Opinion: Limiting cities is not good for Kansas
I’ve used this space many times over the years to provide some defense of the political powers and interests of the cities that over 75% of Kansans live in. I did last month in response to a bill in Topeka — which thankfully died in committee — that would have forbidden cities from exercising almost any kind of local control over the businesses that their residents interact with. This month I’m looking at another bill, one that isn’t as egregious a violation of Home Rule on its face, but in the long run might turn out to be just as bad or worse.
The bill in question is an omnibus bill, containing a large number of proposed changes to Kansas tax laws. There is much in it that Kansans of many different political orientations might either criticize or praise, but its “government competition” section deserves special criticism.
As written, it would mean that any restaurant, child-care center or heath club that operates within five miles of any similar entity that can be defined, on the basis of its tax status, as “owned or operated by a governmental entity,” would be exempt from paying property taxes.
That this provision of the bill is an attempt (the latest of several) by the owners of Genesis Health Clubs to get state legislators to guarantee them the same property-tax exemption that nonprofit YMCAs enjoy has been exposed by multiple journalists. It is worth taking a moment, though, to be clear on why a provision like this can get this far.
It’s not simply because of the influence of wealthy constituents and donors. Sure, that’s what philosophers might call the efficient cause of the provision — the part that actually acted to make it happen. But what of its material cause — that is, the substance or context out of which the provision was made or was enabled to come to be, when the efficient cause went to work?
Here I think one can only point to the pervasive disrespect too many in our state government have for the responsibility of the cities and counties to make governing decisions in response to the needs and demands of their own residents.
If we believe in local government, then those local governments obviously need revenue to be able to do the collective work that the residents who live in those cities and counties ask them to do, particularly when it comes to providing the quality-of-life improvements that many nonprofits make available at no (or at least comparatively low) cost to Kansas communities. If this provision becomes law, it could greatly harm the ability of Kansas municipalities to collect property taxes, as it may allow restaurants and gyms operating miles from not just from YMCAs, but from anything as small as a limited-hours deli, or an onsite day care center, operating inside a city hall or a court house or other public facility, to no longer contribute any property tax to the cities that provide them with fire and police protection and much more. Which would only help undermine the whole point of local democracy in the first place.
With any luck, Gov. Laura Kelly will use her line-item veto power to strike out this provision, thus making certain Kansas cities and counties can continue to take responsibility for those things that the Home Rule provision of the state constitution says they should be able to. But as for striking out the disregard too many have for the right of municipalities to govern themselves — well, the evidence suggests that will take a lot longer.
— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.