An innocent food bank gets dragged into Kansas lawmakers’ latest tax-fighting debate

January 28, 2021 3:52 am

Rep. Dave Baker, a Republican from Council Grove, said grocers had told him that if they have to compete with Harvesters, a food bank serving northeast Kansas, they don’t want to pay property taxes. (Kansas Legislature screenshot/Kansas Reflector)

When a food bank becomes the enemy, it might be a sign that your statewide property tax debate is not heading in the right direction.

Right now, that debate looks epic over in the Kansas Legislature. It stars Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican from Parker, with strong support from the Koch wing of her party.

Ostensibly an effort to make governments more transparent, Tyson’s bill would (among many other things) require city and county commissions to hold public hearings before they could raise additional money from property taxes.

Everybody hates property taxes, so this bill’s passage appears certain even though it appears to have many flaws. Even its supporters had “concerns” and asked for various “tweaks” at a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

Which is where Harvesters—The Community Food Network came in.

It was on the mind of Rep. Dave Baker, a Republican from Council Grove, who had more of a comment than a question.

“I came out of the supermarket industry, lived in one of those little towns, I owned my supermarket,” he began, then recalled how, back in 1988, the state changed its property tax system and he’d predicted it wouldn’t go well.

“We have pretty well emptied out rural Kansas,” he said. “Definite winners and losers were chosen at that time. The winners have won big and the losers are gone.”

He’d spoken to his fellow retail grocers who are left, he said, “and they have now got new competition in their market. And it’s not from Amazon. It’s not from Dollar General, Casey’s or any of those people. It’s from Harvesters.”

Yep, he was talking about the food bank that feeds hungry people throughout 16 counties in the northeast corner of Kansas, working through hundreds of nonprofits to assist emergency food pantries, community kitchens, homeless shelters, children’s homes and other agencies.

“Harvesters comes around to all these communities, gets all the publicity from the television stations, it doesn’t cost them anything, and they give their food away for free, no qualifications. Even people like me can go get a box of food,” the lawmaker said.

“Those grocers said if they’ve got to compete against these guys, they don’t want to pay property tax either,” Baker said.

“We know there are people who have an assumption that anyone who wants free food can come get it, but that’s just not what we find,” Harvesters spokeswoman Sarah Biles told me later.

“We know from 40 years of doing this, the people who come to these distributions are the people who need the food and can’t afford to buy any or many groceries,” she said, so they’re not really competing with grocers.

Besides, Harvesters also helps families get food assistance through SNAP.

“That money is spent at local grocers and funneled into local economy,” Biles pointed out.

“It takes a lot of courage for people to show up in these situations and admit that they need help providing food for their families,” she added.

That’s more courage than legislators are likely to have whenever this bill comes up for a final vote. Legislators will pass some version of it, if only to avoid fusillades of mean postcards from the Kansas Chamber when they run for re-election.

The bill’s proponents talked about how it was based on similar legislation in Utah, and everyone seemed to have read the Salt Lake Tribune story from a couple of years ago headlined, “Did Truth in Taxation law backfire? It led many Utah cities to dodge tax hikes for years, only to double them now.”

“Cue the taxpayers’ pitchforks and torches: Tooele City is proposing to more than double its share of property tax this year, by 114.9 percent, the highest in the state,” that 2018 story began.

“They would have ugly, ugly hearings,” said Trey Cocking, deputy director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, whose organization, like several others, was officially neutral on Tyson’s bill but requested some changes.

Eventually, Cocking said, city leaders in Utah realized they could avoid residents showing up with “torches and pitchforks” by just increasing property taxes in small amounts, between 2-4%, every year.

But even that might be too much for Kansas, which looks like it’ll have to relearn its recent lesson that you can’t just keep cutting taxes and still live in a functioning society.

Harvesters, meanwhile, will be busy helping to feed an estimated 463,280 Kansans who don’t know where their next meals are coming from. That’s nearly 16% of the state’s population, up from 12.7% before the pandemic.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.