WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita Eagle reporting, marijuana laws, and the Kansas economy

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita Eagle prints several stories that ought to cause readers to question the reliability of its newsroom. Wichita voters pass a marijuana law that conflicts state law. Performance of the Kansas economy. Finally, some unexplained results in the way people vote. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 81, broadcast April 19, 2015.

Kansas school test scores, two interactive visualizations

When comparing Kansas school test scores to those of other states or the nation, it’s important to consider disaggregated data. Otherwise, we may make inaccurate conclusions regarding Kansas schools.

Kansas school leaders are proud of Kansas schools, partly because of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Kansas ranks pretty high among the states on this test. It’s important, however, to examine the results from a few different angles to make sure we understand the entire situation.

NAEP test scores subdivided by ethnicity. Click for larger version.
NAEP test scores subdivided by ethnicity. Click for larger version.
I’ve gathered scores from the 2013 administration of the test, which is the most recent data available. I present them in a visualization that you can use yourself through the links at the end of this article. The most widely available NAEP data is for two subjects: reading and math, and for two grades, fourth and eighth. In the nearby images captured from the visualizations, I present data for Kansas and the average for national public schools. The numbers are the percent of students that are at or above proficient.

Looking at the data for all students, you can see why Kansas school leaders are proud: The line representing Kansas is almost always the highest. But there are important statistical considerations to take into account.

NAEP makes data available by ethnic subtypes. If we present a chart showing black students only, something different appears. In some instances the line for national public schools coincides with the Kansas line, or is above the Kansas line. A similar pattern exists when considering Hispanic students only.

Perhaps surprisingly, when considering white students only, the same pattern exists: In many cases national public schools white students score as well as, or sometimes above, Kansas white students.

NAEP test scores subdivided by eligibility for free or reduced lunch. Click for larger version.
NAEP test scores subdivided by eligibility for free or reduced lunch. Click for larger version.
Looking at the data subgroups by eligibility for free or reduced price lunches is useful, too. This eligibility is a commonly-used surrogate for selecting students from low-income households. When looking at the subgroups, the advantage of Kansas schools sometimes disappears, although the effect is not as marked.

How can this be? The answer is Simpson’s Paradox. A Wall Street Journal article explains: “Put simply, Simpson’s Paradox reveals that aggregated data can appear to reverse important trends in the numbers being combined.”

The Wikipedia article explains: “A paradox in which a trend that appears in different groups of data disappears when these groups are combined, and the reverse trend appears for the aggregate data. … Many statisticians believe that the mainstream public should be informed of the counter-intuitive results in statistics such as Simpson’s paradox.”

A more technical paper gives this definition: “Simpson’s paradox refers to a phenomena whereby the association between a pair of variables (X, Y ) reverses sign upon conditioning of a third variable, Z, regardless of the value taken by Z.”

Kansas and National Public Schools demographics 2015-04In this case, the confounding factor (“lurking” variable) is that Kansas differs greatly from national public schools in the proportion of students in ethnic groups. Most prominently, in Kansas, 68 percent of students are white. For national public schools, the value is 51 percent.

This large difference in the composition of students is what makes it look like Kansas students perform better on the NAEP than the national average. But looking at the scores for ethnic subgroups, can we still say that Kansas schools outperform national public schools? It’s important to know that aggregated data can mask or hide underlying trends.

Note that there is not much difference in eligibility for free or reduced lunches between Kansas and national public schools. This is why Simpson’s Paradox is not strongly apparent in these scores.

Have you heard Kansas school leaders talk about this? Or do they present Kansas NAEP test scores without considering the different makeup of the states?

The interactive visualizations of NAEP scores are not difficult to use. The adjustment most people may want to make is selecting a different combination of states. To open the visualization for ethnicity in a new window, click here. For the visualization based on lunch eligibility, click here.

Did Jeff Longwell dodge a tough city council vote?

On election day, Wichita city council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell appears to have ducked an inconvenient vote and would not say why.

