When strong-willed Kansas legislators say “jump,” cowed lawmakers in Johnson County often end up asking “how high?”
In recent months, the state has told elected officials in Kansas’ most economically powerful county what they will or won’t do when it comes to taxes, guns, education funding and other issues.
The result? Policies that affect hundreds of thousands of Johnson Countians are being controlled more than they should be by officials who meet in Topeka and less by local officials who meet in Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee, Leawood and other cities.
Want to keep guns out of public buildings in Johnson County? Too bad. The state says that can’t happen — unless local authorities spend lots of money on metal detectors and other screening equipment.
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Want to raise more local money for Johnson County’s prized school systems? Education officials couldn’t do that — until the state deigned to make it possible.
Want to raise the county’s mill levy to make up for millions of dollars in lost revenue thanks to decisions in Topeka? State lawmakers shut that down.
The more rural and conservative base of the Republican Party likes to compel actions to be taken in the urban and more politically moderate Johnson County. In addition, some state lawmakers elected inside Johnson County want to make sure everyone knows who’s boss.
In a nutshell, legislators who often squawk when they think the feds are trying to impose a new policy on Kansans (think Medicaid expansion) delight in trying to control what happens in cities and counties.
In the most recent glaring example, the Kansas Legislature last spring passed a bill to phase out the mortgage registration fee, trying to save money for homebuyers. But Johnson County government staff members estimated this move would cost the county $49 million over five years.
County Administrator Hannes Zacharias, reacting to the possible revenue loss, proposed the first property tax rate increase since 2006 for the new county budget. The fee change also came after the state had sliced funds for other county services.
“When I look at the horizon, the biggest threat we have is the state of Kansas,” Zacharias said in June.
Cue outraged state officials. They showed up at a July county budget hearing to take offense at anyone wanting to pin the blame for a tax increase on Topeka.
Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, led the delegation that aimed barbs at County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and other commissioners. It didn’t help matters that Denning’s brother, Frank, is the county sheriff who has feuded with Eilert and the commission for months while trying to get more money for his office.
State officials said the fee phaseout would cost the county just $1.7 million the first year and “only” $20 million over five years.
In August, the commission meekly agreed to abide by the wishes of state lawmakers. As a political aside, that decision benefited Eilert, who is battling ultra-conservative Patricia Lightner for re-election.
Eilert this week said he agreed to accept the state’s lower estimate of lost revenues because “no one knows what’s going to happen.” But he added he will be “monitoring the situation very closely.”
Zacharias was more outspoken, saying, “We still believe that our numbers are more accurate than the state’s.” Zacharias said he hoped the county’s August decision would repair a rift with state officials.
Commissioner Steve Klika, asked whether he felt belittled by state lawmakers’ testimony, paused for a few beats and then answered diplomatically, “It doesn’t bother me.” He said the county was taking “the path of least resistance right now.”
That’s true. If the state’s right, no harm done. But if the bullies in Topeka are wrong, get ready for higher local taxes or reduced services in Johnson County.