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SPOTLIGHT
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Brownback's experiment wallops taxpayers

Published on -6/22/2014, 5:56 PM

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Property taxes are on track to increase by more than $400 million statewide during Gov. Sam Brownback's term in office.

This substantial increase, however, masks a more dramatic jump in property taxes across rural Kansas. For example, from 2010 to 2013, property taxes in rural counties increased three times faster than in the five largest urban counties. Property taxes for schools grew more than five times faster in rural counties.

Property tax increases for rural counties in this period can be summarized as follows:

* 71 counties had property tax increases of 10 percent or more.

* 45 counties had property tax increases of 15 percent or more.

* 28 counties with property tax increases of 20 percent or more.

So, what's the story?

Two fundamental shifts are underway in state and local finance:

First, Brownback's actions are pushing state obligations to the local level and moving the state and local tax burden from wealthy income taxpayers onto local property taxpayers.

Second, as a result of state actions, property taxpayers in rural jurisdictions across Kansas are bearing the primary burden of this shift, with tax increases dramatically higher than those in urban areas.

Brownback's tax experiment is driving these shifts. State income tax cuts are being paid for by abandoning, cutting and restricting state obligations for education, corrections, public health, libraries, social services, mental health and community arts, among others. State lawmakers have made the local dilemma even worse by removing local revenue sources, other than the property tax.

As a result, locally elected officials, primarily school board members and county commissioners, have been forced to assess whether these community services are essential, and then to make cuts in services, or to raise property taxes to maintain services, or both. Evidence suggests local officials are maintaining these services and filling in the gaps left by state abandonment with property taxes.

Why are property tax increases falling most heavily on rural areas? For most of state history, state government has leveled the playing field in the delivery of public services between wealthier jurisdictions and poorer ones. This leveling is most obvious in school finance, as state courts have demanded equity between wealthier and poorer school districts. Whether consciously or not, Brownback and his legislative allies are turning back the clock on this state role.

Less obvious in Brownback's actions are the shifts in the state and local tax burden from those with income wealth onto property taxpayers, for example, from higher-income residents of Johnson County onto property taxpayers in rural counties with half the income, such as Norton, Cloud and Neosho.

The political irony of Brownback's tax experiment is the tax burden is walloping the reddest of red-state voters. Rural property taxpayers -- homeowners, farmers and ranchers, oil and gas producers and leaseholders, commercial property owners and landowners, among others with property wealth -- comprise the heart of the Republican electorate.

Brownback likely will assert he has nothing to do with property tax increases. He might even claim President Barack Obama did it. However, rural residents just might be seeing the tip of an iceberg. The disastrous condition of state finance, now Brownback's legacy, will not only continue to shift the tax burden onto property taxpayers, primarily those in rural jurisdictions, but likely will accelerate the trend.

H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.

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