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Taxed to the Limit

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HUGOTON, KAN.--As Gladys Renfro points out highlights in the sprawling historical museum she manages here, it becomes obvious that the lore of this and other towns in southwestern Kansas is largely a tale of survival.

Even episodes like the contract killing of a rival town leader on the steps of a church--the retelling makes Ms. Renfro shudder--testify to the rugged local spirit.

Hugoton and its neighbors in this remote region of the Great Plains have been enveloped by dust storms, tested by floods, and pelted with meteorites. Yet it is only now that residents are confronting what they see as their greatest adversary: the state of Kansas.

Enraged by a school-finance-reform law passed by the legislature this spring, people here in Stevens County and eight other rural counties have launched a grassroots campaign to secede from Kansas to form their own state, or possibly even a new nation.

The finance law, passed in the expectation that the state courts would soon strike down the existing school-funding system as unconstitutionally inequitable, will lead to higher property taxes and reduced school spending throughout this area. In effect, the measure transfers some of the wealth from this energy-rich region to schools in Wichita, Topeka, and other urban areas.

Although the novel secession drive strikes most outsiders as quixotic, the decidedly uphill fight is no joke in these parts.

A constitutional convention is scheduled for fall, overwhelmingly requested by local voters. The measure won 1,469 to 73 here in Stevens County and passed by a better than two-to-one margin in the closest contest in the region.

"We have touched a longstanding sentiment in the people out here,'' said Chris O. Concannon, a Hugoton lawyer and member of the group that has organized the secession campaign.

"The history of the American Revolution was taxation without representation,'' Mr. Concannon observed. "We can either sit back and continue to clamor to no avail, or we can separate ourselves from that jurisdiction.''

Even some of the most conservative members of this heavily Republican area see the rebellion as the only way to rectify longstanding local concerns.

"To do something like secede would be pretty radical for me, but I would do it,'' said Ted R. Morgan, the chairman of the Kearny County commission. "My grandfather was a homesteader, and I'm a Kansan, but sentiment only goes so far.''

An Easy Mark?

Residents here can cite plenty of reasons for their discontent, going all the way back to the state's slow response to the grasshopper plague of the 1930's. But most describe a growing uneasiness that the region's sparse population translates into a minimal voice in state government and an easy mark for tax revenues.

The state's mineral-severance tax, for example, assesses a tax based on gas and oil production. In six of the breakaway counties alone, the tax provided more than $42 million last year for the state's general fund.

The final straw has been the finance bill, which will transfer control over property taxes and basic school-spending levels to the state.

For many residents of this arid region, worries abound that the bill and its taxes could lead to the demise of small schools and, in turn, the communities they anchor.

But where residents see endangered small towns, they fear that state leaders see only dollar signs, in the form of the vast natural-gas field that lies beneath here.

"We've been the first to be taxed and the last to be treated fairly,'' Mr. Concannon argued. "People are excited about getting the hell out.''

Until 1927, the residents of southwestern Kansas survived as railroad builders, hardscrabble farmers, and oil pioneers. That summer, workers drilling for oil pierced a 200-million-year-old ocean floor and discovered the world's largest natural-gas reserve, which runs from this area through Oklahoma and into the Texas Panhandle.

In southwestern Kansas, profits from the Hugoton Gas Field supplement a marginal agricultural income. While the region may be rich in energy, its residents are more likely to live in modest neighborhoods of mobile homes than on large estates.

For the locals who must dig deep into the ground for their wealth--as well as for the water that turns the dusty landscape into lush fields of wheat and alfalfa--the state's rush to take over property taxes seems a kind of political tyranny that is sure to disrupt the balance of things.

"When you work the land and make it productive, you learn to stand your ground,'' said Ms. Renfro, the curator of the Stevens County Gas and Historical Museum. "We don't want to leave Kansas, but maybe we don't have a choice.''

'Unfair, Selective Taxation'

The new law's impact will soon be felt both by the region's taxpayers and by its schools. Under the plan, a considerable jump in property taxes will be accompanied by marginal increases to drastic declines in school aid.

