Steve Rose

Kansas takes from the poor to help the rich

Jim Graham has been screaming, but he says no one will listen.

OK, listen.

A 68-year-old and 62-year-old Johnson County married couple filing jointly have two grandchildren who live with them full-time as dependents. Their combined income in 2012 was only $21,590. In 2012, Kansas helped them out. They received $376 from the food sales tax credit and $560 from homestead refunds for renters.

In 2013, they received zero from these two programs that were eliminated. So the couple lost $936, which was a devastating financial blow to people who were just scraping by.

There is nothing exceptional about this case. Graham has seen hundreds of similar cases, where aid to many of the poor vanished when two state programs were cut by the Legislature and the governor. These were not deadbeats. Almost all are on fixed incomes, many with disabilities, and all lived in Kansas full-time during the tax year.

Graham has seen the pain first-hand. He is the site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in Olathe, which serves all of Johnson County.

He is a volunteer, a retired business executive, in charge of helping low-income residents file their taxes. A total of 785 residents came to his site for help this last tax season.

But a lot of the residents who were there for help in 2012 did not show up to file for 2013. That’s because the state whacked away at their refunds and rebates, and, as a result, there was no reason to file — their taxable incomes were not high enough to require a filing.

When Kansas legislators cut hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes for the more affluent, they had to make up some of it, and so they axed two programs for the poor that together saved the state $55 million in 2013, according to Legislative Research.

First, they eliminated any Kansas tax refunds for low-income renters.

Second, they eliminated the food sales tax credit for low-income Kansans.

Couples with incomes about $30,000 or lower had qualified for these programs.

The Olathe site has seen more extremes in poverty. The average adjusted gross income for those who came to the Olathe site last year was $19,368.

So, how much did the poor get slammed with the elimination of the two programs?

At the Olathe site, the average food sales tax credit refund in 2012 was $193. In 2013, it was zero.

For renters, the average refund in 2012 was $345. In 2013, it was zero. Furthermore, all clients who received homestead refunds for renters also received food sales tax credits. So, it was a double whammy for them.

The poor took a huge hit when Kansas eliminated two key programs, while taxes for high-income taxpayers were slashed. And that is the point.

Could there have been fraud in these programs across Kansas? That’s what some legislators claim.

Yes, of course. Any type of program that aids large numbers of people is susceptible to fraud. In this case, the homestead refund for renters could have been ripe with individuals claiming to live in an apartment, when they did not, or claiming to pay a lower rent than they actually paid.

But Missouri has addressed that. Missouri requires that renters submit a letter from their landlord detailing the amount of rent paid, address of the property, and time lived there during the tax year.

Using fraud as an excuse for eliminating these programs is just wrong.

It’s not about fraud. It’s about insensitivity. And it’s about suffering.

A majority of our legislators, and the governor, should truly be ashamed.

That’s what Jim Graham has been trying to get people to hear.