Frustration billowed from lips of Great Bend resident Dorv Conell, a man impatient for Kansas lawmakers to deliver relief from an unconventional state sales tax rate on food equal to the tax bite on purchases of luxury goods.
He said the high sales tax on groceries was harmful to poor people across Kansas and ought to be diminished by raising taxes on the wealthy. The 6.5 percent sales tax on food assessed by Kansas since 2015 ranked the state second only to the 7 percent rate in Mississippi.
"It seems to me the legislators, a whole bunch of them, have a Christian cross on their lapel and a Bible tucked under their arm, and then they passed taxes on food, which literally takes food off a poor man’s table," Conell said. "It seems to me to be a complete lack of humanity and Christianity."
Kansas is among seven states that don't make a distinction on food purchases in the sales tax code. Kansas stands as an outlier in the five-state region in terms of grocery sales tax. Colorado and Nebraska exempts food. Missouri charges a rate of 1.2 percent rate on food, while Oklahoma maintains a 4.5 percent tax.
As if answering prayers early Sunday, the Kansas Legislature voted to send Gov. Laura Kelly a bill linking growth in online internet sales tax revenue to gradually buying down of the state sales tax on food. One projection indicated the food sales tax in Kansas be nibbled to 5.4 percent in a couple years.
The bill, which would cost the state treasury $245 million over three years, delivered tax relief to multinational corporations and the 9 percent of individuals in Kansas who itemize deductions on state tax forms.
An informal survey of Kansans from Topeka, Salina, Lawrence, Pittsburg, Hutchinson and elsewhere demonstrated Conell wasn't alone in objecting to sales tax on food. Interviews generated a wealth of tax policy ideas, including pleas to slash income taxes, eliminate sales tax exemptions and to legalize and tax marijuana.
There was a preference among some that government rely on a three-part revenue mix by making property, income and sales tax collections roughly equivalent.
Consternation was evident about overall levels of taxation once federal, state, county and city taxes were combined.
Salina resident Mike Wilson, secretary of the Libertarian Party of Saline County, said he was convinced state and local officials did the best they could with tax revenue at their disposal and wanted them to keep an eye on the bottom line.
"We believe in limited government," he said. "We oppose excessive government spending and support keeping government taxes as low as possible."
Stephen Busby, of Pittsburg, said he would welcome tax reform demonstrating firm commitment to people with modest incomes.
"I'd make tax reform for the poor and middle class," Busby said.
Retiree Mary Anne Wright has lived in the Hutchinson area all her life, and she’s heard people, particularly those new to the community, complain about local tax rates.
"They say it’s so high to live here," she said.
A sign on the entrance door to the Hutchinson Mall pointed out that a 1 percent Community Improvement District sales tax was collected there. That resulted in the overall state, county and local sales tax rate for mall shoppers of 10.1 percent.
"This used to be the place where everybody would come,” said David Ramirez, who works in a retail business at the mall and sat in the virtually empty food court.
He empathized with customers struggling to rationalize a double-digit sales tax. "They freak out because it’s so high," he said.
Topekans Nick and Kassady Ledet and their 1-year-old daughter, Raegan, visited the Capitol to take in splendor of the massive dome, honorary statues and distinctive murals.
They paused at the third-floor railing in the rotunda to consider what tax change might benefit their family.
"We were talking as we walked into the Capitol, Texas doesn't have an income tax. That'd be nice," Nick Ledet said.
Erica Douglas, of McPherson, said taxation of legal marijuana sales could be an alternative source of revenue for education, highways and other priorities.
"You can let people drink. Why not let them do that as well?" she said. "On state taxes, I would love to know where they are all going. We are taxed to death in this state."
Michaela Slaughter, a resident of Windom and Edwardsville, urged full repeal of sales tax on food in Kansas. She said residents in the Kansas City area were avoiding sales tax on groceries by shopping in Missouri.
"We need to go to no taxation on food," she said. "We have too many people here that are in poverty and struggling who can’t make it."
Aaron Needham, an unemployed 43-year-old Lawrence resident, sought tax policy capable of shaping a more just and equitable society.
He hadn't paid attention to this year's tax debates in the Legislature, but believed politicians should embrace policy beneficial to a broad swath of people rather than an elite few.
"I don't think everybody should get a handout," Needham said, "but not all of us comes out of the gate with the same advantages."
Needham was bothered by mill levies tied to property taxes.
"In this town, property taxes sound really great to everybody, but the rent is already too damn high," Needham said.
Dan Deming, who earned a reputation for watching taxes and expenditures when a member of the Reno County Commission and Hutchinson City Council, said shortening the state's long list of sales tax exemptions could lower the 6.5 percent sales tax.
He said the state ought to address the "great abuse of tax exemptions for certain businesses and industrial development." He'd welcome a ban on use of tax-break packages by cities and counties for economic development. Critics fear loss of potential jobs, he said, but the change would level the business playing field.
Salina resident David Norlin said Kansas should balance income, sales and property tax revenue. This model of a three-legged stool wobbled in 2012 when the state exempted 330,000 businesses from state income tax and aggressively lowered individual income tax rates. In 2017, much of that tax policy was repealed.
"When you had income taxes cut so drastically, you had a grossly unfair system," said Norlin, who viewed responsible taxation as the cost of basic government services. "Once Kansans can begin to see taxes not as a burden, but as a responsibility and a right, we can begin to see progress."