Kansas lawmakers rush to resume debate on property tax restrictions

Legislation was made available to public to read Monday

Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the public was not provided the necessary time to engage with the tax policy up for debate Tuesday. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas senators on Tuesday took up a measure requiring local governments to provide public notice and a hearing when attempting to raise property taxes, but a lobbyist from the Sierra Club argued the public was not provided appropriate time to prepare comment.

After legislators gaveled in Monday, Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, granted a request from Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, to have the bill assigned to the tax committee she oversees. The measure is similar to a bill passed last year that was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly.

The property tax legislation was first made available for the public to read Monday afternoon and appeared on the schedule for debate Tuesday morning during the Senate Committee on Assessment and Taxation.

“Ironically, today’s hearing on notice and public hearing requirements lacked advanced notice and leeway for the public to engage this policy in any meaningful way,” said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club.

Pistora argued there should be 48 hours between notice and any hearing on future legislation but was rebuffed by Tyson, who said legislative services had posted notice of the hearing last week. Three proponents of the bill and two neutral parties appeared Tuesday with prepared remarks. There was no opposition testimony or public comment.

After the hearing, Tyson criticized Pistora for his complaints, telling him she would not be “sabotaged like that again.”

Tyson said the unique circumstances of the bill’s introduction and scheduled hearing weren’t ideal. She said given the uncertainty of a full session amid COVID-19, it was necessary to expedite the process.

With many similarities to last year’s property tax bill, Tyson said previous testimony from the public and opponents of the bill had been considered when writing this year’s version.

“It is language we have heard before,” Tyson said. “In fact, it passed by both chambers with a supermajority before it was vetoed by the governor, so we are giving it a second run.”

Sen. Caryn Tyson called Pistora’s testimony “sabotage,” calling the need to pass property tax legislation an immediate need if COVID-19 threatens the session. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Under this bill, modeled on longstanding Utah law, municipalities would be forced to set a property tax rate that is “revenue neutral.” If they wish to exceed this rate, they must provide notice and hold a hearing before voting on the increase.

The proposed bill also repeals the local property tax lid. Eric Stafford, director of government affairs for the Kansas Chamber, argued the bill itself would accomplish what the tax lid was meant to accomplish by forcing the budget to remain neutral.

The bill would also put an end to “stealth” property tax increases by municipalities, Stafford said.

“Property taxpayers, residential and commercial, are frustrated by government officials saying they aren’t raising property taxes, but the bill is still going up,” Stafford said. “This would require that revenue-neutral rate unless the public entity wants to vote and be held accountable and justify why they need that money.”

Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, said local governments were not being honest about their property tax increases. Trabert is a part of the working group Tyson organized to review and research property taxes in Kansas.

Trey Cocking, deputy director of the Kansas League of Municipalities, said the organization was neutral on the proposed bill. He approved of increased transparency but said he would submit recommendations to Tyson on some bill adjustments based on his discussions with counties, treasurers and clerks. 

“We have some ideas on timing that tweaks a little bit,” Cocking said. “A couple of things we’ll want to work on are some guardrails and the provision for refunds.”