Headlines across the state are screaming that the Kansas Senate is cool to proposals to aid small businesses beset by huge jumps in their 1989 property tax bills.
Don't the senators care about commercial property owners saddled with property tax increases in the wake of statewide reappraisal and classification?
Of course they do, says Sen. Wint Winter Jr., R-Lawrence.
"We started hearings in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on the first day of the session, and that was the topic. We put it on the front burner," Winter, vice chairman of the committee, said.
Already a pair of so-called circuit-breaker measures for commercial property owners are making their way around the Statehouse, and a third is being drafted.
THE PROPERTY tax relief measures borrow their name from electrical circuit-breakers. As a circuit "trips" or relieves an electrical line when the line is overloaded, so too the property tax circuit-breakers are designed to provide relief to property owners once their taxes reach a "breaking" level.
Gov. Mike Hayden is pushing $43 million in property tax relief for businesses. House Speaker Jim Braden is proposing a $70 million package that includes a commercial circuit-breaker, and some House members are expected to draft a $93 million plan identical to the bill approved by the House during the special session.
Yet Winter admits none of the commercial circuit-breaker proposals seems to be gaining much popular backing in the upper chamber.
"THE SENATE is of the opinion there is a problem, primarily caused by bad appraisals and/or the classification amendment itself," Winter said. "But the type and magnitude of the problem is such that it seems impossible to solve it with a simplistic circuit-breaker."
For example, he said, property taxes raise about $1.6 billion statewide for operation of local governments. Estimates are that about $500 million of the $1.6 billion in taxes were shifted onto different taxpayers after reappraisal and classification. Can a $43 million circuit-breaker, Winter asks, solve $500 million in tax shifts?
Winter is critical of those, including the governor, who are promoting circuit-breakers as the solution for ills besetting commercial property owners.
"YOU'VE GOT the governor saying the solution to the problem is $43 million in state-collected taxes for a half-billion dollar problem. That's illogical," he said.
The Lawrence senator said that if the Legislature passed a $43 million commercial circuit-breaker today, it was signed into law and checks started going out, there is no guarantee that every business in need would be helped. At the same time, however, detouring money from other state programs to fund the circuit-breaker could make the situation worse.
There is growing criticism that senators aren't willing to put their necks on the line for a commercial circuit-breaker because they don't face election this year as do Hayden and the 125 members in the House.
"I THINK IF the senators were facing re-election this year, they'd be singing a different tune," said Rep. Jessie Branson, D-Lawrence.
Winter, however, says the Senate appears content to look at long-term solutions specifically taking a look at the amendment to the state constitution that spells out the levels at which different classes of property will be taxed. In the same breath, he is quick to remind constituents that all of the circuit-breakers are one-year fixes at best.
"Even if you can design a one-year circuit-breaker, it leads you back, ultimately, to the classification amendment and its problems. I think we'd better spend our time by revising that amendment," he said.