Riley County government officials met with state legislators representing the area on Thursday to discuss the county’s policy priorities for the upcoming legislative session set to start on January 14.

51st House district Representative Ron Highland (R), 64th House district Representative Susie Swanson (R), 66th House district Representative Sydney Carlin (D) and 67th House district Representative Tom Phillips (R) attended the meeting with county commissioners and other county department heads.

One of their priorities this session was an amendment to the constitution protecting counties’ rights to home rule. The amendment would allow counties to enact resolutions exempting themselves from state laws that aren’t applied to counties uniformly. Municipal governments already have this authority.

Representative Phillips said he sees the value in the proposition, but it could take some time to get traction with lawmakers.

“From a legislative body perspective, it’s going to take some while to education legislators on what home rule is, what the impact would be across the state if county commissioners had the ability to have home rule,” Phillips said.

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Representative Highland said they’ve been trying to get the proposition approved for the past two legislative sessions.

“But there was a lack of support for it from the [Kansas Association of Counties] and the people involved in it — particularly Riley County,” said Highland. “They were not organized and did not hit the committee members — and that’s where the key is, it has to be dealt with in the [Federal and State Affairs committee].”

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Representative Carlin agreed with the concept of the amendment, but had some misgivings about what it could lead to.

“Once you put one on the ballot then we get all these crazy things that come up and so that’s one reason it never is going to go anywhere,” Carlin said. “Once you pass anything in a constitutional amendment then more of them show up that the majority of people in the legislature would just as soon avoid bringing forward.”

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County officials also pitched a possible legislative approach to ending “dark store theory” appraisal cases. The theory is commonly argued by big box retailers in appeals cases to the state’s Board of Tax Appeals in an effort to lower their tax burdens. Businesses argue that their property values should be appraised as though their stores are vacant, not in their current use. Where successful, local governments lose significant amounts of tax revenue — often having to repay already processed tax payments from previous years with interest.

County Appraiser Greg McHenry said their proposal was intentionally as simple as possible, amounting to a one sentence amendment to the state definition of fair market value stating that fair market value cannot take into account “hypothetical lease fees.”

“If a legislator is doing their job to represent their county and their city governments, they will pay attention and they will be helpful and will come up with a solution,” Carlin said. “We need to tax fairly.”

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Phillips said he hopes he can get proposed legislative addressing the issue into a discussion in the state tax committee.

“What’s happening is you’re just shifting that tax burden from the retailers back to the residential homeowners, which is of great concern to our county commissioners.”

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Highland said the most important step to addressing counties’ and municipalities’ concerns is getting the right information in front of the right people.

“The information is there — it’s fairly straightforward — and I think if they do that and then, using a very simple solution within the law, then that will solve the problem,” Highland said. “And then, in addition, looking at the make-up of the board itself.”

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Riley County Health Department Director Jennifer Green presented her department’s priorities for 2019 as well. Included in their priorities was increasing funding for local health departments and community crisis stabilization centers, medicaid expansion and raising the age for tobacco sales to 21.

Highland said he doesn’t think the topic of raising the age for tobacco purchases will get a lot of attention in this legislative session.

“There’s just not enough time and we are going to be dealing with the two-year budget this year, and that’s going to take all of the air out of the room quite frankly,” said Highland. “There’s not going to be a lot of other bills passed because of that.”

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Carlin said she thinks we need to convince people to live healthier lifestyles, but was conflicted about raising the age for tobacco sales via legislation. She did say she believes military servicemen should be given an exception.

“They’re in this place where they should have privileges if they’re under 21,” said Carlin. “If they can fight, they can smoke — I mean, that’s a choice, a personal choice.”

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Phillips said that Gov-elect Kelly said she’d create a committee to figure out a way to move forward with Medicaid expansion.

“I am hopeful that we can get Medicaid expansion across the line this year, but I recognize it’s going to be probably a challenge just because of the change of composition of both the House and the Senate,” said Phillips. “I’m cautiously optimistic, I guess.”

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