Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Governor with Guts

Today, the Kansas House, in coordination with Governor Sam Brownback, showed great political courage in moving to concur on a previously passed measure to reduce taxes, a motion which passed 64-59.

This high-stakes dramatic political maneuver, which we will explain in a minute, will certainly draw criticism and will frustrate those on the left to death -- but it is was a move that was nonetheless necessary, if you believe elections have consequences and if you believe people in power, elected to take decisive action, must seize opportunities before them, even if politically risky.

It also signified a clear victory for conservatives in what had been a parliamentary and political game, with liberals and conservatives trying to out-smart the other, while also trying to score political points in the upcoming elections, which will be the most critical in the recent history of the state.

Most of all, though, it showed what true legislative success, the outcome of political success, can be achieved when you have a Governor with guts -- and a House with a backbone.  Truly, today's action was one of the shrewdest moves in Kansas history.

To recap, here is the story:

Step 1. Governor Brownback originally proposed a plan to lower the state income tax, with the eventual goal of reducing it to 0.  That plan included the removal of certain deductions, such as the home mortgage deduction.

Step 2. The Kansas Senate Tax Committee, in a "gut and go" style amendment to a different House bill (previously passed, which is critical here), added the Governor's proposal, with some changes.

Step 3. The full Kansas Senate, in March, added a "Christmas tree" of amendments, keeping the tax cuts, but restoring the deductions, as well as the sunset of the sales tax passed two sessions ago.   This made the bill much more expensive -- and at current levels of spending, unsustainable -- than the original.   However, conservatives, in order to keep the bill alive, voted for it.   However, the Senate originally killed it, though, on a vote of 20-20 --  but then on a motion to reconsider, passed it 29-11.  Among the 29 votes in favor were several left wing Republicans, including President Steve Morris, Majority Leader Jay Emler, Terrie Huntington, and others -- all voting for it so, come August, they could say they were in favor of tax cuts -- thinking that this version would eventually never pass.

Step 4. Because that version of the legislation was too expensive, House and Senate negotiators have recently been engaged in a conference committee which put the bill (same bill #) more in line with the Governor's original plan (some changes, however).  That plan -- much less costly than the original passed by the Senate -- was then forwarded to the Senate today for debate. 

This is where things get interesting.

See, liberal Senate Republicans, along with Democrats, don't like Governor Brownback, and they don't like tax cuts.  They like tax increases, big government, and political damage to Governor.  So,  despite the conference committee having forwarded the compromise plan to the floor, it was highly unlikely that the full Senate would adopt the plan -- thus potentially, given this late date in the session, pushing off tax reform -- a critical thing needed in Kansas -- to at least next year.  Throw in the redistricting mess and the general uncertainty of elections anyway, there is no guarantee tax cuts would ever be seen.

Oh, but wait.

Remember the tax cut bill that the Senate passed in March?  It, since it was technically was passed by the House and was amended by the Senate, could still be passed by the House and sent directly to the Governor.   How?

On a motion to concur.  If such a motion passed, the bill would go directly to the Governor, and the debate in the Senate over the revised version would die.

BUT, if the Senate killed the revised version first - then the action in the House would be void -- because it would nullify the previous vote which passed it.  

The simple question was -- who would act first?  That brings us to Steps 5 and 6.

The answer was the House, which passed the motion to concur on the more expensive version of the bill on a vote of 64-59 before the Senate could act.  But that was really "Step 6".  Step 5 was Senate conservatives who kept the debate alive on the revised version (which again, the Senate was going to kill) long enough to pass.

The vote sends the bill directly to the Governor, who, when it's officially presented to him, will have 10 days to sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature. 

Governor Brownback said today he would sign the bill, but urged legislators continue to work on his ideas.

In essence, that 10 day window -- really, 12-14 days by the time he receives the bill -- gives House and Senate negotiators time to pass a different version of the legislation that is closer to the version that the House and Brownback want.

If negotiators can get 63 (majority of the House) and 21 (majority of the Senate) to pass a new bill in that window, the Governor will sign that bill and veto the version passed today.

If they don't, then the Governor will sign the version passed today -- and work to fix the unsustainable parts of it in a future session.

The result of this gusty move by the Governor and House is two-fold:

In the short term, it puts the pressure on a few squishy Senate Republicans to either pass the tax reform package desired by the Governor and House -- and thus settle the issue, without having to worry about fixing the budget gap later through fixes to the plan passed today.

In the long term -- and this is the most important part -- today's action guarantees that there will be significant tax cuts signed into law, ensuring we will be on our way to fundamental tax reform and economic prosperity in Kansas.

What's ironic in all this is that several of the politicians who were trying to harm the Governor -- Morris, Emler, Huntington, etc. -- voted FOR the version of the tax reform that they are now complaining passed the House today.   So, while trying to protect their own hides by originally voting for tax cuts that they didn't really favor on a version they didn't think would ever really be signed into law, they kept the bill alive -- setting up the possibility for what happened today, which is that tax cuts will be signed into law, but only because they voted for it to begin with.

So, what happens now?

Do the left wing Republicans in the Senate cave and vote for a version more in line with Brownback's original package, in which case conservatives -- and the state of Kansas -- win?

Or, do left wing Republicans refuse to act and not pass anything, which means that the version passed today is signed into law, in which case conservatives -- and the state of Kansas -- win?

Of course, in the latter case, some will say "oh, but the budget deficit!"  No worries here, folks.  Brownback and the conservatives in the legislature know that whether it be next session or in a special session, that the issues in the bill passed today -- will be fixed, and the nightmare scenarios outlined will be avoided.

Now, are there risks in this?  Yes.   There always are in politics, but those who don't take risks don't get rewards.

But, in our view, the risks are not particularly high:

Given the Democrats were universally opposed to the bills, they could perhaps make hay of it and try to say that Republicans are being irresponsible -- but, the fact is Democrats are very weak in Kansas and that risk is minimal -- and Republicans could always justifiably charge in return the Democrats have zero interest in tax reform in Kansas.

As for the August primaries, which will largely take place in the Senate, the risk is also minimal - given that many of those moderates being challenged voted for the original version -- so they really can't complain about it passing.  Plus, if challenged, the conservatives who voted for it can simply say that they will fix it --  but that it was necessary to pass in order to achieve tax reform -- and in doing so, point out the games played by the moderates who voted for the expensive version but were going to block the budget-sound planned favored by the Governor.

So, in one political maneuver, conservatives called the bluff of the Senate liberals who voted for the plan and passed significant tax cuts on behalf of the people of Kansas.

In the end, a weaker Governor wouldn't have achieved this -- he would simply watched his bill die or be so severely weakened it would be categorized as a loss, both politically and legislatively.

However, because Kansas has a Governor with guts and legislative conservatives willing to back him up, today Kansas achieved a great victory -- and we believe that history will look back on today's actions as one of the most bold and courageous in Kansas history.