We all know about the friction that results from having a state line running through the middle of the metro area.
Kansas has its own line — Interstate 35, which splits eastern and western Kansas. The interstate meanders roughly from Johnson County southwest through Wichita. Everything west of that highway, as one professor put it, “might as well be in another state.”
Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University in western Kansas, wrote a column recently that appeared in several newspapers, including The Salina Journal, where the headline reads: “It’s east v. west in Kansas.”
This urban/rural split has been going on as long as I can remember, but now it might be escalating into something more serious. Suddenly, western Kansans feel as if eastern Kansas is out to get them.
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One bill, authored by state Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Republican from Leawood, threatens to increase multi-fold the property taxes paid by farmers. According to Melcher, farmers are not paying their fair share of taxes.
That is true.
Kansas has 60,000 farms. Those who farm that acreage — many of which are large corporations — pay virtually no income taxes. Their property valuations are so low, due to special breaks, that they pay only a tiny fraction per acre of what it would be on nonfarm acreage, thus depriving the state of hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes. Farmers pay no sales taxes on machinery and equipment, or on diesel fuel for agricultural equipment, computers, fertilizer, chemicals and seed. Even shampoo bought by a hairdresser for a “farm” client is exempt, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. There is much more, but you get the picture.
When Kansas was flush with money, no one paid much attention to all the tax breaks farmers enjoy.
But, suddenly, with the state broke and looking for new revenues to plug future deficits — all due to massive tax cuts — everything is on the table.
When farmers had disproportionate clout in the Legislature, they had nothing to worry about. Their tax breaks were untouchable.
But things have changed.
Today, the Legislature is dominated by eastern Kansas.
Rackaway, in his column, bemoans the plight of western Kansas. He cites the fact that half of Kansas counties have fewer residents than they did in 1900, and between 2000 and 2010, half the counties in Kansas declined in population.
In the Legislature today, Rackaway writes, “Western Kansas has just one-fifth of the House and one-seventh of the Senate seats. In 1990, the west had just over a third of both the House and Senate.”
Since Kansas became a state 154 years ago, farmers have dominated the Legislature. In just the blink of an eye, things have flipped to urban dominance.
Schools, too, are feeling the shift. In 1992, when western Kansas ruled, the school finance formula was written. It skewed toward smaller, rural districts.
That’s in the process of changing. And even consolidation of some of the state’s 286 school districts might be examined more carefully for inefficiencies.
Rackaway laments the rising influence of the east in the Legislature.
“Johnson County representatives may want to see the west pay what they believe is their fair share,” he writes, but that would be a “devastating blow” to the region’s agricultural tradition.
“The eastern half of the state,” writes Rackaway, “seeing the west as a cash cow is both wrong and worse.”
Melcher’s bill is extreme, and no legislator I have talked to from Johnson County thinks it has any chance of becoming law.
But Melcher, and other Johnson County legislators, are putting western Kansas on notice that the gravy train may be over.
No one I know thinks western Kansas is a “cash cow,” but there seems to be a consensus building that, indeed, western Kansas is not paying its fair share.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.