State lawmakers again urged to crack down on property tax hikes

Andrew Bahl
Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, speaks Monday before the Special Committee on Economic Recovery at the Statehouse.

Legislators appear receptive to again considering a measure forcing local governments to provide more public notice when seeking to raise property taxes as part of a broader slate of economic recovery efforts.

An attempt to pursue that goal last session failed after Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed legislation mandating taxpayers be shown how any changes to the property tax structure would affect their tax bill, as well as a public hearing and vote on the matter.

It came as part of a broader COVID-19-related tax relief bill but Kelly zeroed in on the property tax component in her veto message.

“I have long supported responsible property tax relief, but the provisions of HB 2702 cause more problems than they solve,” Kelly wrote in describing her reasons for rejecting the bill. “Now is not the time to create more problems and burdens for local governments.”

Lawmakers were unable to return to attempt to override the veto given the pandemic, something they would have had a chance at doing given its bipartisan support.

Comments from members of the Special Committee on Economic Recovery Monday appear there is an appetite for considering the matter again.

That could also include wiping out the property tax levied by the state, which currently funnels over $50 million toward school construction.

It came as a the head of an influential conservative think tank presented before the panel, assailing local governments for continuing to raise property taxes, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, told lawmakers that local governments “were not being honest” when they told constituents their property tax bills weren’t increasing.

Trabert criticized local governments for not reigning in spending, saying that the property tax burden would hinder the state’s ability to grow economically in the wake of the pandemic.

“That begs the question: Why invest in Kansas?” he said.

But local governments have defended their practices and labeled the bill as a way for the state to “micromanage” the affairs of cities and counties.

“This is a big government solution to a small government issue,” said Joe Warren, Atchison’s administrative services director, at a hearing on the matter in February.

Conservative lawmakers appeared skeptical of that argument, however.

“I would love for (local governments) to come to this committee and explain why they are against transparency,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, after Monday’s hearing.

It came as part of a broader presentation from Trabert criticizing the state’s economic and pandemic response.

The Kansas Policy Institute is a conservative group with considerable sway in Topeka, especially among Republican lawmakers.

But the group has drawn fire for playing down the pandemic.

Trabert argued Monday, for instance, that the state’s death totals are propped up by fatalities in long-term care and that the overwhelming majority of those who become infected don’t die.

While there is some support for the idea that the coronavirus is becoming less deadly than public health experts might have expected, there is also mounting evidence that some infected with the virus are feeling long-term health effects, even if they were previously young and healthy.

And more spread within the community means an increased likelihood that the virus will adversely affect high-risk populations.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, said she was “disappointed” that Trabert was invited to give voice to those ideas before the committee.

“I don’t think it is good for economic development or policy in general to dismiss loss of line because it is occurring in people over 75 years of age,” Clayton said after the hearing.

Trabert also implied that legislators should review whether physicians erroneously attributed deaths to COVID-19, which there is little to no evidence of in Kansas.

It came as part of his broader argument that the state’s decision to close businesses and implement a stay-at-home order in the spring had been detrimental to its economic environment.

His urging for a major economic overhaul appeared to be met with an enthusiastic reception.

“We need to reform what we are doing on a very broad scale,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe.

That includes moving away from offering firms tax credits and other incentives to move to Kansas or expand their operations in the state, with Trabert arguing it does nothing to change an unfriendly tax and regulatory environment.

He took a veiled shot at Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration, which has touted its efforts to lure companies to Kansas.

“We keep doing the same things over and over again,” Trabert said. “We might get some ribbon-cuttings and we might get some press releases but these things aren’t working ... We have some really serious negatives on our resume.”

Clayton said one area of agreement she could find with Trabert is supporting entrepreneurship, as she pointed during the hearing to expanding a tax credit for those who back start-up companies.

That idea, she said, gets at the business innovation that has cropped up during the pandemic.

“What a wonderful opportunity for us as legislators to support and nurture that type of growth,” Clayton said.