June 19, 2021
Lawrence, US 87 F
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Kansas Legislature wraps 2021 session with late-night property tax deal

TOPEKA — After months filled with long days of prickly debate, Senate President Ty Masterson brought the legislative session to a close late Friday night by thanking his colleagues for working diligently and patiently through a jam-packed schedule of bills.

In the final day, the House and Senate came together to tie up loose ends to school finance after negotiations with the governor’s office, and finalized the state budget by injecting cash into Kansas universities, increasing pay for judges and restricting the use of vaccine passports. Legislators also sent bills to Gov. Laura Kelly creating a COVID-19 small business relief act, and amended state insurance code and liquor laws.

While the Legislature will return May 26 for one last ceremonial day, Friday’s slew of bills concluded this year’s legislative work.

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“I would also say thank you to this body for the patience in my rookie year,” Masterson said. “I know mistakes get made, and I appreciate the patience. I care for each one of you and appreciate the relationships we have.”

The session was capped off by House Bill 2313, a property tax bundle that needed multiple attempts to cross the finish line. The bill now headed to the governor provides an extension of a 20-mill tax levy crucial to K-12 public school funding and sets up reimbursements for businesses in the event of future government-declared disasters.

An agreement reached between negotiators from both chambers — after the Senate rejected the bill by an 11 to 27 vote — removed sections providing elderly Kansans with a residential property tax “freeze” and a provision on property tax relief for business impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

Also removed was a controversial property tax exemption for Kansas health clubs giving legislators on both sides of the aisle major heartburn. The measure received a House committee hearing in March but did not pass out of committee in either chamber.

Rodney Steven, a Wichita businessman who owns Genesis Fitness Clubs and was represented by former congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, sought the exemption because he said nonprofits and municipal recreational facilities made it difficult to operate profitably. Tax records acquired by Kansas Reflector indicate Stevens owed at least $549,000 in pre-pandemic property taxes to several Kansas counties while engaging in this effort.

Some Senators expressed displeasure with what they say as a provision picking winners and losers. Others suggested that while the measure was not properly vetted, it highlighted an issue with nonprofit companies, specifically community centers like the YMCA, entering the private sector.

During debate over whether to pass the bill with the health club exemption, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, reminded her colleagues to remember the “precious vote of Kansans.” It was voters who determined the role and services many of these community centers provide, Baumgardner said.

She also expressed frustration with repeated broken promises that the 20-mill tax levy would appear in an uncontroversial bill.

“Not once, not twice, but three times this body was assured that the 20 mills for school funding would come before us — no tricks, no surprises, but we would have a flat-out vote to assure that portion of school funding,” Baumgardner said.

In the House, representatives voted to suspend the midnight rule — allowing legislative business to proceed between midnight and 8 a.m. — to engage in debate on the tax measure, among other bills. The measure passed the House 108-3.

Reconvening shortly after midnight, the Senate approved the property tax legislation without opposition, 35 to 0, although some senators expressed displeasure with the removal of certain provisions. Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, said the hard work put forth by the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee was ultimately “eviscerated,” pointing specifically to the removal of his “golden years” tax freeze for elderly Kansans.

“It is a travesty that year after year after year, we have still done nothing,” Holland said before opting to pass on voting. “Maybe it’s because they’re not charter members of the chamber. I don’t know. By golly, I hope our citizens look at what came out of this and the taxing particular decisions that we made and really ask each of us, ‘What the heck did you do for me?’”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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