Two words buried in a full-page ballot question could kill a constitutional amendment that would slash the property taxes on Kansas watercraft, proponents of the change worry.
Backers of the proposal want to bring boat taxes in line with the much lower tax rates in surrounding states. The goal is to induce more Kansans to buy and register their boats in the Sunflower State.
But the language on next week's ballot has confused voters, said Robin Jennison, the state's secretary of wildlife, parks and tourism. And when voters are confused, they tend to vote no.
The amendment would add the words "and watercraft" to a section of the state constitution. The addition gives the Kansas Legislature the power to cut property taxes on boats in a manner similar to the late 1990s property tax cut on recreational vehicles.
But those two lightly italicized words are buried in the entire relevant section of the Kansas Constitution, Jennison said.
"It's the law," said Jennison, a former state legislator. "It's a bad deal having to put the whole section of the constitution on the ballot, and it's a two-word change."
He said his office has been besieged with questions from voters who can't figure out what the ballot question changes.
Currently, Kansas boats are classified in the "other" category of personal property and taxed at 30 percent of value.
That means a $20,000 boat in Oklahoma carries a $150 property tax bill but would be taxed at $750 in Kansas, amendment supporters say.
As a result, Kansans are registering their craft in Oklahoma and Missouri to avoid the higher Kansas taxes. Dan Heskett, the boating law administrator for the wildlife department, has estimated boat registrations are down by about 20,000, costing the state as much as $1 million in property tax revenue.
"That's illegal, but who has the manpower to chase that down?" Jennison asked.
Moreover, the property tax differential has led buyers to purchase boats in Oklahoma or Missouri, making it easier to register the boats there.
"It costs the state sales tax money, the state property tax money, our department registration money and our boat sellers money," Jennison said. "We're discouraging boat ownership in Kansas, and I hope voters will vote yes."
Though early voters may have time to sort it all out, Jennison fears that on Election Day, voters will have nowhere to turn.
"Most voters, if they don't understand a ballot question, they're going to vote no," he said.
It's the same concern at the Kansas Bass Federation Nation, said Don Leatherman of Liberal, president of the group.
"It's a serious concern to us that people will look at that full page and say, 'That's something I want nothing to do with.' "