Dave Trabert, meet Ed Eilert.
Trabert, president of the Wichita-based Kansas Policy Institute think tank, has rarely met a leader like Eilert. Trabert is used to getting his way.
It is widely suspected that KPI is funded and greatly influenced by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers from Wichita. Trabert, with the Koch panache, is used to turning elected officials into Jell-O, shaking in their boots at the political muscle of this anti-tax, no government think tank.
Eilert, who is Johnson County chairman, plus at least three cohorts on the Johnson County Commission — a majority — are poised on Thursday to approve the first tax increase in a decade, targeted for parks, libraries and transit. It is a very modest property tax increase indeed.
Eilert had a choice.
He could have shepherded the commission to leave taxes alone and leave the community in a stagnant position, or in decline.
That would have been the easy way out. And in this anti-tax environment, it would have been politically safe. Eilert and the other commissioners could have avoided a face-off with KPI and other opponents who have done their best to kill any tax increases, anywhere and everywhere.
KPI henchman Trabert does more than ponder issues at the think tank. KPI is active in lobbying and campaigning against tax and spending increases. It financed television ads to oppose the proposed tax increase in Johnson County.
When Trabert speaks in Topeka, legislators bow and scrape. Who wants to be on the wrong side of the Kochs — who also control Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce? (Trabert claims the Koch connection to KPI is “hooey,” but he refuses to identify the institute’s funding sources.)
Trabert tried the same tactics in Johnson County he has used in Topeka so successfully.
He twisted the math into pretzels, convoluting the facts. If you listened to Trabert, you would think Johnson County commissioners have been spendthrift liberals who care nothing about the taxpayers. Trabert would have you believe government in Johnson County is out of control and is a big burden to its citizens.
If you listened to Trabert, you would think the rainy day reserve fund, which has helped earn Johnson County a coveted Triple-A bond rating, is just waiting to be raided.
The truth turns those arguments upside down.
Eilert steered Johnson County through the Great Recession, without raising taxes, by eliminating 300 positions in county government, and then placing a multi-year freeze on county employee salaries. The county cut $44 million in expenses during that severe downturn.
Eilert has been frugal, both on the county commission and, before that, as the longtime Overland Park mayor.
As county chairman, Eilert has tasted the bizarre behavior of Topeka legislators, when they eliminated the local mortgage registration fee.
That saved the state absolutely nothing, but it cost local government a great deal. Johnson County will lose $50 million over five years.
In fact, were it not for that one radical intrusion into local government, the proposed property tax increase would not even have been necessary.
Eilert warned legislators at the time that eliminating that fee would lead to an increase in local property taxes.
Eilert and some other commissioners know that Johnson County did not become one of the premier counties in the nation by bobbing and weaving, avoiding progress in the name of status quo taxes.
What Trabert and his followers don’t realize is that the citizens of Johnson County love their schools, their parks, their libraries, and even public transit, which begs for expansion. And they are willing to pay for them.
Trabert and the other naysayers have already done great damage to Johnson County schools by encouraging cuts at the state level, all in the name of lower income taxes. Now, they want to bring that same anti-tax, to-hell-with-quality-of-life fanaticism to Johnson County.
No, not this time. They have come to the wrong place and faced the wrong leader.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to email@example.com.