At his Wichita mayoral campaign announcement last November, then-council member Jeff Longwell called for a moratorium on the use of forgivable loans until a new policy is implemented. 1

Jeff Longwell, now Wichita mayor
Jeff Longwell, now Wichita mayor

At other times he called for the end to traditional cash incentives, telling the Wichita Eagle “I think that we have to get away from the traditional cash incentives that we’ve been using and look for better ways to grow jobs in this community.” 2

In the Wichita Eagle voter guide, for the question “What is your philosophy or practice regarding public incentives for companies and developers?” Longwell started his response with this: “I believe there is a better way to promote economic growth.” 3

Wichita voters can be excused for believing Jeff Longwell wants to pursue economic development in a different way. It was a good strategy for the candidate to employ, as the rejection of the sales tax last year by Wichita voters is widely thought to be grounded in voter distrust of the economic development package.

Summary of benefits for Figeac AeroOn election day this April, an economic development incentive package was under consideration by the Wichita city council. The deal contained a common mix of incentives from city, county and state. Details on the amounts of the incentives were sketchy, so I estimated the benefit to the company at $2,315,000 up front cash and credits equivalent to cash, and $605,000 in ongoing annual benefits for at least five years. 4

This was an example of the traditional way Wichita and other cities do economic development, that is, targeted incentives for specific companies. It’s something that Longwell said we need to get away from, especially the forgivable loans part, having called for a moratorium on their use.

This matter provided a perfect opportunity for Longwell to cast a vote aligned with his new perspectives on economic development. So when this matter came before the city council, how did Longwell vote?

The answer is: We don’t know. Longwell didn’t vote. At about 10:27 am, shortly before the council took up this economic development incentives agenda item, Longwell left the council chambers. He did not return before the meeting ended. When asked why he left the meeting, Longwell would not provide an answer. He provided several contradictory explanations. He said he would explain at his campaign watch party on election night the reason for leaving, but would not say that afternoon why he left the meeting. (See Twitter and Facebook dialogs following.)

In a profile during the campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle “I certainly can appreciate and understand the need to not vote on items, but sometimes you just simply, as tough as it is, you have to take a position,” he said. “I don’t know any better way to explain it. It’s part of the responsibility of being elected to do a job. 5

Here was a tough vote for Longwell. It was an opportunity for citizens to see him cast a vote in alignment with his campaign rhetoric. But he didn’t vote. He didn’t take a position, and he wouldn’t say why.

This isn’t the first time Longwell has dodged questions he doesn’t want to answer. He canceled an appearance on The Joseph Ashby Show and would not reschedule. Ashby, for those who haven’t listened, asks tough questions.

Twitter and Facebook transcripts, April 7, 2015

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
Does anyone know why Jeff Longwell left the city council meeting early? @jefflongwellict #ictcouncil @CityofWichita

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks I had a prior appointment. I had to see a man about a horse. I know you miss me when I’m not there. @CityofWichita

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita May I ask why you made an appointment during city council hours?

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks Bob, I’m touched. Thank you for being concerned that my voice is being heard on the council and I’m there to help guide our city.

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks Also, this was unplanned and was of a personal nature. But thank you for your concern. It means a lot, Bob.

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita Would you please answer why you made an appointment during city council hours?

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita Which was it? A prior appointment or unplanned?

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks An appointment I had to schedule this morning. Priorly unplanned to making it. Don’t worry, I’m fine. @CityofWichita

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita Could you please tell us some details? Why did it have to be done during a city council meeting?

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita When a council member and mayoral candidate misses an important vote, the public has a right to know why.

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks City council members leave meetings periodically. It’s a personal matter, not a conspiracy, Bob. @CityofWichita

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks if you’d like to stop by my watch party tonight we can chat about it all you want. @CityofWichita

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita You will not tell voters why you scheduled this appointment, is that your response?

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita It’s not me who deserves to know. It’s the people of Wichita who need to know why a council member left.

Jeff Longwell @jefflongwellict Apr 7
@bob_weeks Nothing would have changed with my vote today, Bob. Council members miss on occasion. @CityofWichita

Bob Weeks @bob_weeks Apr 7
@jefflongwellict @CityofWichita If you had a legitimate reason for missing a vote, I would think you’d be willing to tell voters details.

