July 22, 2024

Town Talk | Property tax relief, Medicaid expansion among the big topics on local legislators’ minds as session nears | News, Sports, Jobs

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The Kansas Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Parades should be just swell in 2024. The same might be said for community chili suppers and other such gatherings. And, oh my, how pretty the state’s roadsides will be with red and blue signs that contain what surely will be the 2024 Word of the Year: Elect.

Yes, this year is not just an election year, but rather the deluxe model of election years. In addition to the presidential election, it also is an election year for both the Kansas House of Representatives and the Kansas Senate.

Kansas voters, though, may get rewarded with more than just a firm handshake and the opportunity to have your very own sign. They may get a tax cut too.

“It is an election year for all of us,” Kansas Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, told a local crowd Friday morning at the chamber of commerce’s annual legislative priorities breakfast. “That means we are likely to provide some tax relief in exchange for your votes.”

While not every legislator said it quite so succinctly, most of the Douglas County delegation agreed that a tax cut is a good possibility for the 2024 legislative session.

What flavor of tax cut is certainly an open question, but a cut to property taxes got the most discussion at Friday’s event at Maceli’s banquet hall in downtown Lawrence. That would be a different approach than the Legislature has taken in recent years, when cuts to income taxes or sales taxes have received more attention.

Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat who is not seeking reelection, is floating a big property tax proposal in his final year. He has filed a bill seeking an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would change the assessment rates of every residential piece of property in the state.

Currently, residential homes are assessed at 11.5% of their fair market value, meaning a home that would sell for $200,000 has a tax value of $23,000. Under Holland’s proposal, that assessment rate would fall to 10.5% in 2025 and 9.5% in 2026.

Those lower assessment rates won’t ensure that homeowners pay less in property taxes. The assessment rate is only half of the property tax formula. Property taxes are computed by taking your home’s taxable value times your government’s property tax rate — called a mill levy — and dividing by 1,000. (Elementary, right?) Mill levies, though, will continue to be controlled by local governments like city and county commissions, so if those governments raise the mill levy, you might still be paying more in taxes. But what Holland’s proposal would ensure is that nonresidential taxpayers — think businesses, for the most part — would be paying a larger share of a community’s property taxes.

Legislators at Friday’s event did not specifically say whether they intended to support Holland’s call for a constitutional amendment, but several did highlight the need to do something about property taxes, which have increased significantly in Douglas County as real estate prices have escalated quickly.

Rep. Mike Amyx, D-Lawrence, told the crowd he recently looked more deeply at his home’s property tax bill. He calculated that the first $20 he earns at his barbershop every day goes to pay his property taxes. Amyx said he was fortunate to still be able to go to work and earn a living to pay those taxes.

“But I can give you a list of 100 people who can’t do that,” Amyx said.

Figuring out how to reduce the impact of property taxes on retirees and others who live on fixed incomes seems to be a priority of legislators. Those individuals sometimes see a large increase in their property tax bills simply because a county appraiser has determined that the fair market value of their home has increased substantially. But unless those homeowners are selling their homes, the higher home values do nothing to provide them greater incomes to pay their taxes.

“We have to do something there,” Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Topeka, said of such property tax situations. “That is just a given. When it comes to retirement folks, we have to see this taken care of this session.”

Kloos, who represents parts of western Douglas County, is the only Republican in the Douglas County delegation. The fact that he said property tax relief is on the top of his mind is likely important, given that Republicans far outnumber Democrats at the Kansas Statehouse.

Taxes weren’t the only topic of discussion at Friday’s event, which also included brief presentations of priorities that the city of Lawrence, Douglas County, the Lawrence Public Schools, the Chamber and the University of Kansas are asking legislators to consider. Here’s a look at some other topics:

• Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, had a simple slogan for her top legislative priority this session.

“Medicaid expansion, Medicaid expansion, Medicaid expansion, and Medicaid expansion,” said Ballard, the longest-serving member in the Douglas County delegation.

Kansas is one of just 10 states that haven’t enacted provisions to expand the federal Medicaid program to cover a larger number of the state’s low-income residents in need of health insurance. In Kansas, an expansion could provide insurance to 150,000 people, Ballard said.

“Sometimes I feel really bad sitting in the Legislature knowing that every member in the Kansas Legislature has insurance,” she said. “They can sleep comfortably at night and not worry about what is going to happen to their children, and yet we say no.”

• Lawrence school board President Kelly Jones told legislators they were failing on multiple levels by not fully funding the cost of special education in school districts across the state. She said the Lawrence school district was meeting all the requirements for special education, but was having to divert millions of dollars per year from its general education operations to pay for those special education services, which go to students with special learning or physical needs.

“Per state statute, special education funding must cover the actual costs of providing necessary services to each and every student with an (individualized education program,)” Jones said. “Continued refusal by the Kansas Legislature to pay for the actual services that students need to succeed is a moral, ethical and policy-making failure by our current Legislature and leadership.”

• Lawrence Mayor Bart Littlejohn urged legislators to support a bill that would make it illegal for any organization receiving state funding to transport a homeless individual from their county to another county for homeless services without first making arrangements with the new county to ensure capacity exists for the out-of-county homeless individual.

Lawrence leaders have said communities in the region have been transporting homeless individuals to Lawrence because Lawrence has greater services for the homeless than their own communities.

“In my opinion, that is one of the most unhelpful things a community can do, and it clearly is not right,” Littlejohn said.

• Douglas County Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said state assistance for housing and for mental health programs remains a high priority for Douglas County. However, he also said more attention should be given to ways the state can support decarbonizing its power grid, a key strategy related to combating climate change. He said it would be particularly helpful if the state could offer incentives for residents to install solar panels on their own properties.

• Lawrence attorney Paul Davis, a member of the Lawrence chamber of commerce’s government committee, said the Chamber is interested in a variety of issues, including new tax provisions that would make it more attractive for production companies to shoot television and movies in Kansas. Davis said the chamber also is supportive of an expansion of Kansas Highway 10 between Lawrence and Douglas County to six lanes. However, he said the Chamber believes the expansion should occur both in Johnson and Douglas counties. Currently, proposals have focused on the expansion occurring only in Johnson County.

• Rep. Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, said she hopes to help broker deals on new child care provisions in the state that could help with shortages of affordable child care for working parents. But she told the crowd she needs to hear from the public on what areas “we are willing to meet in the middle on” and what are some of “our nonnegotiables,” as she works across the aisle to try to craft new provisions.

• Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, told the crowd that he could support most of the initiatives that local governments and organizations are seeking. But he tempered the crowd’s expectations for success.

“The problem is they are all pragmatic proposals to make life better for everyday Kansans, which means it will be hard for them to get much traction in Topeka,” said Highberger, who has announced he is not seeking reelection.

He said the frequent problem he sees in Topeka is the “Legislature is much more extreme than the people of Kansas.” He cited public polling that shows strong support in the state for legalizing medical marijuana.

“But we can’t even get a hearing for those bills,” said Highberger, who said he will introduce another medical marijuana bill this session.

The state will begin its 2024 legislative session on Monday.

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