TOPEKA, Kansas — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback told top Kansas lawmakers Friday that he has a new plan for raising taxes, with the GOP-dominated Legislature still sharply divided over how best to close a budget shortfall.
Brownback called a Friday evening news conference to outline his proposal but canceled it less than 40 minutes later, just before the event began. Spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said he was meeting with legislative leaders instead.
Lawmakers are considering proposals to increase sales, tobacco, business and even gasoline taxes to erase a projected $406 million deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But no consensus has emerged among GOP lawmakers, and some conservatives want to avoid tax increases.
The state's budget problems arose after the Legislature slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging to stimulate the economy. The state cut personal income tax rates and exempted the profits of 281,000 business owners and 53,000 farmers.
Key issues for legislators are how much to increase the state's 6.15 percent sales tax, whether to raise the state's cigarette tax of 79 cents a pack and whether to backtrack on the exemption for business owners farmers. Brownback touts the exemption a "small business accelerator," and business and anti-tax groups are lobbying to preserve it.
Caught outside his office between private meetings Friday evening, Brownback refused to discuss details of his budget-balancing plan.
"I'm not making any comments now," Brownback said. "We're having lots of discussions."
Heading into a briefing with Brownback, House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, and Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, also declined to discuss details.
"It's his to release," Wagle said.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican, said Brownback's plan is "in flux."
Republican leaders are facing growing discontent among conservatives who believe lawmakers haven't trimmed spending enough. House and Senate negotiators agreed last week on a proposed budget allowing spending financed with state tax dollars to rise 3 percent during the next fiscal year.
During a contentious Friday afternoon meeting of GOP senators, Sen. Jeff Melcher, of Leawood, blamed Brownback for "an absence of leadership" in not recommending a tighter budget.
And Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, of Leavenworth, said: "We've got to see some cuts."
GOP leaders expect the Legislature's annual session to run at least through Sunday, its 101st day. That's 11 days more than lawmakers traditionally schedule, with each extra day costing the state a total of more than $40,000.
Only two other sessions were longer — 1991 at 103 days, and 2002 at 107 days.
Top Republicans sought to speed up work on tax legislation by pushing a bill to create an amnesty program for delinquent taxpayers Friday through the House.
The bill, approved 64-54, is expected to raise $30 million and would allow the state to waive penalties for six weeks to get individuals and businesses to pay back taxes. It also would allow Bourbon, Douglas and Thomas counties to impose local sales taxes for special projects.
More importantly to GOP leaders, the House's action allows negotiators for the two chambers to draft tax plans.
The talks would involve three lawmakers from each chamber and give GOP leaders more control over the work. Any tax plans emerging from the negotiations are presented to one or both chambers for up-or-down votes. Changes can be made only by negotiators.
"It's a much cleaner process," said House Taxation Committee Chairman Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican who would be his chamber's lead negotiator.
Senators didn't formally consent to the talks without a spirited debate over whether doing so would limit debate too much and cut most lawmakers out of discussions. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, accused GOP leaders of creating an "oligarchy."
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, later promised a day of informal discussions Saturday, followed by Senate debate over various tax proposals Sunday.
House GOP leaders also left open the possibility of a debate Saturday on tax issues.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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