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Johnson County ‘in a pickle’ because of Kansas tax policies, official says

Updated: 2013-10-24T22:15:17Z

The Associated Press

— The Johnson County manager says recent changes in the Kansas tax structure have put the state’s most populous county is “in a pickle.”

Hannes Zacharias said Thursday that the county has lost state revenue for jobs such as inspecting sewer septic tanks for new residents in rural areas. In addition, furloughs in district court operations caused by limited state funds mean defendants must stay in county jails longer while awaiting trial, a cost picked up by local governments.

“Indeed, we are at the end of the food chain, and we’re the ones who have to clean up the mess,” Zacharias said.

Zacharias made the comments while participating in a panel discussion at the University of Kansas, which focused on the impact of changes in the Kansas income tax policy in 2012 and 2013. The changes have resulted in lower rates for most taxpayers, but also fewer dollars available for state government and state aid to local governments.

The event, sponsored by the university’s Institute for Social and Policy Research, drew more than 100 state and local government officials, as well as economists.

Kansas has cut individual income tax rates and eliminated taxes for nearly 200,000 businesses over the past two years. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback pushed for the changes, along with the GOP-controlled Legislature, which has set a goal of eliminating income taxes entirely in the coming years.

Local officials said that they have wrung out as much as they can from their governments as the state pushes onto them more responsibility for funding and providing public services.

Eileen Hawley, spokeswoman for the governor, said critics have been predicting cuts to local governments since Brownback first proposed the tax cuts, but she said the state was still able to invest in local programs, including a new focus on career and technical education to improve the workforce.

Salina City Manager Jason Gage said tax rates aren’t the only factor that influencing whether residents or businesses move to an area. Others include the quality of life, services and a trained workforce.

But low taxes, Gage said, typically result in low-quality services, such as bad roads. Increasing fees for the services is an option, but he said those fees have the same effect as taxes on lower- and middle-income residents, who have the least ability to pay.

Panelists said higher sales and property taxes could be an option. Some suggested that a 10 percent sales tax might be ideal for Kansas, but the question is how much of that rate would be charged by the state and what amount local governments would have left. The Kansas statewide sales tax is 6.15 percent.

Education officials said their options are even more restricted. School districts rely on state aid, approximately $3 billion annually, plus local property taxes to fund schools. Overall state funding has increased in recent years when counting increased contributions to teacher pensions.

Sally Cauble, a State Board of Education member from Dodge City, said that while Kansas spends 52 of its budget on public schools, the ability to improve student achievement is feeling the pinch of reduced state spending.

“Kansas doesn’t have unlimited funds, but funds available to education today will have more of an impact on the state than any other dollars it can spend. That is an investment,” Cauble said via video link from Ulysses in southwestern Kansas. “My concern is, 52 percent of what? (There’s a) big difference between 52 percent of $100,000 and 52 percent of $1 million.”

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