Robbing the region's piggy bank

6/1/2013

Oil and gas valuations are critical in southwest Kansas.

Oil and gas valuations are critical in southwest Kansas.

But knowing natural resources could dry up, it's been good to have a safety net in place to help offset drops in those valuations.

Thanks to legislation passed in 2005 in Kansas, a county that takes a significant hit in tax revenues once oil and gas values fall can turn to the Kansas Oil and Gas Valuation Depletion Fund. The program allows counties to 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.

Knowing taxes from oil and gas valuations account for a majority of budget revenues in some area counties, it's easy to see how Hamilton County recently benefited from the trust fund. Other southwest Kansas counties would, as well.

While the trust fund championed by then-Senate President Steve Morris of Hugoton always has made sense, repeated attempts to direct those dollars to the state's general fund for other purposes have not.

In recent years, Morris helped ward off attempts by the Kansas House in particular to sweep dollars from an oil and gas trust fund currently at about $34 million, with southwest Kansas dollars accounting for a large chunk.

Now gone from the Statehouse, Morris has watched from the sidelines as Gov. Sam Brownback's camp continues to angle for those funds.

With a serious budget crunch brought on by Brownback's plan for massive income-tax cuts that give wealthy Kansans a nice break, the Republican governor has not been shy about snatching various funds to offset lost revenue — a stunt Morris once likened to dipping into a child's piggy bank.

While such money grabs were to be expected from an administration desperate to erase a huge budget shortfall, it still was astounding to know a local state senator was involved in one such attempt that would hurt the district he serves.

During a March legislative coffee in Garden City, Sen. Larry Powell — on the Ways and Means committee that worked a bill targeting the oil and gas trust fund — acknowledged Brownback wanted the money.

"This was in the governor's budget to take the oil and gas depletion fund," the Republican from Finney County said. "I don't make the rules. I'm not a banker."

Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, and John Doll, R-Garden City, understandably have expressed grave concern over a plan that would harm counties in southwest Kansas.

Powell, not so much. And that's no surprise.

Considered someone who would vote in lockstep with the ultraconservative governor, Powell in 2012 landed the Senate seat previously held by Morris, a faithful voice for southwest Kansas, after Morris and other more traditional Republicans who dared to disagree with the governor on any issue were maligned by a relentless campaign of misinformation fueled by the billionaire Koch brothers, and carried out by the Kansas Chamber, Americans for Prosperity and Brownback.

The campaign cleared the way for a number of initiatives — expanded gun rights and abortion restrictions, for example — coveted by a governor determined to create an ultraconservative utopia.

But with the budget, Brownback's tax-cut strategies were so radical that even some conservative Republican lawmakers found themselves in a quandary over how to move forward. Debate over sales taxes and additional cuts in income taxes triggered much of the turmoil that pushed the legislative session into overtime at taxpayer expense.

Moving forward, look for trust funds wisely put aside for future property tax relief to be just one casualty in a part of the state that cannot afford to be shortchanged.

Expect ultraconservative Republicans struggling to fix the budget mess they created to also shift more of the burden for public education and other vital programs to already stressed rural communities — leaving them with unfortunate options in spending cuts that lead to job losses, and higher property taxes to fill funding gaps.

That kind of costly toll should not sit well with anyone in southwest Kansas, regardless of their political persuasion.

Email Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@gctelegram.com.

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