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Kansas lawmakers race to reckon with flat tax, DEI disputes before spring break

Kansas lawmakers race to reckon with flat tax, DEI disputes before spring break

The Kansas Legislature is scrambling to address tax cuts, funding for disability services and immigration issues ahead of its annual three-week spring break starting next week. Most bills that don’t pass by then won’t be considered when lawmakers return April 29 for a short wrap-up session.

Republicans disagree over how to cut income taxes, as well as pay for other big-ticket items such as disability rights. It's all coming to a head as lawmakers approach their annual "Drop Dead Day," a deadline to either pass legislation or let it fade away.

Lawmakers are supposed to finish a proposed $25 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

STATE MAKES RETAIL THEFT A FELONY AS ORGANIZED CRIME PROLIFERATES

Here is a look at some of the major issues up for consideration this week:

The Legislature is having its second go at enacting income, sales and property tax cuts this year after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a GOP package in January because it included a single-rate, or "flat," income tax, which she said favored the "super rich." With help from several GOP defectors, Democrats narrowly stopped the governor's veto from being overridden in the House.

State tax collections have fallen short in recent months, but Kansas is still on track to end June 2025 with more than $4 billion in surplus funds. Legislators are poised to approve tax cuts worth $500 million to $600 million annually, while a plan Kelly outlined in January would be worth about $300 million a year.

The House and Senate both want to exempt retirees' Social Security benefits from income taxes, decrease the property taxes levied by the state for public schools and adjust standard personal income tax deductions.

The key difference is in proposed income tax rates.

A Senate plan would set a single rate of 5.7% — the top rate now — and decrease it over five years to 5.45%.

In the House, GOP leaders concluded a single-rate plan is unlikely to overcome another Kelly veto. Instead, they want to eliminate the lowest income tax bracket and set the top rate at 5.65%.

Kelly hasn't said publicly whether she would accept a plan with two rates.

While Senate Republicans appear to have a two-thirds majority for their plan, the House approved its version this week 123-0. The final tax plan will be drafted by three Senate and three House negotiators.

Immigration and diversity issues are both part of this year's budget negotiations in Kansas.

Republican senators have added a provision to their spending plan that would support Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's battle with the Biden administration over border security. The measure sets aside $15.7 million for a proposed border mission before July and directs Kelly to deploy Kansas National Guard resources to help Texas.

Asked about that provision last month, Kelly said the state constitution makes her the guard's commander-in-chief, "And I make those decisions."

Another provision in the Senate budget proposal would withhold $35.7 million from state universities until top administrators go before Kelly and legislative leaders and renounce certain diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The lawmakers want schools to declare they won't require prospective students or job applicants to commit to DEI principles or require them to discuss their experiences with DEI programs.

Last year, Kelly vetoed two anti-DEI budget provisions. One would have prevented state universities from using DEI principles in hiring. The other would have barred the state board that licenses mental health professionals from requiring or incentivizing them to undergo training in diversity or anti-racism theories.

Some Kansas families are waiting 10 years to get in-home or community services for their children with physical or intellectual-developmental disabilities. Lawmakers are weighing solutions.

While 15,000 disabled Kansans have access to services such as day programs, employment assistance or home care, more than 7,600 are on waiting lists. A total of 23 people died in 2022 and 2023 while waiting for services, according to the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

Kelly now proposes spending $23 million to provide services for 250 physically disabled people and 250 with intellectual-developmental disabilities who are now on waiting lists. The House proposal would double that.

Some House Democrats have pushed unsuccessfully to spend enough to service an additional 1,000 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Yet some Republicans question whether service providers can handle such an increased workload.

"It is disingenuous to tell them they’re going to get help when we can’t even find the workers to provide the services that they need," House Health Committee Chairperson Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said during a recent meeting.

But advocates for the disabled have questioned whether another 500 slots for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities will even shrink their waiting list, given that hundreds more individuals were added to it in each of the last two years.

Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, argues providers will build the capacity if the state commits more money.

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