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Kan. sales tax hike cuts against state's image


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TOPEKA, Kan. — Come July, shoppers in Kansas will be handing over more money on every purchase because of a sales tax increase at odds with the state's image as a conservative stronghold.

Even as Republicans from Kansas talk up lower taxes and smaller government in Congress, the GOP-led state Legislature approved the jump in sales tax from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent that critics say makes Kansas more like California than its Midwestern neighbors.

Across the country, much of the talk has been about budget cuts as states try to wrestle their spending down to balance out lower revenues. After severe reductions last year, Kansas lawmakers were hearing concern from many voters about preserving schools as districts began discussing program cuts and staff layoffs.

"No one likes the thought of paying more taxes, but with the current economic situation, some type of tax increase seems inevitable," said grocer Mark Fillmore, whose family has owned the M&M Market in Belle Plaine for three generations. He said any reasonable person knows schools need the money.

That concern for schools didn't translate into tax increases in most places. In Kansas, though, the new revenues are expected to prevent a cut in education funding in the $13.7 billion budget.

Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson expects to sign the measure, marking Kansas' first general tax increase since 2002, by the end of the month.

Some activists and legislators were shaking their heads at a tax increase in a Republican-leaning state with a vocal tea party movement, and that the GOP-dominated Legislature refused in an election year to block an outgoing Democratic governor's push to raise taxes.

"It's a liberal decision," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. He saw the move as surprising given decisions by governors and legislators this year in states including Idaho, Louisiana, Idaho, Minnesota and New Jersey to avoid higher taxes despite pressing budget problems.

But Republicans legislators who worked with Parkinson and his fellow Democrats said they were compelled to push for a tax increase after multiple rounds of cuts last year.

"I guess I would see Kansas as a responsible-acting state, and that doesn't have anything to do with whether you're red or blue," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican.

Nicholas Johnson, director of the state fiscal project for the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said 33 states have raised taxes in some way since the recession began in 2008.

The most common option appears to be raising tobacco taxes, which more than 20 states have done, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but sales and even income taxes have been in the mix.

New Mexico recently enacted a slight increase in its equivalent of the sales tax, though the governor vetoed a measure to apply the tax to groceries. And Arizona voters decide next week whether to approve raising the state sales tax from 5.6 percent to 6.6 percent for three years.

Depending on that vote, Kansas will rank 10th or 11th in the country after July 1 for its tax rate, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. That's up from 28th now.

While Kansas is a reliable conservative in some ways, GOP moderates are still a significant bloc in the Legislature. Education funding is where that group and minority Democrats come together most often.

"The perception is that Kansas is a conservative state," Parkinson said. "But I think our history just demonstrates the opposite. We are a progressive state."

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