Changes made to income taxes in 2017 — which are still less than what taxpayers paid in 2012 — ended Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed tax experiment. These changes have increased revenues and the state budget has begun to stabilize. However, in the 2020 session there is much more to be done to reduce the tax burden on working and retired Kansans.

The 6.5% sales tax on food remains the highest in the nation when combined with local sales taxes. Local property taxes have skyrocketed, making it more difficult for seniors on fixed incomes and working families to stay in their homes. Main Street retail businesspeople are at a disadvantage collecting sales tax while online, out-of-state retailers do not.

Since Day 1, Gov. Laura Kelly has recognized the need for tax reform but has urged the Legislature to exercise restraint and give time to determine the full effects of tax changes made at both the state and federal levels.

She also assembled the Governor’s Council on Tax Reform, a bipartisan group tasked with doing a thorough study of the state’s tax structure. I am a member of this council. We have met four times and will continue to meet next year before making our final recommendations.

In the meantime, the council did make some initial recommendations. It proposed restoring the food sales tax refund credit, which was repealed to pay for Brownback’s tax experiment. This would give tax relief to more than 400,000 senior, disabled and low-income Kansans. The council wants to re-establish the Local Ad Valorem Tax Reduction Fund, which helps local units of government reduce property taxes. It also recommended measures to help level the playing field for our Main Street retailers in competition with out-of-state retailers.

Despite the council’s recommendations and the governor’s call for caution, we can expect some Republicans to push for irresponsible changes to the tax system just as Brownback did while he was governor. From 2012 to 2017, our tax system was way out of balance. Thirty-six percent of total taxes came from property and vehicles, 31.5% from sales and only 19% from income. We must work toward maintaining a more balanced system in the future.

Another issue facing us in the 2020 session is Medicaid expansion.

The Kansas Hospital Association estimates the state loses slightly more than $2 million per day of delay on Medicaid expansion, or a total loss of $3.7 billion since 2014. This is money paid by Kansas taxpayers that has gone to other states that have expanded Medicaid. We cannot recoup these dollars if we do not implement a Kansas solution.

I have pre-filed Senate Bill 246 to allow Kansas to finally expand Medicaid. Doing so will help hospitals and providers keep their doors open, especially in rural parts of the state. It also provides as many as 150,000 uninsured Kansans with access to health care, many of whom are already working but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid or too little to afford meaningful private insurance coverage. All of this can be accomplished without a tax increase.

Kansas is moving forward along a road of recovery. We can keep making Kansas better by continuing to take strategic steps to reduce the tax burden on Kansans with a more balanced and fair tax structure and more access to affordable health care.

 

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, is the Senate minority leader.