ON the lawn of the Kansas state capitol, a candidate supporting legalizing marijuana was haranguing a crowd. Inside, a group of schoolgirls modeled old-fashioned dresses. And upstairs, the wheels of Kansas government were turning not at all. Politicians wrapped up on Monday the longest legislative session in Kansas history by avoiding the biggest issue in the state: property taxes. The issue so infuriates many Kansans that some politicians may find themselves looking for a new job after this election year.
Kansans are grousing because the state is conducting the first reclassification and reappraisal of property in more than 20 years. Undertaxed for years on their property, Kansans are waking up to some eye-popping tax bills. Increases of 300 to 600 percent are not uncommon, says Frank Ybarra, deputy press secretary for Republican Gov. Mike Hayden. ``The people most hurt are small commercial business owners with little or no inventory - and homeowners.''
City dwellers have more to complain about than rural Kansans. But even farmers are complaining appraisals on some land parcels are ridiculously high. Taxpayers have filed a bushel basket of appeals.
It's not difficult to imagine the political impact of all this. Governor Hayden is up for reelection; so is the entire House of Representatives. One longtime political reporter rubbed his hands with delight at the idea of running a challenger's campaign and attacking the Legislature's overspending and lack of leadership.
``You are going to see a lot of new faces,'' state Rep. Kerry Patrick conceded last week as he watched his colleagues try to craft a property tax relief measure.
The effort failed because Kansas politics have gotten hopelessly entangled. ``It's like you have three parties up there,'' says Mr. Ybarra.
Governor Hayden wants to shift the sources of state revenues by lowering property taxes, raising the sales tax and, if necessary, raising the state income tax for wealthy Kansans. He is opposed not only by Democrats but also by a dozen conservative House Republicans, known as ``the rebels'' or, in the governor's office, ``the rogues.''
The rebels detest higher taxes. They want the state, instead, to roll back reclassification. When the state reclassified property, it turned some taxed items into tax-free items. That has been a boon to big industies, such as Kansas' aircraft manufacturers, which no longer have to pay taxes on their huge inventories.
In most states, helping big business would be the good Republican thing to do. But things are never quite what they seem in Kansas politics. (One might call it ``Oz-politik.'') The state's most Republican area, the wealthy suburbs around Kansas City, has been hit so hard by higher property taxes that political experts suggest it may well vote for Hayden's Democratic opponent.
There are several contenders in the Aug. 7 primary. Haydon himself may face a well-financed challenge from a Wichita developer. His likely Democratic opponent is former Gov. John Carlin.
Mr. Carlin is not free from the tax problem. He signed the reclassification and reappraisal into law with the support of - who else - then-Speaker of the House Mike Hayden.
``Everyone has something to beat someone else over the head with,'' says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas professor who is writing a book on Kansas politics. But ``there's some question about how deep this [tax] issue runs.'' Property taxes are collected by the state, but spent by local governments. Professor Loomis saw the property taxes for his old Victorian home rise from $900 to $2,200. ``I was grossly undertaxed before,'' he says. Now ``I think they're in the vicinity of being fair.''