnancies and potentially place babies for adoption. The GOP-led Legislature’s budget required the treasurer — an atypical partisan assignment that would sidestep the Department of Administration — to select an organization to run the anti-abortion program.
Kelly objected to the Legislature instructing Johnson to unilaterally award the contract rather than expose the decision to competitive bidding.
“I do not think that overseeing a state pregnancy crisis center and maternity home program is what the creators of the office of state treasurer intended,” the governor said. “This proviso creates a sole-source contract for an unknown entity to provide taxpayer funding for largely unregulated pregnancy resource centers.”
Johnson said the governor shouldn’t have vetoed that part of House Bill 2184. She signed the bill, minus the vetoes, containing thousands of unrelated budget appropriations amounting to billions of dollars.
“Our office has talented staff with many years of experience in the state procurement process,” Johnson said. “Should the Legislature override the governor’s veto, we stand ready to perform this limited contracting function, and will do so with the full transparency required by the state procurement laws.”
In wake of the 2022 statewide vote in Kansas affirming the constitutional right to abortion, Kelly vetoed three separate bills expanding regulation of abortion and likely to trigger override votes. That included House Bill 2325 designed to allow “maternity centers” to buy insurance through a state-operated pool while denying clinics performing elective abortions access to the insurance collective.
She vetoed House Bill 2313 requiring physicians in Kansas to offer emergency care for a fetus “born alive” during an abortion. She said the measure was “misleading and unnecessary” because federal law protected newborns. Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said vetoing protections for infants was “hard to imagine” and considered Kelly’s decision both “barbaric and extreme.”
Kelly vetoed House Bill 2264 to push back against the misguided belief abortions initiated by women taking prescription drugs could be “reversed.”
“In August, Kansans made clear that they believe personal health care decisions should be made between a woman and her doctor — not politicians in Topeka,” Kelly said.
Danielle Underwood, representing Kansans for Life, said Kelly wasn’t in the Kansas mainstream on abortion.
“First, she vetoes protections for babies after they have taken their first breath. Then, she blocks information empowering women to make informed choices about chemical abortions. Now, she vetoes help for women facing unexpected pregnancies. The only ‘choice’ Kelly supports is abortion,” Underwood said.
Kansas law now mandates — by virtue of the veto override in April — transgender girls and women compete in organized sports from elementary school through college based on gender assignment at birth. In other words, transgender girls and women engaged in athletics would compete against boys and men.
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach said he viewed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act through the lens of five daughters. The bill was salvaged from the veto scrap heap on votes of 84-39 in the House and 28-12 in the Senate.
“I care deeply about the fairness in girls’ sports,” Kobach said. “If any group challenges this law in court, I will defend it vigorously.”
D.C. Hiegert, LGBTQ legal fellow for ACLU of Kansas, said transgender children and adults would pay a price for political overreach into their lives.
“We know their real goal is to erase trans people from public life and push us back into the closet,” Hiegert said.
Kelly also vetoed Senate Bill 180, which restricted transgender individuals from using public spaces such as locker rooms and restrooms contrary to gender at birth. She rejected Senate Bill 26 forbidding transitional medical care for minors. The governor vetoed Senate Bill 228 and House Bill 2138 requiring transgender individuals on overnight school field trips or held in a jail be segregated according to gender designation at birth.
“By stripping away rights from Kansans and opening the state up to expensive and unnecessary lawsuits, these bills would hurt our ability to continue breaking economic records,” Kelly said.
In Kansas classrooms
Shannon Little, a volunteer with the Kansas chapter of Moms Demand Action, said the governor wisely vetoed a bill requiring the Kansas State Board of Education to develop firearm safety curriculum standards applicable to all public school students.
Under House Bill 2304, the state board would feature the National Rifle Association’s gun safety curriculum with cartoon character “Eddie Eagle” influencing attitudes of children about firearms. Older students would have access to the state Department of Wildlife and Park’s hunting safety course. Local school boards would retain authority to decide whether to offer instruction in gun safety.
“Governor Kelly stood up for our families and communities and proved that the NRA won’t write the rules when it comes to our safety,” Little said. “Kansas lawmakers should be passing bills to help curb gun violence.”
Hawkins, the Republican speaker of the Kansas House, said an attempt would be made to override the governor so the NRA’s program and other tools could be available to Kansas youth. He said the veto illustrated Kelly was more interested in scoring political points than increasing safety of children.
He likewise despaired at Kelly’s veto of House Bill 2236, which affirmed opportunity of parents to direct the education, upbringing and religious training of their children. The bill required local school boards to adopt policy to guarantee parents could remove a child from objectionable classes, presentations and lectures whether the information was presented in person or through books or digital platforms.
“It’s sad to see that with this veto Governor Kelly has once again sided against parents and their right to direct their own children’s education,” Hawkins said.
Ruckus on the budget
Kelly said she appreciated the Legislature adopted a budget bill with funding for the state water plan, deposited cash in the state’s rainy day fund, set aside resources to pay debt and invested in infrastructure and public safety.
She questioned why the Legislature failed to include a budget blueprint for K-12 education in the bill and ignored her plea to expand Medicaid eligibility along with 40 other states.
The governor also expressed frustration the bill set the stage for reopening the “Bank of KDOT.” It was a reference to previous state budgets that financed all sorts of expenditures by raiding highway funding that was to flow into the Kansas Department of Transportation.
She line-item vetoed from House Bill 2184 an earmark directing KDOT tax dollars to Wichita State University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas for use on transportation research.
“The Legislature should fund these research efforts through a different manner,” Kelly said. “My administration is willing to work with those who would like to ensure that innovative transportation research is supported in our higher education institutions, but not by reopening the Bank of KDOT.”
Kelly also vetoed a section creating a legislative committee with authority to review applications from cities and counties for a share of $55 million available in each of the next four years to attract federal grants. The money would provide matching funding to cities and counties applying for federal infrastructure aid. She said the approach adopted by the Legislature unnecessarily complicated the process by inserting a bureaucratic 10-member committee into the conversation.
“We want to make sure that we’re not setting up something that is going to discourage the locals from applying,” said Proffitt, the governor’s budget director.
The governor likewise vetoed a proviso forbidding Kansas colleges and universities from considering diversity, equity and inclusion objectives in campus hiring. She said the clause made it more difficult to attract a skilled workforce to serve a diverse student body.
“Between individual bills and the line-items in the budget, the governor has used her veto pen over 20 times,” said Masterson, the Senate president. “As Joe Biden prepares to launch his re-election bid, it is apparent that the governor seems to be following in his footsteps by doing whatever the radical left asks of her, rather than honoring her pledge to meet us in the middle.”
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