By Gene Meyer
(KansasReporter) TOPEKA, Kan. – House Taxation committee members and other legislators voiced strong support Thursday for a plan by state Rep. Steve Brunk, a Bel Aire Republican, to limit upwardly creeping property tax bills.
Opponents speaking at a taxation committee hearing for the plan, outlined in House Bill 2630, contended that a feature of the plan that requires voters to approve any property tax increases local governments requested would make budget planning too difficult.
Brunk’s plan would require local government executives to stabilize annual property tax bills by offsetting higher assessed home and commercial property values with corresponding drops in mill rates, which are the fractions per penny of value levels used to calculate tax payments. Similarly, mill rates would be increased if property values fell in the district being taxed.
In either case, governments would not be allowed to increase taxes paid by property owners by more than the combined rates if inflation and population growth unless voters specifically approved that request first.
“This has to be as simple as possible,” Brunk told committee members.
“Property taxes need to be stable, predictable and transparent,” he said.
The limitations would not apply to statewide 20 mill taxes, or $20 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, used for school funding in Kansas, to a similar 1.5 mill tax for state building funds, taxes used to pay bonds or on certain other property taxes used for purposes voters have approved. But they would apply to much of the remainder of a state wide average $121.61 per $1,000 that counties and communities across Kansas currently require for improving streets, running libraries and community centers, maintaining police and fire protection and other purposes.
“Kansas’ state property tax system is inherently flawed,” said state House Speaker Pro Tem Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican and Taxation committee member speaking for the proposal.
Property taxes paid by home and business owners have risen 92 percent, or three times more than consumer prices, in the last decade. Nearly two thirds of a cross Kansas sampling of taxpayers believe the system believe the system essentially is broken, Siegfreid said.
Because local governments can leave mill rates unchanged while rising property values increase the size of tax checks property owners actually write, “local governments use increasing valuations as a benign tax increase,” Siegfried said.
Other legislators speaking on behalf of the proposal related how rising property taxes are among the biggest gripes constituents consistently raise in town meetings and other gatherings. And the Kansas Policy Institute, which is KansasReporters’ parent organization and also conducted the poll from which Siegfried and other legislators quoted, reported that the approximately 65 percent to 15 percent rate of dissatisfaction with property tax broadly cuts across all parts of the state and most income groups within it.
“Even government workers are dissatisfied with the current plan,” said Dave Trabert, the Institute’s president.
Opponents of the plan said they believed putting such automatic limits on property tax changes would debase a longstanding Kansas tradition, going back almost to statehood, which puts the authority of making those decisions in the hands of locally elected officials who presumably know their situations and their neighbors’ best.
Plus, as a practical matter, holding local elections for voters to decide any proposed tax increases would be very difficult in a typical budget cycle, said Larry Baer, associate general counsel of the League of Kansas Municipalities.
City managers often don’t have hard numbers on which to base projected budget needs until about July 1, Baer said. Most have only until Aug. 1 to prepare a budget in time to publish it and hear public comment by Aug. 15. The finished versions need to be certified 10 days after that, followed by a certification of tax rolls in time to mail out statements by Dec. 1. Preparing for an election is a six to eight week process, which there may not be time to complete and keep the budget process on track, Baer said.
Randall Allen, executive director of the Kansas Association of Counties said the plan also would create a dual standard for making property tax decisions, putting some of those decisions in state hands, some in county or city hands and hamstringing local officials who might want to help make up for services cut by the state.