The Governor’s Council on Tax Reform met for the second time last week, with special attention paid to tax bills passed last session but ultimately vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly.
While it’s likely not worth litigating again — the legislation passed would have benefited some individual taxpayers along with multinational corporations — the meeting highlighted just how complex taxation really is. Making a small change in one area can result in large repercussions in another. The council has its work cut out for it, and we wish them well.
The traditional way of looking at state taxes is through the analogy of the three-legged stool. That is, Kansas government depends on income, sales and property taxes to balance the books. If revenue from any one of those three sources craters, the burden is passed on to the other two.
The whole Brownback tax “experiment” then, can be easily understood as an attempt to lop off one of the stool’s legs. The legislation dramatically reduced income tax rates in an attempt to stimulate the state’s economy. The move didn’t work, and the other two legs of the stool — sales and property taxes — had to make up some of the difference.
That’s why we end up with a situation in which Kansas sales taxes are some of the highest in the country. They’re set at 6.5 percent, with many cities and towns adding to that for their local needs. Likewise, property taxes in many communities went up to offset reductions in support from state income taxes.
Yes, legislators undid much of the “experiment” in the 2017 legislative session. But state income tax rates still aren’t back to where they were before the tinkering began. And while the state has enjoyed new revenue, budget projections make it clear that we’re heading for a deficit within a few short years.
That’s why Kelly and a vocal minority balked at the tax legislation debated recently. No doubt worthwhile changes can be made, but we’ve only just recovered some stability. The real questions for the council going ahead is how to limit or reduce sales and property taxes while ensuring that income taxes are fairly levied. Spending, too, should be examined, which seems a bitter pill to swallow after the pervasive disinvestment of the Brownback years.
As we said at the beginning, the council has its work cut out for it. The outcomes can be easy to pull for — no one wants to pay high sales taxes. But how the council recommends achieving them will be a complicated, ideologically fraught task.