Kansas GOP treasurer candidates Tyson, Johnson locked in dispute over tax policy

TOPEKA — Republican state treasurer candidates Caryn Tyson and Steven Johnson closed their primary campaigns by engaging in heated attacks focused on culpability for passage of massive tax hikes during their years in the Kansas Legislature.

Tyson, a state senator from Parker, responded with vigor to the latest campaign commercial from Johnson, a state representative from Assaria. Johnson’s blitz on Tyson and her response were unleashed in the stretch run of the 2022 primary, with Republicans deciding Tuesday which of the two faces Democratic state Treasurer Lynn Rogers in November.

The omnious voice narrating Johnson’s name touched on GOP talking points of rising inflation and high gas prices before declaring “the last thing we need is tax-hiking Caryn Tyson as state treasurer. Tyson was the architect of the largest tax hikes in Kansas history.”

Tyson, who responded by alleging Johnson was removed as House tax chairman for his “tax-and-spend policies,” serves as chairman of the Senate tax committee.

“My opponent is desperate,” said Tyson, who called Johnson a liar three times in a news release. “He is lying and trying to blame me for things that he actually did in the Legislature. Kansans deserve honesty, not a candidate like my opponent who has been running from his record this entire campaign.”

Rep.  Steven Johnson, left, a Republican from Assaria and a GOP candidate for state treasurer, accused primary rival Sen.  Caryn Tyson of being a key negotiator
Rep. Steven Johnson, left, a Republican from Assaria and GOP candidate for state treasurer, accused primary rival Sen. Caryn Tyson in a campaign name of being “architect” of two large tax increases. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Johnson’s commercial emphasized Tyson’s role on six-person bipartisan House-Senate negotiating committees that devised two bills raising state taxes while Republican Sam Brownback was governor.

She was on the conference committee that hammered out a 2015 bill eagerly signed into law by Brownback and the conference committee that devised a 2017 bill approved by lawmakers over Brownback’s veto.

Tyson voted against both bills on the Senate floor. Johnson served on one of the tax conference committees, as a representative of the House, but voted for both pieces of legislation.

Rob Fillion, campaign manager for Johnson, said Tyson was the common denominator in negotiations between the House and Senate on the tax bills. As a member of the conference committees, Fillion said, Tyson agreed to send the reform bills to the House and Senate floors. Both were adopted by the GOP-controlled chambers.

“Caryn Tyson was the architect of the two largest tax increases in Kansas history, drafting crippling tax hikes on Kansas families,” Fillion said. “The advertisement and Caryn Tyson’s tax hiking record are accurate.”

In 2015, Tyson voted against and Johnson voted for House Bill 2109, which raised the state’s sales tax from 6.15% to 6.5% on purchases, including groceries, at the behest of Brownback. It was estimated at that time that the law would increase state tax revenue by more than $380 million per year.

The maneuver was an attempt by Brownback and other Republicans to offset the staggering decline in state revenue since 2012 that resulted from the implementation of his economic “experiment” in supply-side, trickle-down policy. The central piece of his plan to expand the Kansas economy was the elimination of the state’s income tax.

Tyson also voted against and Johnson voted for the 2017 bill repealing much of Brownback’s tax program, including an unpopular policy that had allowed limited liability companies to avoid state income tax since 2012. The bill increased individual income tax rates to 3.1% (up from 2.9%), 5.25% (up from 4.9%) and 5.7% (up from 5.2%), depending on taxable income.

The correction, initially vetoed by Brownback, was embraced by two-thirds majorities in the GOP Legislature and bought stability to the state government’s budget with the promise of more than $500 million annually in new revenue.

During the 2022 legislative session, the House and Senate and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly agreed to a three-year plan to eliminate the state’s 6.5% sales tax on groceries. Kelly preferred an immediate end to the food sales tax, but Republicans insisted on the phased approach.

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