In the nearly eight months since Republicans in control of the Kansas Legislature and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly agreed to terms to phase out the state’s food sales tax, food prices have skyrocketed and an additional $6.50 % on products remained in effect.
Now, just re-elected and disillusioned the deal she negotiatedKelly wants to move away from the phase-out in favor of a faster and more complete repeal of the tax, which takes the biggest chunks out of households with the least money.
That sales tax went down to 4% on Jan. 1, and Kelly says it’s too slow. Meanwhile, food prices in the Midwest have risen. more than 13% compared to last year.
Brian Walker, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Food Bank in Wichita, said the phasing out could help poorer families, but removing the surcharge altogether would help even more.
“Now it makes sense for us,” Walker said, “to cut it all down and really provide the relief that this bill was supposed to give people.”
Kelly urged lawmakers to cut taxes several times, which she said would save Kansas $500 million over three years. She said cuts were possible because the state’s budget surplus was over $2 billion.
The headline of this plan is to abolish the food sales tax for good. It’s the same plan she proposed a year ago and a promise she made during the election campaign this autumn. At times in recent years, both Kelly and leading Republicans have supported the same idea.
Along with the food sales tax, the governor’s proposal eliminates taxes on diapers and period products. Kelly also proposed lowering the Social Security income tax for retirees and introducing a three-day tax holiday for shopping before school.
Kelly claims the original food tax proposal was a victim election year politics. While Republican lawmakers generally support tax cuts, they also didn’t want to give Kelly political wins right before she filed for re-election.
But now that the election is over and Kelly has won four more years in office, she has vowed to work with the Republicans to get things done.
However, these legislators may not see much political incentive to give Kelly what she wants.
Alexandra Middlewood, a political scientist at Wichita State University, said the phase-out would fit well with the state’s 2024 election, when all Kansas House and Senate seats are up for election. The tax is currently due to fall to 2% in 2024 and to zero from January 1, 2025.
With a schedule like that, Republicans could wait for a phase-out — to delay action until an election year, not now — and use it as a campaign element to try to keep the GOP’s overwhelming majority in the Legislative Assembly.
“It’s better for them,” Middlewood said, “to extend it or leave it as it is now and try to get some political advantage from it in the next election.”
Republicans have yet to disclose their tax plans for the upcoming session. House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said in a statement that Kelly’s proposal would be considered, but suggested that House Republicans were more interested in a tax cut that “would benefit all Kansas.”
But Brett Hartford, chief executive of Lawrence’s food bank Just Food, argues that the food sales tax cut benefits all of Kansas.
Just Food primarily provides complementary groceries to the people it serves, and some 30,000 homes have used the food bank in the past six months. But everyone needs to buy groceries.
“This would be a huge relief for everyone in Kansas,” Hartford said, “but especially for people who need additional products, like our customers.”
Meanwhile, one of Kelly’s other tax cut proposals — cutting the income tax on retirees’ Social Security — may be more attractive to lawmakers. Republican Derek Schmidt proposed exempting pensions, Social Security, and private pension payments from state income tax as part of his campaign for governor, which ultimately lost to Kelly.
Middlewood said Kansas Republicans have historically been more interested in lowering income taxes. A Social Security tax cut might be something Republicans could stomach.
“So you could see that they won’t play ball on the product tax,” Middlewood said, “but they’re willing to make some concessions on some of the other tax cuts that have been proposed.”
Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio dedicated to health, social determinants of health, and their relationship to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photographs may be published free of charge by the media with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
Copyright 2023 SDG 89.3. To learn more, visit KCUR 89.3.