Opinion

A Kansas fitness-club magnate’s quest for tax breaks offers a window into political dystopia

May 10, 2021 3:33 am

Lynn Jenkins, a former Kansas congresswoman, urged a Kansas House committee to support a property tax exemption for private fitness clubs in Kansas to level the field with nonprofit or government sponsored recreational facilities. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Really, Kansas?

Even by the standards set during this year’s now mercifully concluded session of lawmaking, your state Senate came awfully close to setting a new low before it was all over Friday night. That’s when the body took an actual vote on — as in, seriously considered — the creation of a property tax exemption to benefit for-profit gyms, particularly the ones owned by fitness-club tycoon Rodney Steven of Wichita.

Steven owns Genesis Fitness Clubs, which has more than 20 locations in Kansas and around 30 in five other states. Back in February, my Kansas Reflector colleague Tim Carpenter reported that Steven was delinquent on at least $549,000 in property taxes owed to Shawnee, Johnson and Douglas counties.

Apparently undaunted by any possibility that this might weaken his good standing with lawmakers, Steven enlisted the assistance of a former congresswoman, Lynn Jenkins, to lobby lawmakers on his behalf.

Jenkins, who touts her education and training as a CPA, served as the Kansas State Treasurer and maybe should know the value of property-tax-paying (i.e. law-abiding) business owners, displayed a championship lack of shame when she darkened a committee meeting at the Capitol in March by arguing that Steven needed tax breaks to compete fairly with “government-owned health clubs that pay no taxes at all,” i.e. city-owned rec centers and nonprofits like the YMCA.

As Carpenter reported, Steven has a heavy cash-to-legislators habit and has been trying this for years. This time, his proposal would have saved him an estimated $2.5 million in property taxes each year, while costing Johnson County $1.1 million and Shawnee, Sedgwick and Riley counties between $273,000 and $366,000 in annual tax revenues.

It looked as if good government would prevail after Jenkins apparently swayed no one and the Genesis bill failed to move out of either chamber. But then, like a stranger’s gob of hair in the locker room shower, it floated around in the session’s final hours — enough to require a vote.

During the debate, some senators displayed remarkable understanding of free-market principles, particularly the difference between “for profit” and “nonprofit.” The brightest sparkler came from Sen. Robert Olson of Olathe.

“The problem is we’ve got these for-profit businesses, they’re trying to do the right thing, they’re paying taxes,” he said (conveniently glossing over the Genesis property-tax-payment failure), “but we’ve got these other facilities that are tax-exempt, and they’re able to sell their services at a lower rate. In my mind this is the only option we have.”

Ultimately the vote was not close — 27 nays and 11 yeas — but, seriously?

It’s hard to know where this one ranks in a session punctuated by possible bottoms. So let’s just hand out black ribbons to the 11 Republicans who thought this was a good idea. Here’s who voted for the Genesis tax break when it gurgled up for the final time on Friday:

Your Senate president, Ty Masterson, of Andover.

Your Senate vice president, Rick Wilborn, of McPherson

Your Senate assistant majority leader, Larry Alley, of Winfield.

Three of Johnson County’s senators: Olson, Mike Thompson of Shawnee and Kellie Warren of Leawood.

Two of Wichita’s senators, Renee Erickson and Mike Petersen.

Goodland’s senator, Rick Billinger.

Salina’s senator, J.R. Claeys.

Hiawatha’s senator, Dennis Pyle.

In honor of the session’s ending (except for the official last day on May 26, which we can only hope remains ceremonial), let’s pause to reflect on how this special group got here.

Last November, Alley, Claeys and Wilborn all won re-election with no Democratic competition.

But it’s hard to blame Democrats for not running when you consider the vote totals in a few of the other races:

Kansas Senate 16

  • R-Ty Masterson, 27,199 votes: 68.95%
  • D-Timothy Don Fry II, 12,246 votes: 31.05%

Kansas Senate 1

  • R-Dennis Pyle, 25,173 votes: 71.74%
  • D-Kirk Miller, 9,914 votes: 28.26%

Kansas Senate 40

  • R-Richard (Rick) Billinger, 28,023 votes: 78.82%
  • D-Larry Joseph Dreiling, 7,530 votes: 21.18%

In Johnson County and Wichita, though, Democrats contended respectably.

Kansas Senate 10

  • R-Mike Thompson, 22,362 votes: 51.86%
  • D-Lindsey Constance, 20,758 votes: 48.14%

Kansas Senate 30

  • R-Renee Erickson, 17,376 votes: 51.75%
  • D-Melissa Gregory, 16,199 votes: 48.25%

Kansas Senate 11

  • R-Kellie Warren, 24,846 votes: 52.68%
  • D-Joy Koesten, 22,317 votes: 47.32%

Kansas Senate 23

  • R-Rob Olson, 20,235 votes: 53.11%
  • D-Wendy Budetti, 17,864 votes: 46.89%

Kansas Senate 28

  • R-Mike Petersen, 11,895 votes: 53.71%
  • D-Jim Ward, 10,250 votes: 46.29%

None of these senators is up for re-election until 2024, but we’re already in the next election cycle. And just the fact that Jenkins’ argument — that for-profit companies should get a level-playing field with nonprofits and “government-owned” operations — received any serious consideration is yet more evidence of our dystopian political landscape.

So let’s imagine the future: Having run to a tie in the 2020 Republican gubernatorial primary, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and former Gov. Jeff Colyer agree to a power-sharing arrangement. Kris Kobach has prevailed as attorney general. Our new commerce secretary? Fitness-club kingpin Rodney Steven.

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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.

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