Kansas legislators move quickly on local tax transparency law
photo by: Nick Krug
TOPEKA — Kansas legislators moved quickly Thursday to try a different approach in seeking to limit city and county taxes after Gov. Laura Kelly and a key group signaled that they’re not as opposed to the concept as they once were.
The Senate voted 34-1 for a proposed transparency law that would require local officials to notify their constituents and hold a public hearing if they intend to spend extra dollars raised with property taxes. The bill would repeal what many lawmakers see as an ineffective lid on city and county property taxes that took effect in 2017.
The existing lid requires local voters’ approval when city and county commissions want to spend an increase in property tax revenues greater than the rate of inflation. But legislators said the law still allows increases in spending — and exempts some kinds of spending from the lid.
The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a similar transparency bill last year, but Kelly, a Democrat, vetoed it, and the League of Kansas Municipalities opposed it. The league this year was neutral, and Kelly appeared to soften her position during a Wednesday news conference.
That cleared the way for Thursday’s bipartisan vote for the bill, which sent the measure to the House. Republican leaders in both chambers see the measure as a top priority and believe that if it becomes law, pressure from constituents will keep local officials from raising taxes.
“This is just a way to give our constituents the transparency they need to weigh in,” said Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican.
In vetoing last year’s bill, Kelly said in a message to lawmakers that it could have deprived local governments of “essential funding” during the COVID-19 pandemic “when it is needed the most.” She also said it would have created “significant administrative burdens” for local officials when they should have been focused on the pandemic.”
But she said Wednesday that she favors transparency and that her issue with last year’s bill was “the amount of administrative hoops or work” for local officials.
“There was a lot in there that I really liked,” Kelly said. “I hope when it comes back this year that those issues have been taken into consideration.”
Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate tax committee, said the bill is less onerous in its requirements for sending notices to taxpayers about local governments’ activities.
Erik Sartorious, the League of Kansas Municipalities’ executive director, said local officials still are concerned that annual deadlines in the bill for counties to determine how much revenue can be spent without triggering the requirement are too early in the year. But he said that issue can be worked out.
The only vote Thursday against the bill came from Republican Sen. John Doll of Garden City, who predicted the proposed law “will not age well,” like other past attempts to control local taxes.
“Maybe it’s because county and local governments know what they’re doing,” Doll said.
Legislators have struggled for decades to limit local property taxes. They argue that property taxes are the least popular way for raising government revenue because the amount a business or home owner pays can rise based on a change in property values, even if tax rates don’t go up. They say people are often mystified as to why local appraisers increased their homes’ values.
“And you say, ‘I can’t even sell my house for that,'” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.