Ultraconservative Republican lobbyists and lawmakers control the Kansas Legislature, and their toxic dogma has left a trail of destruction.
Unfair income tax cuts, revenue shortfalls, big tax increases, and funding shortfalls for schools and social services have all happened on their watch. Gov. Sam Brownback is the Pied Piper leading a group of people who won’t properly invest in a better future for three million Kansans.
And then there’s Johnson County.
In stunningly positive fashion, the County Commission is on course to pass a budget that would be a 180-degree turnaround from the damaging turmoil in Topeka.
Johnson Countians should be saying a huge “thank you” to the five commissioners who so far are pursuing this action: Ed Eilert, Jim Allen, Steve Klika, Ron Shaffer and Jason Osterhaus.
At a meeting Thursday, the seven-member elected body will continue discussing a modest property tax rate increase to bring better parks, libraries and transit service to 575,000 Johnson Countians.
How is this possible? How has most of the commission inoculated itself against the voodoo magic being used to strangle the once-impressive progressive streak of Kansas politics?
Simply put, enough right-minded Johnson Countians appear fed up with the foolishness happening in Topeka. They realize that government spending is not necessarily a bad thing — if substantial plans are created to reasonably spend those dollars. That’s what backers of the parks, libraries and transit have done in recent months.
Consider the commission’s public hearing Monday night.
Budget Director Scott Neufeld first deftly dismissed some criticism aimed at the county for its plans.
Neufeld said he had heard claims that the county could dip into its $185 million in reserves and not raise taxes. Actually, he said, almost 60 percent of those reserves can be used only for specific causes, such as wastewater projects.
He responded to a contention that county spending had risen faster than population growth and the cost of living since 1997. Neufeld looked at more relevant and recent data to show that the opposite had been true for much of the past decade.
Finally, in an eye-opening chart, Neufeld pointed out that Johnson County had the state’s lowest mill levy rate and — combined with a high median household income of $74,700 and median home value of $211,000 — the county tax as a percent of household income was far lower than in all other large Kansas counties.
Just over 30 people at the hearing got up to three minutes to praise or pan the tax plan; about three-fourths took the positive route.
But opponents were there, too.
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, said the tax increase was being sold on “false pretenses”; he wanted the county to instead spend some of its hefty reserves. But notice: Neufeld had already neutered much of that premise.
A few others contended in meandering fashion that county government should further tighten its belt, that libraries are “obsolete” in the modern age, that good transit isn’t really important and that higher taxes could drive people to leave.
Now look at who wasn’t there Monday: state lawmakers from the county. Last year, Sens. Jim Denning, Mary Pilcher-Cook and Greg Smith complained at the commission’s hearing about a smaller tax increase proposed for the 2015 budget. The legislators got their way when the commissioners caved in to the anti-taxers.
Yet what a difference a year makes, now that it’s clear Denning, Pilcher-Cook, Smith and other Kansas lawmakers can’t even manage their own budget, let alone tell the county what to do.
The proposed county tax increase will go into effect if the commission endorses it on Aug. 13. That would be an excellent way to provide better public services in the most important county in Kansas.