Parkinson’s plan has two virtues: it works; it’s easy

To stop the bleeding in our state’s public schools and universities, Gov. Mark Parkinson proposed to close a projected $400 million budget gap by raising the state’s sales tax a penny and increasing taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The sales tax hike would raise about $308.2 million; that on tobacco, $69.5 million.
Coming from a Democrat, this straightforward, one-two punch produced predictable dissent from the Republican majorities in both House and Senate. Republicans will, it is assumed, try to craft an alternative proposal.
An alternative that raises $380 million, as Parkinson’s proposal would, would be dandy fine. The governor, it can be safely assumed, would be more than willing to accept whatever tax increase mix that can pass the Legislature — so long as it allows him to restore some of the money already stripped from the public schools and keep the universities from huge tuition in-creases and program reductions.
Because of the state’s tax structure, a penny increase in the sales tax is the best way to raise the large amount needed quickly. To raise the same amount through the income tax on individuals and businesses would require a much larger percentage increase in the rate — and the additional income would not be fully realized until the next fiscal year.
It also is not practical to go to the property tax for the needed cash.
Much has been made about the number of tax exemptions Kansas has on the books and the tax cuts on businesses and individuals that were passed in the 1990s, when the state’s coffers were bulging with dot.com millions. Some of those exemptions should be trimmed back; perhaps some of the tax cuts should be rescinded. But taking back benefits granted in the past is much easier said than done. Each exemption challenged will produce a pocket of resistance. Each tax cut re-examined will create another band of brothers united against that particular “reform.”
If those kinds of changes are to be accomplished, they probably will come as a result of a blue ribbon, bipartisan committee created to propose top-to-bottom tax restructuring.
What is needed now is an uncomplicated way to fund our public schools and universities at an acceptable level this year and next. By 2012, the economy should be back on its feet. Then the state’s political leaders should launch a full-bore examination of how the state pays for the things it does to serve the people of Kansas and make whatever changes in the tax structure that seem wise.
This session of the Legislature faces an immediate emergency in the midst of a continuing recession. There could be no time less appropriate for piece-at-a-time tax reform.
As much as it may injure their political sensibilities, thoughtful Republicans should find a graceful, face-saving way to agree with Parkinson, pass his tax increases as a farewell gift as he exits the governorship — and then take all the credit for saving the schools.
It wouldn’t hurt that much. Really. And sleep would come easier.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.