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Kansas headed toward debating tax increase again for schools

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are headed toward considering a second big tax increase within a year because of a state Supreme Court order to boost funding for public schools, though even vocal supporters of education spending find the prospect unappealing.

Lawmakers on Monday formally kicked off work on a response to the court's October order that the state's aid to public schools is constitutionally inadequate with the first meeting of a special joint committee. Briefings for panel members included a staff report that the state could face budget shortfalls again after July 2019, even without adding extra money for schools.

Bipartisan majorities in the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted a $600 million-a-year income tax increase earlier this year, rolling back past tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. The move helped the state balance its budget and phase in a $293 million increase in aid to public schools over two years, making it $4.3 billion annually.

The court didn't set a specific total funding amount to divide among Kansas public schools, but its order hinted that the figure could be roughly $650 million more a year. The report from legislative staff showed that the budget cannot accommodate even a more modest amount without additional revenues or the kind of spending cuts elsewhere that lawmakers have been unwilling to make.

"Somebody's going to have to come up with a list of how do you raise $600 million," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican. He added that even with a lesser amount, "They're still going to have to come up with a way to pay for it."

The entire Legislature reconvenes in January for its annual session, with fashioning a new school funding law at the top of its agenda.

Brownback pushed for income tax cuts starting in 2012 to stimulate the economy, but voters soured on the fiscal experiment last year because the persistent budget problems followed. While lawmakers reversed most of the tax cuts, they still diverted money from highway projects and shorted public-pension contributions to make the budget work.

And they would have to resort to the same maneuvers to head off shortfalls during the two-year period starting in July 2019, their staff's budget report shows.

Many Democrats argued earlier this year that the income tax increase lawmakers approved wouldn't be sufficient, but even they are now loathe to talk about another tax increase. For example, Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Wichita-area Democrat, suggested that the state could start by scaling back business incentives.

As for increasing taxes again, he said, "That's going to be difficult."


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