Lost trust

11/2/2013

Counties should fight back for their safety-net funds.

Counties should fight back for their safety-net funds.

Area counties had cause to demand that funds they set aside for property tax relief be delivered as promised.

More than 50 Kansas counties, including all in southwest Kansas, recently joined in filing a lawsuit claiming the state withheld some $7.6 million in Kansas Oil and Gas Valuation Depletion Fund payments. The flap stems from Gov. Sam Brownback's interest in taking dollars from a fund put in place as a safety net for oil- and gas-producing counties.

Thanks to legislation passed in 2005 in Kansas — and championed by then-Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican — counties may contribute a small portion of oil and gas severance taxes to be held in trust to mitigate losses in valuation, and in turn ward off property tax hikes. Counties that take a hit in tax revenues, should oil and gas values fall, can rely on the trust fund.

But Brownback's camp started angling for those and other funds as a way to offset lost revenue in the wake of massive income-tax cuts that gave wealthy Kansans a break.

While the governor had proposed doing away with the oil- and gas-fund payments, a compromise from the Kansas Legislature instead dropped severance tax revenues to the trust fund from 12.41 percent to 6 percent.

Counties still should have received full payments this year, and lower amounts in 2014. Yet dollars distributed in October, and based on the previous fiscal year's severance tax collections, were well short of what counties anticipated.

Unfortunately, the trust funds wisely put aside for future property tax relief may become just another casualty in a part of the state too often shortchanged.

Brownback and his fellow ultraconservative Republicans want to remedy a budget mess they created by shifting still more of the financial burden for public education and other vital programs to already stressed rural counties — leaving those communities with such lousy options as spending cuts that eliminate jobs, and higher property taxes to fill funding gaps.

Counties not interested in such a toll should indeed fight for what they've invested in their future, to include the trust funds in question.

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