Under Kansas law, voters can organize a petition to raise taxes, but there are no provisions that allow taxpayers to repeal a tax. That’s something Bernie Bianchino would like to see change – at least in Johnson County.
Bianchino serves on the Johnson County Charter Commission, a 25-member group charged with determining what changes, if any, should be made to the county’s ruling document – the Johnson County Home Rule Charter.
It’s essentially the county’s constitution, and voters offered their stamp of approval to the document in 2000. One of its tenants requires that a committee gather every 10 years to discuss and recommend changes.
Bianchino was appointed to the committee by Republican members of the Kansas House of Representatives. He’s the author of an amendment to the county charter that would allow voters a way to repeal a local option sales tax. A second proposal would allow voters to repeal a property tax increase.
“I think it’s only fair that people in later generations have the ability to repeal,” he said. “If I approve something today, why shouldn’t my children and grandchildren be able to have a say later?”
Two cities in Johnson County have higher sales taxes than Los Angeles and New York City, he explained.
“I thought to myself, ‘If years ago someone told you our sales taxes would be that high now, would you believe that?’ I think not,” Bianchino said. “I just felt there should be some way to reign in sales tax increases.”
Although Bianchino didn’t offer comment on any existing taxes, the county’s research triangle tax – a one-eighth cent sales tax that voters approved in 2008 – is one example.
The tax generated more than $15 million in 2009 and is used to fund higher education and degree offerings through a partnership with the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and the county. The tax has no sunset date.
Under Bianchino’s proposal, a resident could petition for a referendum election that would ask voters whether repeal a local sales tax like the Johnson County Research Triangle Tax. The petitioner would need the signatures of at least 10 percent of the number of registered voters casting ballots in the last countywide election.
Members of some governing bodies have complained at public forums that Bianchino’s proposal would make it difficult to plan for future finances and could affect a community’s bond rating.
There’s also a question of whether the county has the authority to implement such a rule as part its home charter.
“I believe it can be done by a charter resolution amendment,” Bianchino, a retired attorney, said.
But every amendment the charter commission adopts will be reviewed by a commission attorney who will author an opinion on the legality of each proposal.
“I think it will be a question that could be resolved by an opinion of counsel,” Bianchino said. “The state law doesn’t have any provision in it that prohibits rolling (taxes) back. It’s not inconsistent with statute, because there just isn’t any statute on the subject.”
There are additional hurdles for Bianchino’s propositions. First, 13 of 25 charter commission members must vote to approve the measure.
Then, the commission will recommend its adoption by the county board of commissioners, and voters will have a final say on the November ballot in 2012.
Bianchino isn’t sure whether he’ll have the support of enough commissioners to move forward. Initially, members approved the idea of an amendment to allow for the repeal of sales taxes but rejected the proposal to allow rollbacks on property taxes. However, Bianchino thinks he’s re-worked his real estate tax proposal enough that it might garner more support.
“I did modify what I originally had proposed to try to address some of the concerns that elected officials had,” he said. “The real estate tax repeal, it went down to defeat in the initial vote. I’m cautiously optimistic that it could pass.”
The charter commission will next meet from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Johnson County Administration Building on Cherry Street in Olathe. Officials don’t anticipate voting on Bianchino’s proposals at the Nov. 7 meeting, however commissioners will likely be asked to vote on whether to make Johnson County Board of Commissioners elections partisan.