Kansas Republicans furious with Kelly over tax cut vetoes. But GOP votes blocked override

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As Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly prepares to veto the Legislature’s latest package of tax cuts, top Republicans have repeatedly attacked the Democratic chief executive. They have cast her opposition as intransigence and likened her actions to “being a bit of a dictator.”

Republicans have spent far less time drawing attention to a major reason lawmakers are still fighting with the governor over taxes: members of their own party.

While recent tax packages opposed by Kelly over their costliness have garnered substantial bipartisan support in the House, efforts to override Kelly’s vetoes have been met with bipartisan opposition in the Senate. In the tax fight in Topeka, typical partisan dividing lines have become blurred.

The last tax cuts measure vetoed by Kelly came within a single vote of becoming law. An effort to override the veto in late April succeeded in a strong 104-15 vote in the House. It only failed in the Senate after Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, voted against overriding the veto after he previously voted in favor of the bill. The 26-14 tally was one short of the 27 votes needed for an override.

Republican Sens. Rob Olson of Olathe and John Doll of Garden City also voted against the override. Olson had previously voted against the bill, while Doll missed the vote. If just one of the three GOP senators had supported the override, the veto would have been overturned.

GOP senators who supported the tax cuts package were keenly aware of the close margin. Ahead of the vote, Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican who chairs the Senate Tax Committee, pleaded with her colleagues to support the override.

“When you cast this vote, you are the deciding vote … you will decide for the almost three million people in Kansas. You decide whether they have tax relief,” Tyson said.

After the override failed, the Legislature quickly passed a new package before ending its regular session for the year. But Kelly has promised to veto the bill and must take action on it this week.

Lawmakers won’t have the chance to override the latest veto because the session is over, but the governor has said she will call a special session with the hope of the Legislature passing a proposal she finds acceptable.

Lawmakers face a key choice in the upcoming special session – develop a tax plan Kelly will sign or one that more Republican senators will support during a veto override.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, during a news conference in late April, appeared to suggest the answer is working with Kelly.

“I don’t know what Dennis Pyle is going to do. I’m not sure what he’s thinking. We’re taking steps towards her getting in,” Masterson said, referring to Kelly, adding that “we’ve come closer to her every single time.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican, said on KPTS “Kansas Week” last week that lawmakers have moved closer to the governor’s position each time the Legislature has passed a bill “because we don’t have the votes to override.”

“We want tax cuts. We don’t have the votes to do it, so we’ve had to come her direction,” Carpenter said.

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover
Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover

‘Absolutely no way’

The plan Kelly has said she will veto would cost $641 million in the first year, with projected costs after that between $462 million and $472 million a year during the first five years. Kelly has called for the cost of tax cuts not to exceed roughly $425 million a year, a limit her aides say includes all tax changes passed by the Legislature, not just this bill.

The measure would move Kansas from three state income tax brackets to two, providing many taxpayers with a break in the process. It raises the personal exemption allowance for dependents, lowers the statewide mill levy for schools, and accelerates the elimination of the state sales tax on food to July 1, in addition to ending taxes on Social Security income.

“I have made it very clear from the get-go that I will veto any bill that came to me that would put Kansas in financial jeopardy. The bill the Legislature passed would do exactly that,” Kelly told KCUR last week.

“There is absolutely no way that I would sign it. I’ll call the Legislature back into a special session to pass a good tax cut bill.”

Kelly said she will put forward a new tax plan. The governor previously rolled out a plan in January with the support of Pyle, Olson, and Doll.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, rolled out her tax plan with the support of key senators Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, an Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Independent.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, rolled out her tax plan with the support of key senators Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, an Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Independent.

Pyle has long been an irritant to GOP leaders. He left the party for a time to mount an independent campaign for governor in 2022, winning 20,452 votes. Some Republicans largely blame him for then-Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s loss to Kelly.

Doll, who doesn’t plan to seek reelection, also temporarily left the party to become the running mate of Greg Orman, a Johnson County businessman who campaigned for governor in 2018 as an independent. Orman’s campaign is also seen as having aided Kelly’s election.

Doll said on Monday that he would like to see property tax relief be more central to any tax package.

“I kind of have a card in my hand because I could be that 27th vote. But I don’t use that to try to gain anything – if I could gain anything, it would be property tax relief,” Doll said.

Olson has been in the Legislature since 2005 and has at times clashed with legislative leaders. Last year, Masterson removed him as chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee shortly after he opposed overriding Kelly’s veto of a flat income tax.

Olson also doesn’t plan to run for reelection and has grown increasingly vocal about his frustration with the Legislature’s direction on taxes.

“I’m tired of the trickle-down economics. It doesn’t work,” Olson said during a recent Senate floor speech.

Pyle didn’t respond to a call on Monday. During the Senate debate on the veto override of the tax cuts, he said he believed lawmakers could come up with a better tax plan and said the Legislature had been making progress.

Sen. Dennis Pyle
Sen. Dennis Pyle

Political future at stake?

Mike Brown, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, in a recent party newsletter, accused Pyle, Olson, and Doll of “recklessly” siding with Democrats during the debate over tax cuts. “Not voting to pass the tax plan due to petty arguments or grinding old axes is a political and moral failure,” Brown wrote.

Doll and Olson’s decision to not seek reelection illustrate the stakes of this fall’s legislative elections. Every seat in the Legislature will be on the ballot and Democrats want to eliminate Republican supermajority control of the House and Senate. If Doll and Olson are replaced by Republicans who side with GOP leaders on tax cuts, Kelly may not be able to prevent veto overrides unless Democrats end the GOP supermajority in the Senate.

How Pyle – who voted for the two most recent tax bills but opposed a veto override – approaches the special session could determine his political future. If Pyle runs for reelection, he faces two Republican primary opponents.

Pyle’s name has also been floated as a possible candidate for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd District after U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner announced he won’t seek reelection. Pyle told The Star in April that he’s “running for the Senate seat until I’m not.”

“The governor said she will call us back for a tax cut,” Pyle said on the Senate floor, “and I’m taking her at her word.”