Politics & Government

Sedgwick County officials back bill to restrict property tax increases

Sedgwick County Commissioners Jim Howell, left, and Karl Peterjohn argue with Nathan Eberline, center, an attorney with the Kansas Association of Counties, about a bill that would restrict local governments from raising property taxes starting in July 2016. (March 8, 2016)
Sedgwick County Commissioners Jim Howell, left, and Karl Peterjohn argue with Nathan Eberline, center, an attorney with the Kansas Association of Counties, about a bill that would restrict local governments from raising property taxes starting in July 2016. (March 8, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Two members of the Sedgwick County Commission went to Topeka on Tuesday to encourage lawmakers to restrict their power to raise property tax revenue.

Jim Howell, the commission’s chair, said SB 316 would empower voters. It would move up a requirement that local governments hold a public vote before raising spending by more than an adjusted Consumer Price Index rate to be set by the state.

“The highest form of government is the people themselves,” Howell told the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee. “…We work for them. I am their servant.”

Howell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn testified in favor of the bill. Sedgwick County is the only county in the state actively advocating for the legislation, which faces strong opposition from local governments.

Now, local governments get more property tax revenue when property values rise, even if the county or city mill rate remains the same. The bill places a lid on how much property tax revenue can increase without a public vote.

Luke Bell, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Realtors, and other advocates for the policy repeatedly said that increases in property values that cause overall revenue to go up should be looked at as tax increases.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, rejected this logic, saying that values go up because of economic growth. “In essence, do we just want to squash growth?” he asked.

Randall Allen, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Counties, called the restriction a hypocritical overreach by state policymakers.

“I would ask those same voters, would you have liked to have voted on that tax increase last July?” Allen said, noting that the state sales tax rate was increased from 6 percent to 6.5 percent last year. “… So now they’re telling us how to manage our money? It’s hypocrisy at the highest.”

Allen and other opponents of the policy will testify Wednesday.

The lid on local property taxes passed last year as an amendment to the bill that increased state sales taxes and reduced income tax deductions. It was set to take effect in January 2018. The new bill would push it up to July 1.

Bell said the 2018 start date gave local governments an incentive to increase property taxes for the next two years. He added that he has never spoken to a voter who didn’t want the right to vote on their taxes.

The bill also removes exemptions that would allow local governments not to have a public vote when the money is needed for infrastructure improvements, such as road construction. Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, said these exemptions made the policy “as leaky as a sieve.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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