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Wording of boating tax law on ballots confuses many

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, at 11:48 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, August 27, 2013, at 9:38 a.m.

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Constitutional amendment on Kansas boat taxes

A yes vote means: The Kansas Legislature has the authority to tax boats at a lower rate.

A no vote means: Boats will continue to be taxed at 30 percent of value multiplied by the county’s mill levy.

Two words buried in a full-page ballot question could kill a constitutional amendment to slash the property taxes on Kansas watercraft, proponents of the change worry.

The state constitutional amendment on next week’s presidential election ballot is confusing early voters, said Robin Jennison, the state’s secretary of wildlife, parks and tourism.

It adds the words “and watercraft” to a section of the state constitution. That gives the Kansas Legislature the power to cut property taxes on boats in a manner similar to the late 1990s property tax cut on recreational vehicles. The move effectively standardizes what were the highest boat property taxes in the Midwest with neighboring states, Jennison and other supporters say. Currently, Kansas boats are classified in the “other” category of personal property and taxed at 30 percent of value multiplied by the county’s mill levy.

Here’s the cost difference, amendment proponents say: A $20,000 boat in Oklahoma carries a $150 property tax bill; in Kansas, the same boat’s property tax bill would be $750. So a yes vote on the amendment supports taxing watercraft at a lower rate. A no vote retains the 30 percent tax rate for votes.

That explanation is not coming through in a wordy full-page ballot question that includes the entire relevant section of the Kansas Constitution, Jennison said. His office has been besieged with questions from voters who can’t figure out what the ballot question changes, and Jennison says that confusion threatens the vote’s fate on Nov. 6.

“It’s the law,” said Jennison, a former state legislator appointed to his current post by Gov. Sam Brownback. “It’s a bad deal having to put the whole section of the constitution on the ballot, and it’s a two-word change - ‘and watercraft.’ ”

Jennison said he’s more worried about how Election Day voters will understand the proposed amendment than early voters.

“Those people can sit down, you’d hope, and sort through it if they’ll take the time,” Jennison said. “What I am really worried about, though, are the ones who come in on Election Day to vote with nowhere to turn. Most voters, if they don’t understand a ballot question, they’re going to vote no.”

It’s the same concern at the Kansas Bass Federation Nation, said Don Leatherman, Liberal, president of the group.

“A lot of times when there’s change, people choose to vote no and the way it is is the way it is,” Leatherman said. “It’s a serious concern to us that people will look at that full page and say, ‘That’s something I want nothing to do with.’ ”

The problem is worsened by the way the ballot is printed, Jennison said: The words “and watercraft” are lightly italicized and barely visible to the naked eye.

“Sure it’s very confusing,” he said. “I completely understand what the callers are saying.”

Currently, Kansas boat owners are registering their craft in the lower tax states of Oklahoma and Missouri to avoid the higher Kansas taxes. Dan Heskett, the boating law administrator for the wildlife department, estimated earlier this month that boat registrations are down about 20,000 boats in Kansas, costing the state as much as $1 million in lost property tax revenue.

“That’s illegal, but who has the manpower to chase that down?” Jennison asked.

And the property tax differential has led boat buyers to buy in Oklahoma or Missouri, making it easier to register the boats there.

“It costs the state sales tax money, the state property tax money, our department registration money and our boat sellers money,” Jennison said. “We’re discouraging boat ownership in Kansas, and I hope voters will vote yes.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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