TOPEKA — Democrats blasted Wichita Republican Sen. Michael ODonnell on Tuesday for voting in favor of eliminating property taxes for qualified health clubs.
Wichitas 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 ODonnell.
Thats the most any Senate Republican got, but other senators, including Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, also received contributions.
Senator ODonnell 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.
ODonnell said no one can buy his vote, and he said hes 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. Stevens wife also gave ODonnell a $1,000 contribution, as did Stevens business partner, Brandon Steven.
ODonnell said $4,000 is a lot of campaign donations. But he said in the context of about $170,000 in campaign money, its a very small percentage. He said he wasnt asked and made no promises on how he would vote on the issue.
ODonnell 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 ODonnell, 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.
ODonnell was among senators who approved the bill in a 25-14 vote.
Private health clubs in Kansas are on a huge decline, and its 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, Im going to support that.
Democrats opposed the bill, saying that private clubs should continue to pay taxes to support local and state government services.