Legislation to look at fencing, other needs for fire victims

Mar 9, 2017

A wildfire in Clark and Comanche Counties in south central Kansas has burned 500,000 acres of land and is being called the largest wildfire in the state's history.
Credit Lt. Seth Frizzel / Holcomb Community Fire Department

TOPEKA – Legislation is in the works that would provide tax assistance to farmers, ranchers, homeowners and utilities that have suffered losses from wildfires.

“We are working on it right now. We’re working with the Revisor’s to use similar language that we used last year,” said Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra.

Last spring, the Legislature added language to a tax bill that authorized a temporary sales tax exemption on materials and labor to construct, repair or replace any fence damaged or destroyed by fire. The action came after a wildfire ravaged rural areas in Barber and Comanche counties.

Rahjes said the envisioned legislation would be broader than the 2016 legislation and would be aimed not only at agricultural producers.

“We’re aware of our friends in Hutchinson and Clark County and other places that have lost homes,” he said Wednesday morning at the Statehouse. Also, electric cooperatives have lost utility poles, he said.

“We’re bringing all those stakeholders together to make sure we do the right thing,” he said.

He said they need “boots on the ground” as they gather input from various stakeholders affected by fires.

Rahjes indicated the legislation could include tax credit language, too.

“Right now, the plan is to run it through the (House) Taxation Committee,” Rahjes said. He said they probably would work with Senate counterparts, too.

He anticipated bipartisan support. Last year, the fencing sales tax exemption was added to a larger tax bill and passed by large margins in both chambers.

“Hopefully, we’ll move fairly quickly,” he said.

“I don’t look for much resistance,” said Sen. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, whose 38th District included Clark County. Lawmakers are wrestling with the budget but “we’re cognizant of the fact that people have some big losses here,” he said.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Estes talked to constituents – friends, customers and business acquaintances – in Clark County. “Just trying to see how they were faring, if they did in fact lose their homes,” he said.

The stories are sometimes good and sometimes “very heartbreaking,” he said.

Years ago, Estes owned agricultural land in Clark County but sold it as he shifted his focus from farming to the farm implement business. Recent fires have burned over 350,000 acres or over 60 percent of the county. Some people escaped the loss of their home but lost cattle. Estes said he talked to one who lost his home and 150 head of cattle.

“This thing was so big and so fast that those guys did miracles,” he said of firefighters, but they couldn’t be everywhere. Much of the state’s southern counties are grassland and lightly populated. There aren’t wheat fields or highways to provide natural breaks for the spreading fire. “Down there, once it starts, you do what you can and pray a lot,” he said.

Estes had talked to a Kansas Livestock Association representative Wednesday morning about fencing needs after the fires.

Estes said they are looking at expanding the 2016 fencing sales tax exemption program. “We’re looking into that from several different angles,” he said, and the governor may have ideas, too, on post-fire assistance.

The loss of cattle from this fire won’t affect the price of meat at the store, but local economies in communities such as Ashland and Dodge City will feel an impact, he said. People sustained devastating losses and it will take time to recover, Estes said.