Editorial: Property tax hike for schools

No one wants their property taxes to increase, but it may be the fairest way to fund Kansas public schools adequately.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, who chairs the House Taxation Committee, said property taxes will be front and center as lawmakers begin working to find an estimated $600 million to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order to increase school funding.

“The reason for property is, we had a meaningful change in income tax in 2017, a meaningful change in sales tax in 2015, and the one thing we did not discuss in committee last year was property tax,” Johnson said.

The statewide property tax levy is 20 mills, or $184 on a home valued at $100,000. That does not include additional property taxes levied by individual districts for local option budgets, capital outlay and debt financing.

Under a bill Johnson has introduced, the property tax levy would increase gradually to 26.76 mills for the 2018-2019 school year; 32.82 mills for 2019-2020; and 38.43 mills for 2020-2021 and beyond.

For the owner of a $100,000 house, that would raise the statewide school tax to $246.19 the first year; then to $338.74 the second year; and to $353.56 in the third year and beyond.

Johnson’s plan is opposed by Democrats. House Democratic Leader Jim Ward of Wichita, a candidate for governor, described the plan as “dead on arrival.”

“The most unpopular tax, the most unfair tax, the most wrong-headed way to fund schools is based on property,” he said. “And we know that because that’s the way we did it in the ’70s and ’80s, and it resulted in the first lawsuit. It’s the absolute wrong thing to do.”

Ward and other Democrats support further increasing the state income tax. They note that the recent federal tax overhaul by the Trump administration has saved Kansas’ wealthiest taxpayers hundreds of millions in taxes. Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, has introduced a bill that would raise the top marginal tax rate to 10 percent on income in excess of $500,000 a year for an individual or $1 million a year for a married couple.

But after a major triumph last session in joining with Republicans to reinstate state income taxes that had been slashed by then Gov. Sam Brownback, Democrats are naïve if they think they can rely on more income taxes to address the school funding issue.

It’s smart for the state to diversify its sources of revenue, and a balanced mix of income, sales and property taxes does that. For state legislators who are almost out of time and options to approve a plan for public education, Johnson’s property tax proposal may be the most pragmatic — and legislatively achievable — solution.