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Sen. O’Donnell defends his support of health clubs’ tax break

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Tuesday, March 26, 2013, at 7:36 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at 9:26 a.m.

How they voted

Here’s how south-central Kansas lawmakers voted on a bill to eliminate property taxes for qualified fitness clubs. The bill passed 25-14 with one passing.

Republicans voting yes

Steve Abrams, Arkansas City; Terry Bruce, Hutchinson; Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain; Forrest Knox, Altoona; Ty Masterson, Andover; Michael O’Donnell, Mike Petersen and Susan Wagle, Wichita

Republicans voting no

Jay Emler, Lindsborg; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick

Democrats voting no

Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Wichita

Passing

Les Donovan, Wichita

— Democrats blasted Wichita Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell on Tuesday for voting in favor of eliminating property taxes for qualified health clubs.

Wichita’s Rodney Steven, part owner of Genesis Health Clubs, was the primary advocate for the specialized tax break, and he and his company donated at least $45,000 to Senate Republicans, including $4,000 to O’Donnell.

That’s the most any Senate Republican got, but other senators, including Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, also received contributions.

“Senator O’Donnell has been bought and paid for,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said in a prepared statement.

O'Donnell is among at least 22 senators who received money from Steven or Genesis. O'Donnell acknowledged he may have the most in total this year, but he said Democrats have singled him out.

O’Donnell said no one can buy his vote, and he said he’s not afraid to vote against the wishes of donors.

The donations came in the form of maximum $1,000 contributions during the primary and general election phases last year. Steven’s wife also gave O’Donnell a $1,000 contribution, as did Steven’s business partner, Brandon Steven.

O’Donnell said $4,000 is a lot of campaign donations. But he said in the context of about $170,000 in campaign money, it’s a very small percentage. He said he wasn’t asked and made no promises on how he would vote on the issue.

O’Donnell said senators discussed amendments that would have stripped YMCAs of their tax-exempt status.

“I wanted to make sure we left the YMCA portion tax-exempt,” said O’Donnell, who is on the board of the South YMCA in Wichita.

Senate Bill 72 lets fitness clubs forgo property tax payments, which could have a significant impact on local school and municipal budgets that collect the majority of property tax money. The exemption applies to clubs that focus on weight and cardio equipment, but not specialty clubs such as golf courses, spas and tennis facilities.

O’Donnell was among senators who approved the bill in a 25-14 vote.

“Private health clubs in Kansas are on a huge decline, and it’s because nonprofits and local municipalities are getting into the business of health clubs,” he said. “If this helps protect private health clubs from becoming extinct, I’m going to support that.”

Democrats opposed the bill, saying that private clubs should continue to pay taxes to support local and state government services.

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