Peterjohn wants voter OK of tax hikes

When Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn was campaigning for office, one of his key issues was giving voters the right to vote on tax increases.

Peterjohn recently pushed to include voter approval of sales and property tax increases as part of the county's legislative platform — or wish list — for next year.

He said he was stunned when he moved to Kansas and realized voters "had no say at the ballot box on taxes."

When he lived in Ohio and California, voting on tax increases was routine, he told his colleagues at a recent meeting.

"Here, only school bond issues are on the ballot," he said.

Trying to sway commissioners to include voter approval in the county's legislative platform, Peterjohn noted that three of four states surrounding Kansas — Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado — give voters that right.

His push gained approval from Commissioners Kelly Parks and Gwen Welshimer but not from Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, who voted against including voter approval in the platform.

And when they didn't win that battle, Norton and Unruh voted against the entire platform because of it.

Whether Kansas legislators will bite remains to be seen.

Parks, who also advocated letting people vote on tax increases as part of his campaign, said he thinks some legislators might be interested in the idea.

"I don't know if there would be overwhelming support," he said.

Parks said he thought voters wouldn't blindly vote down tax increases. If they understand an increase is needed for essential services, "I think people will vote a tax increase in," he said. "If there is a nonessential service and the need for the increase is not

explained, it gets ambiguous and I don't think the voters will do it."

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, who leads the Senate's Assessment and Taxation Committee, said giving taxpayers the right to vote on increases "has some appeal, certainly," but he said he would have to "look at all the details" before deciding his stance on it.

"My guess is it would be a difficult thing to pass," he said. "In view of the situation with the economy, it will appeal to an awful lot of people. The people who pay taxes will think it's a wonderful idea. The people who collect the taxes will think it's a horrible idea."

The measure "sounds a little bit close to TABOR for me," Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, D-Wichita, said, alluding to a Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

Like Donovan, McCray-Miller said she would have to think more about the request before saying whether she would support it.

"From a state perspective, I would definitely be cautionary in terms of placing those kinds of decisions on a referendum," she said. "The electorate would need to be very informed and rightly so informed. I would hate to see campaigns waged that would be infiltrated with propagandized information in order to persuade voters to vote one way or another."

Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, has served on the taxation committee but won't next year. He said he thought Sedgwick County's platform deserved a hearing.

"Beyond that, I'd like to hear what all that would entail before getting far out in front of it," he said.

Unruh said he voted against including the measure in the platform even though "I know on the face of it, it sounds great."

If voter approval is required, he said, locally elected officials no longer have the authority to set budgets or spending priorities. And that's part of their jobs, he said.