I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, as a whole, we in agriculture have to engage in the policy and regulatory process. Period.
And whether you’re in Florida, Washington, Maine, California, or Kansas, it doesn’t matter. The number of lawmakers with dirt on their boots gets fewer with every election. And if they don’t hear from you, there’s a pretty good chance, you’re not going to like the outcome of some of their actions.
That’s a fact that farmers and ranchers in my home state of Kansas are facing right now as the Kansas Legislature is considering legislative proposals that could result in a significant and burdensome impact on agriculture and the amount of money farmers, ranchers and all landowners are required to send to Topeka.
In Kansas, the population is approximately 2.9 million and there are just shy of 62,000 farms. In all, agriculture is valued at more than $53 billion in the state, accounting for 37 percent of the state’s economy and employing about 12 percent of the state’s workforce. Across the state, farmland accounts for 88.9 percent of all land, with more than 21 million acres being harvested for crops and more than 16 million acres devoted to pasture for grazing livestock. I highlight these numbers to demonstrate that in Kansas, agriculture is the number one driver of the state’s economy. Despite these facts, however, an increasingly urban legislature is toying with ideas that may bite the very hand that puts food on their tables.
During this legislative session, there has been a great deal of uncertainty about the way agricultural land is valued and taxed, an area of the state’s tax code that has benefited from stability in recent history. In 1976, a Constitutional Amendment was passed allowing for the valuation of agricultural land to be based on the productive potential, not market value, with specific criteria factoring into appraisals of grassland and cropland. This system has not only worked in Kansas, but it has also been modeled in 42 other states across the country that have adopted similar systems for taxation of agricultural land.
The success of the model doesn’t seem to matter, unfortunately. First was a proposal (Senate Bill 178) that would have made drastic changes to the Use Value model and could have resulted in 400 to 600 percent property taxes. Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey, a farm girl herself, stood in lock-step with her state’s farmers and ranchers and opposed this idea. In a letter to the editor, Secretary McClaskey said, “We do not support any changes to the current method of taxing agricultural land…the proposal would result in a massive tax hike on the backs of our family farmers and ranchers in Kansas… Although the current formula insulates producers from large swings in commodity prices, agricultural land taxes have increased overall by 59 percent since 2008. Today, Kansas landowners are facing these costs in a time of lower projected farm incomes.”
While that proposal seems to have died, another bill has surfaced late in the legislative session. This time, rather than touching the Use Value model, Senate Bill 302 would, instead, impose an across the board 3 percent “excise” tax on each acre of land in the state. The Kansas Department of Revenue has estimated the statewide average property tax on agricultural land in the state to be around $4.25 per acre. Another $3 would be hard to swallow. The Kansas Farm Bureau wasted no time voicing its opposition to the proposal.
“Kansas farmers and ranchers oppose SB 302 just like we opposed the tax valuation changes of SB 178 – unequivocally and without hesitation,” said Rich Felts, Kansas Farm Bureau president. “This bill is yet another veiled attempt to impair a stable, nationally-recognized tax system that continues to work and provides a stable income to counties, local school districts and other taxing entities. SB 302 is a tax increase and an unconstitutional one at that.”
It takes money to run government. That’s a fact. Another fact is that Kansas is facing some serious budget shortfalls. Members of the legislature are doing their duty of balancing the state’s budget. However, biting the hand that feeds them, or increasing the property-tax burden on farmers and ranchers, isn’t the answer.
Getting back to the original message, the one about lawmakers needing to hear from you. Lawmakers in Kansas need to hear from their farming and ranching constituents now, just as lawmakers at all levels of government from all 50 states need to hear from their constituents. Thankfully there are state and federal government appointees who have experience in their respected industries, and industry organizations have lobbyists and staff working to educate lawmakers on policy matters, but a letter directly from a constituent with a personal story is a powerful tool. Use it.
As Secretary McClaskey said, “Your voices will matter as this debate continues. It is important for our industry to come together and be heard on these vitally important issues.”