In Hugoton, a 1,000-student school district that covers 575 square miles, the tax rate is expected to rise next year from 19.3 mills to 32 mills. Although the district will get an increase in school funding, it will be only about 1 percent, or $59,000.

The financial crunch is sure to hamper the district's plans to expand its technology program, hire a curriculum coordinator, and add another 1st-grade teacher, said Superintendent Nelson A. Bryant.

"They're not only taking our mills, they're tying our hands to the point that we're not going to be able to improve our schools,'' Mr. Bryant said. "Fair or not, right now that's the way it is.''

Local analysts see several different ways in which the new law's funding formula treats the region unfairly.

First, they protest the legislature's measures of wealth and tax effort. In this case, the secessionists charge, property values were used instead of measures of commercial activity and income, which would have given a truer picture of the area's actual ability to pay.

Moreover, they contend, property-tax abatements granted by Wichita and other cities to entice industry were left out of the equation. In all, the factors combine to spell tax increases here and steady or even lower tax burdens across much of the rest of the state.

Secondly, dissenters charge that lawmakers panicked by not waiting for a trial on the school-finance question. Then the legislators crafted a solution driven more by the number of winners and losers shown by computer printouts than by sound public-policy considerations, critics say.

Angry residents see the finance issue as yet another example of how the legislature is ruled by urban interests that control the largest block of votes and receive most of the resulting benefits, as in the school-finance plan.

"We're not wealthy, and we've never felt that we could properly tell our side of the story,'' Mr. Morgan said. "This has come across as being very appealing--it's educational reform like they don't have anywhere else in the country and it doesn't cost you anything--but that's certainly not true here.''

"For five months I've never talked to a reporter without saying it's unfair, selective taxation,'' Mr. Morgan insisted, "but the way it gets reported is that these people want to secede because they claim their taxes are too high.''

Congressional Approval Needed

With the present mix of counties, the new territory would combine the population of Panama City, Fla., in a land area nearly the size of New Jersey. The 36,000 residents--less than 1.5 percent of the state total--have a taxable income of about $279 million and land that last year yielded $48 million in mineral taxes.

Organizers believe that once the secession effort gains momentum later this year, its ranks will grow.

They have been surprised that so many residents have expressed interest in the rebellion.

"This is not a movement of the commission; this is a movement of the people,'' proclaimed Bob Boaldin, the chairman of the Morton County commission, which voted to halt purchases from counties where representatives supported the finance plan. "We don't have any intention of burning any flags or having any riots, but there doesn't appear to be another option. We're asking, 'What's left?'''

Inquiries also have been logged from other Kansas counties, as well as from local officials in rural Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas intrigued by the revolt.

Statehood would be granted only in the seemingly unlikely event that the U.S. Congress and the legislatures of Kansas and any other affected states agreed.

"Our attorney general says there's no way to do it,'' Mr. Concannon said with a laugh. "That's fine. I suspect King George and Mikhail Gorbachev got the same advice.''

"In our case, it's a question of whether the United States is what it claims to be or not,'' he argued. "How can our nation laud the efforts of people across the ocean but fight those within its own boundary?''

An even greater longshot is the group's backup plan--petitioning the United Nations for sovereignty.

"I'm not so sure it wouldn't be a good thing to separate from the United States. That's not as far-fetched to me as others might think it is,'' Mr. Concannon said. "I guess the question the United Nations would have to grapple with is whether a group of people have to be subjugated to the point of total abuse.''

"You can't keep Pandora's Box closed unless you're going to act responsibly, and our state legislature has failed miserably,'' he argued. "We've got to fit in the equation somewhere between a rich uncle and a bastard child.''

At this point, leaders of the movement are not sure they have moved much past being an object of ridicule in the state.

"I would say that most people, particularly in east Kansas, are still making fun of us, but we see ourselves losing our school districts and counties and cities,'' Mr. Morgan said. "Frankly, if we're going to go, it would be nice to go trying to secede. If they're just going to tax us to death, we'd like to at least try it by ourselves.''

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