Kris Kobach wants to limit the growth of Kansas property tax appraisals to 2 percent a year.
In the first debate of the general election campaign, the Republican nominee for governor said Kansas appraisals are growing too fast, threatening residents’ ability to stay in their homes. “These appraisals are stealth tax hikes,” he said.
As a political matter, a cap on property appraisals may or may not help Kobach’s campaign. As a practical matter, though, the gesture is meaningless.
If Kobach is elected governor, homeowners won’t need a cap on appraisals. Home values will collapse on their own.
Property taxes will be the least of a homeowner’s concerns. Millions of dollars in home equity will melt away as for-sale signs pop up from border to border.
Johnson County will be ground zero in the rout.
Like most suburban communities, Johnson County is built on two things: strong schools and a good quality of life. Johnson Countians expect a first-class education for their kids, well-maintained streets and sidewalks, parks, swimming pools, soccer fields, quaint shopping districts, low crime, high achievement.
What Johnson Countians don’t expect, necessarily, are low taxes. Time and again, with just a few exceptions, the county’s voters have approved tax measures for bigger, better schools and public amenities.
Some of that support comes from young families with children. But many of those votes — and this is crucial — come from older residents, who know the value of their homes is directly linked to the quality of their schools and neighborhoods.
This is the basic Johnson County equation: relatively high taxes for top-tier services and growing home values. That’s why Johnson Countians led the effort to restore sanity to the state’s tax structure in 2017, even if that meant more money from their pockets.
Kobach wants to shatter that deal. He won’t be satisfied until kids are taught in dimly-lit trailers, using burnt sticks for pencils. Computers? Comfortable classrooms? Low student-teacher ratios? Bah. Luxuries.
Many Johnson County leaders I’ve talked with see Kobach as a threat to the idea of public education itself. They may have a point: Kobach wants to remove protections for public education from the state’s constitution.
Poor public schools are almost always the initial indicator of a community’s decline. Families with school-aged children buy or rent homes somewhere else. Homes lose value, providing less tax revenue for police, parks and streets. Crime increases, streets deteriorate, and the process accelerates.
Once it starts, it’s hard to stop. In many ways, Kansas City has fought a decades-long battle to rescue itself from underfunded schools. (To be fair, Kansas Citians also pay for amenities enjoyed by Johnson County residents, another partial explanation for the city’s challenges).
Kobach sees nothing wrong with this. His appeal is explicit: Kansas should be a low-tax, low-service, low-quality-of-life state. If you like the driver’s license office, you’ll love your daughter’s 5th-grade class. He famously suggested Kansans who don’t like it can move somewhere else.
That won’t be a problem if Kobach wins in November. Residents won’t want a cap on home values; they’ll want a floor. And their kids will be looking for sticks to burn before classes begin.