TOPEKA, Kan. – Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday that he wishes Kansas had preserved part of an income tax break he championed as a boon for small businesses and defended the now-repealed policy that critics said did not work.
Brownback cited the death of the exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners as one of his regrets during his 6½ years as governor. He reflected on his tenure during a Statehouse news conference following his nomination by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
His departure would elevate Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a fellow GOP conservative, to governor. Brownback said he doesn't know whether he'll wait until his ambassador's appointment is confirmed by the U.S. Senate before resigning in Kansas.
The two-term governor saw his standing with voters and his national reputation drop as the state faced ongoing budget problems following aggressive income tax cuts backed by Brownback in 2012 and 2013. Legislators earlier this year repealed the exemption for farmers and business owners and increased income tax rates to raise $1.2 billion over the next two years, enacting the tax hike over Brownback's veto.
Brownback said the tax exemption for farmers and business owners put Kansas at the center of a national debate over helping small businesses. He repeated his argument that had agriculture and energy production not slumped in recent years, Kansas would not have faced the serious budget problems it did.
"We've opened up a new policy frontier," Brownback said. "I don't think that's going away in the country because the growth of small business is so critical."
Many voters concluded last year that the tax-cutting experiment hadn't delivered on Brownback's promises of economic growth and ousted two dozen of his allies from the Legislature. Some lawmakers also thought the exemption — for non-wage income — was unfair because professionals such as doctors and accountants avoided income taxes while their workers had to pay it.
Brownback told reporters that his conflict with lawmakers over taxes didn't prompt him to accept the nomination from Trump, and he said months of speculation about an appointment didn't distract him from state duties.
In fact, he summarized his time in elective office with, "It's just been a hoot."
But he said he wishes now that lawmakers had capped the tax exemption for farmers and business owners so perhaps they paid taxes on income above $150,000.
"I hope it comes back in Kansas," Brownback said of the issue.
Supporters of this year's income tax increase believed it would help keep the budget balanced through June 2019, but it's not clear that they can avoid another tax debate before then.
Brownback's nomination came as the Kansas Supreme Court is reviewing a new school finance law that phases in a $293 million increase in spending on public schools over two years. The court must decide whether the boost is big enough after declaring in March that the $4 billion a year the state had been spending was inadequate.
Democrats are predicting that the court will direct lawmakers to increase aid to public schools even more and possibly even force legislators to reconvene for a special session this summer or fall — just before Brownback resigns as governor or shortly after Colyer takes over.
"That's clearly the No. 1 issue that will be coming up," said state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. "There's no way that, that won't then drag in tax issues again."
During his news conference, Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, said he's proud of 19 anti-abortion laws enacted during his tenure, saying Kansas is a "culture of life state" and, "We are not going back."
He also touted the position for which he's been nominated as important to fighting for religious freedom for people of all faiths across the globe. He noted that Congress created the job two decades ago, when he served in the U.S. Senate.
"International religious freedom is going the wrong way," Brownback said. "There's more persecution, not less, that's taken place over the last 20 years."
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