At today’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, commissioners revised the county’s 2010 legislative platform, adding important and groundbreaking taxpayer protection to the platform. The split vote lets voters know without a doubt where commissioners stand on taxpayer protection issues.
The legislative platform is Sedgwick County’s “wish list” for the legislature. The items in the platform are not laws, but instead indicate the desires of the county commission.
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn proposed new language to add to the legislative platform: “All local sales tax increases must be approved by voters under Kansas law. All property tax increases that raise the mill levy should also be required to receive voter approval.”
Kansas has no such provision, and this is a defect, Peterjohn said. Kansas is one of the few states that have property taxes at the city, county, school district, and state levels. Most states did away with state-wide property taxes in the 1930s, he said, but Kansas did not.
Peterjohn made a motion that this language be included in the legislative platform, and Chairman Kelly Parks seconded.
Peterjohn noted that three of the four states surrounding Kansas have such limitations.
Commissioner Tim Norton asked a question that revealed that cities have more authority than counties to raise sales tax. He said this is an issue of equity, of rebalancing the ways that counties can fund their government. “Counties don’t have the ability to have more tools in their toolbox other than just property tax. … We’re very restricted.” He added that he doesn’t like the idea of artificial ceilings being placed on the county.
Commissioner Dave Unruh agreed with Norton, saying local officials are elected to carry out the responsibility of making responsible budget decisions. A limitation from the state makes no sense, he said.
Norton made the point that the state can place a lid on the ability of counties to raise funds through taxation, and may still place mandates on what counties must do. This compresses the decisions that the commission gets to make, and goes against representative government.
Peterjohn’s motion passed three to two, with Commissioner Gwen Welshimer and Parks joining Peterjohn in the majority, with Unruh and Norton in the minority.
After the meeting, Peterjohn said this platform language represents a major change in the county’s position, a reversal of the county’s historic position on property tax policy. This action is also at odds with the Kansas Association of Counties. It’s a major change, he said.
“Traditionally the local government lobby has been in lockstep opposition to any requirement that property tax hikes get voter approval. Sedgwick County’s shift today is extremely significant for the second-most populous county in the state, the county that contains the largest city in the state, to support voter approval for any increase in property taxes.”
Requiring voter approval of tax increases was one the “Five Reasons to Back Karl Peterjohn” that Peterjohn used in his successful campaign for the county commission last year. His action today represents a move towards fulfilling that pledge.
It’s important to remember what the commission passed was simply their desire — and a split decision at that — for the legislature to pass a law requiring voter approval of tax increases. Whether the legislature acts on this request is anyone’s guess. For such a law to have any chance, it will take a determined advocate to press for it. The commission’s action today created no such advocate. As it stands now, the county will not have a lobbyist in Topeka next year, as the budget passed in August provided no funding for a lobbyist.
Officeholders who are in favor of more government spending are generally opposed to giving voters the right approve or refuse tax rate increases, for the simple reason that voters often refuse to approve the tax hikes. Often the argument is given that the elections that are now necessary are expensive, and there may be emergencies that require the rapid raising of funds. There may be small amounts of validity in these arguments. But tax revenues, through the natural forces of economic growth and rising property tax appraisals, rise on their own without any help from officeholders. Anything that restrains the growth of tax rates, which is what today’s proposal does, is welcome relief as a restraint on the runaway growth of government.