In the distraction and attraction of other issues, legislators at Topeka have forgotten that the Kansas confusion over state aid for cities and counties is part of a national confusion.
In recent years, Brownback-Colyer Republicans yanked Kansas to the right and ignored laws demanding that portions of state taxes collected locally be shared with cities and counties. These were called demand-transfers, enacted 40 years ago to stabilize the effect of state-ordered mandates and compensate for the local collection and processing of state taxes. Among these transfers were funds for ad valorem property tax relief and city-county revenue sharing; the tax on business machinery and equipment also has been phased out. The sole remaining transfer, a pittance of what it had been, is a state motor fuels tax allocation.
Local relief was first pilfered in an attempt to avoid minor but necessary tax increases. Later it was to obscure mounting budget deficits created by the Republicans’ plan to abolish state income taxes for certain businesses and the rich.
Problems began to erupt all over the lot, including sales taxes, schooling, the environment, housing, Medicare, prisons, hospitals – you name it, we had it.
We saw in Kansas the reenactment of an old pattern. When people get no relief on the local scene, they turn to Washington. This is what we saw in another era, when Gov. John Carlin’s predecessor refused to recognize that local governments needed help.
That can’t happen again.
Legislatures occupy the middle ground in our federal system, between local government and Washington. They are in closer touch with people than is Washington, and they are not so involved with local prejudices or local concerns as are city halls and courthouses.
Some evidence is at hand that a few state legislatures may be working their way back into a position of strength. Ours has further to go because few others embarked on such self-destructive ventures as abolishing an income tax with no practical way to make up the lost revenue – or balance the budget.
Even in Kansas, disenchantment with the federal government, starting with the Congress, is forcing the people to look elsewhere. The sheer bulk of local problems is demanding a stronger legislature, one that is more empathetic to the public interest than to the special interests.
Thanks to the 2016 elections that sent some new and independent thinkers to the state Capitol, the Legislature has begun to show a pulse of progress. They are at least giving lip service to such matters as school finance, the highway fund, and “transparency” in their affairs. We’ll see whether this new life lasts.
Fringe-right loyalists hold a heavy hand in the House and Senate. Special interest groups, starting with the many Koch-fueled policy institutes, still call too many of the shots affecting the public. Really tough assignments, such as a continued tax recovery, Medicaid expansion and reviving the highway fund, have been shrugged over to other sessions, or to more summer study and the warehouse for lost causes. Too many legislators were willing for too long simply to follow the leader, or to introduce lobbyists’ bills as their own.
This can be changed. Washington is hopeless, but Topeka is responding to life after Brownback. There is no better time to start a lasting resurgence of a vital legislature than right now, and through the elections in August and November.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL