Editorial: Local control

Improving a law that imposes a property tax lid on local governments is a good step, but leaving local tax decisions to local officials would be even better.

Lawrence Journal-World opinion section

A proposed compromise improves a law that imposes a property tax lid on local governments across Kansas but it doesn’t erase the fact that state legislators are tampering with decisions that would be better left to local elected officials.

The bill passed last year forces city and county governments to hold an election to seek approval of any property tax increase that exceeds the rate of inflation. The law was pushed hard by the Kansas Association of Realtors, which sought this year to move its effective date up by one year. When the issue was reopened, local governments called for other changes to the law.

On its face the law would appeal to local taxpayers who are concerned about rising property taxes, but it has some problems. For instance, it makes no allowance for increases in property value, even those that result from growth and new construction. The compromise bill makes positive changes by allowing some kinds of property tax growth to occur without counting it against the inflation-based cap. Those would include new revenue that results from construction or renovation of property, new taxes raised to fund public safety functions and new tax revenue from companies whose property tax abatements expire.

A representative of the Realtors group told the Journal-World last week that he thought the compromise satisfied most local government concerns, but conceded that, although the League of Kansas Municipalities and the Kansas Association of Counties saw the compromise as a step in the right direction, they still don’t like the whole concept of a state-mandated property tax lid.

There are good reasons for that. Local voters elect city and county commissioners to make spending decisions on their behalf. If they don’t like the decisions that are being made, they can provide feedback during budget hearings and, of course, choose to elect new commissioners who they think will make better decisions.

The new law would place an arbitrary standard that may not allow local commissioners to meet the needs and wants of their constituents. They will have to spend additional time to make sure they are complying with the cap and, if they see a need to exceed the cap, local taxpayers will have to bear the expense of an election to approve that action.

Most of all, the new law presumes that state officials are more qualified to control local spending than the officials that are elected specifically for that job. Lawrence officials are not the only ones to point out that state officials “cry foul when the federal government tries to interfere with states’ rights” but nonetheless see fit to infringe on local governments’ control of local tax dollars.

It’s also worth noting that a number of state policy decisions have pushed additional responsibilities onto local governments. The decline in state support for state and community mental health services, for instance, increases the need for services like the mental health crisis center now being considered by Douglas County.

Once the people pushing the property tax lid finally listened to the officials who would be most affected by this bill, they could see that changes needed to occur. It’s good that they made some changes. Even better would be for them to recognize than local officials are better qualified that state legislators to make local spending decisions.