Property and taxes: a review

Valley Voice

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Politicians often treat taxes as if they were rogue bacteria, ever-ready to afflict suffering and decay. This makes fine stuff for a speech or a campaign brochure but it smears reality. When administered with fairness and equity, taxes support and strengthen the welfare of communities and their citizens.

Politics these days no longer explain the issue but mangle it. Taxes are mostly discussed top down, beginning with crusty partisan squabbles in Topeka and how they play out on the farms and in the cities. Most Kansans see taxation the other way, from the home front outward where, beyond city hall and the courthouse, the matter of taxation is usually lost in a mash of storytelling and deceit.

Nonetheless, most Kansans react to the subject the same way: Impose taxes so the Other Fellow pays them, a persuasion embedded in politics for more than a century. This became law, in exaggerated form, during the dark Brownback years (2012-’17). Taxes were shifted to relieve big business and high wealth, and the Other Fellow paid handsomely and disproportionally. Brownback left office and a state treasury deep in red ink.

Although the state has recovered with healthy surpluses, Republican leaders continue to demand tax cuts to benefit the rich and squeeze the Other Fellow. Governor Kelly, a Democrat, and a thin corps of sensible lawmakers have resisted.

While the struggle continues, consider a wider look at taxes beginning with the property levy, a relic of the Pony Express days that is rarely fair. In spite of Gov. John Carlin’s successful initiatives (1986) for classification and reappraisal, property values remain difficult to assess uniformly.

The property tax is expensive to collect. It has scant relation to income produced. It often has a negative social impact because property that is poorly used is usually taxed less. In a twisted sort of way, the inefficient and those without enterprise get the rewards.

The property tax would have greater validity if it were used in relation to property and not to people. That is, taxes on farmland might be used to pay for rural roads and bridges, rural fire and water systems, law enforcement. In the towns, property taxes might well finance non-arterial streets, fire departments, storm sewers, parking and more.

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Taxes for people functions are something else. These should be derived from incomes, sales and user fees and collected chiefly on a statewide basis.

The cost of public schools should relate not to the value of the land in a district but to the number of pupils to be educated; this is a principle of current law, but not all of it.

When he was majority leader of the Kansas Senate, Jerry Moran in 1995 proposed (without success) that local school finance be derived from sales and income taxes, and that the property tax be phased away. The numbers, accounting and logic favored this; the politics didn’t.

A state-run and state-financed educational system is logical if not popular. Indeed, social services and welfare, and public health programs should be on federal rather than state support, considering how transient our population has become.

These suggestions may run contrary to the notion that local control is better. Sometimes it is. Federal and state programs can develop costly and troublesome bureaucracies. Friends and neighbors understand better the local situations, but

today’s friends and neighbors are no longer apt to be tomorrow’s. And the price of local control can be inequitable and discriminatory taxation – with equally onerous and unfair results.

In early 1991, the House Tax Committee had restarted scrutiny of the state’s wide web of tax laws. Fresh from her election and inauguration, Gov. Joan Finney marched unannounced into the committee room and dropped a four-inch thick document on a table in front of the chairman. It was a listing of the state’s tax exemptions, loopholes and abatements. “Here’s one place to begin,” she said, and left the room.

The document quickly gathered dust.

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