This is a place where the Kansas Legislature probably should take care of its own business before meddling in someone else's.
In an effort to appease angry taxpayers, Gov. Mike Hayden has proposed a constitutional amendment that would force local governments to reduce their property tax levies to 80 percent of their current levels. His idea is that the loss of revenue will be made up by additional local sales taxes, but his proposal doesn't spell out the details.
These challenges are left to the local governments to struggle with, just as they already are struggling to cope with rising costs and increased demand for services. They are well-acquainted with these problems. They don't need the governor or Legislature to explain them. They are most knowledgeable and sensitive to property tax levies, but Hayden doesn't see it that way.
The state receives only a tiny portion about 1.5 mills of the property tax levies in each Kansas county, but Hayden now wants the state to have a huge say in how those taxes are levied. Hayden has proposed a simple, blanket solution to a terribly complex problem that was created, in large part, not by levies set by local governments, but by the state itself, through reappraisal and classification.
Hayden's plan calls for all local governments to cut their property tax levies by 20 percent, but it makes no allowances for the differences between cities, counties, school districts and township boards. A school district that had tried hard to hold down tax levies in recent years would be hit just as hard as one that has spent freely. A rural town that levies a tiny property tax would be affected the same as a city with a multi-million dollar budget.
Although Hayden's proposal doesn't spell it out, he thinks the property tax difference can be made up with sales tax. Does that mean every local government will be forced to levy its own sales tax? Only cities and counties can now levy sales taxes. Would Hayden add school districts to that list? Or townships? Won't those individual sales taxes add up pretty quickly? How about depressed areas of the state? It might be much more difficult for residents of Coffeyville to raise a million dollars with a sales tax than it would be for the residents of Lenexa.
Local governments levy property taxes, and they should be the ones who answer for them. They should know what services their constituents want and how much they're willing to pay for them. If they don't, their local voters should let them know. Even if the local judgments are off-base, they probably still would come closer to meeting the specific needs of their constituents and their ability to pay the taxes than a blanket edict handed down by the state. Hayden's tax lid plan could even cause local governments to take less responsibility for their overall tax structure, because they could blame state restrictions on property taxes for higher and higher taxes in other areas.
Rather than jumping into the affairs of every local taxing unit in the state, Hayden should direct his attention to the area where the state has had the most effect on property taxes. Most of the current tax outcry is a direct result of the tax shifts created by statewide reappraisal and classification. The Legislature should concentrate its efforts on fixing the classification system and adjusting the tax burden instead of meddling with local tax levies.
Rolling back property taxes sounds like a good idea, and it makes a great campaign speech. But easing the tax burden is a complex problem that won't be solved by simply passing the buck.