Later, on Facebook:

Mayor Jeff Longwell: As I said, while I appreciate your concern and the fact that you feel my presence is crucial to city council meetings, I had to leave for a personal matter. Council members leave meetings on occasion, and nothing would have changed with the addition of my vote. But it really means a lot to me that you feel I’m a vital part of the council and miss me when I’m gone, Bob.
April 7 at 3:02pm

Bob Weeks: Dodging the question again. You said that you would tell me tonight why you left the meeting, so why won’t you say now?
April 7 at 3:05pm

  1. Kansas, 2015. ‘Economic Development Among Mayoral Candidate Jeff Longwell’s Priorities For Wichita’. Accessed April 16 2015. http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article393829
  2. Kansas, 2015. ‘Jeff Longwell, Sam Williams Advance In Race For Wichita Mayor’. Accessed April 16 2015. http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/election/article12332810.html
  3. C3.thevoterguide.org, 2015. ‘Wichita Mayor — The Wichita Eagle Voter Guide.’ Accessed April 16 2015. http://c3.thevoterguide.org/v/wichita15/race-detail.do?id=14013125
  4. Weeks, Bob. 2015. ‘Figeac Aero Economic Development Incentives’. Voice For Liberty In Wichita. Accessed April 16 2015. http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/figeac-aero-economic-development-incentives/
  5. Kansas, 2015. ‘Council Member Jeff Longwell Touts Experience In Mayoral Race’. Accessed April 16 2015. http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/election/article15627836.html

Economic indicators for Kansas

During this century the Kansas economy has not kept up with the national economy and most neighboring states.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia calculates two indexes that track and forecast economic activity in the states and the country as a whole.

Coincident Economic Activity Index, Kansas highlighted against neighboring states.
Coincident Economic Activity Index, Kansas highlighted against neighboring states.
The coincident index is a measure of current and past economic activity for each state. This index includes four indicators: nonfarm payroll employment, the unemployment rate, average hours worked in manufacturing, and wages and salaries. July 1992 is given the value 100.

The leading index predicts the six-month growth rate of the state’s coincident index. In addition to the coincident index, “the models include other variables that lead the economy: state-level housing permits (1 to 4 units), state initial unemployment insurance claims, delivery times from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing survey, and the interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the 3-month Treasury bill.”

Leading Index, Kansas highlighted against neighboring states.
Leading Index, Kansas highlighted against neighboring states.
Positive values mean the coincident index is expected to rise in the future six months, while negative values mean it is expected to fall.

I’ve created an interactive visualization of these two indexes. Examples appear nearby. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. You may select a range of dates and one or more states to include on the chart. Click on a state’s legend color to spotlight it against other states.

Kansas should adapt statewide law to Wichita’s

An initiative passed in Wichita calls for reduced penalties for possession of marijuana, but is in conflict with Kansas state law. There is a simple solution.

On April 7, 2015 Wichita voters passed a ballot initiative that reduces the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The proposed — pending — Wichita law removes the threat of jail, and allows for expunging the record of the violation.

Current news and debate focuses on the conflict between the Wichita ordinance and state law, with the Kansas Attorney General filing a lawsuit asking the Kansas Supreme Court to block implementation of the law Wichita voters approved.1

There is a simple solution, and one that could be implemented quickly. The Kansas Legislature should change state law to allow for the will of Wichita voters to be realized. The legislature might do this in a number of ways. It might use the Wichita ordinance as a model for a similar law that would apply statewide. Or, it could write a law that allows the proposed Wichita ordinance to coexist with state law. There may be other solutions.

Either way, Kansas law needs reform. The law regarding marijuana in Kansas is an example of overcriminalization, that is, of laws we don’t need, or laws that cause more harm than good. In January Charles G. Koch and Mark V. Holden of Koch Industries, Inc. wrote an op-ed published in Politico titled The Overcriminalization of America: How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system.2 They explain the nature and scope of the problem:

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.

The proposed Wichita ordinance fits into this category. It reduces the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, removing the threat of jail. No matter one’s feelings regarding the use of marijuana, it is a victimless crime. This is especially true for those who use — or would like to use, but for fear of breaking the law — marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In addition to the societal aspect of victimless crimes, Koch and Holden explain the economic factor:

Reversing overcriminalization and mass incarceration will improve societal well-being in many respects, most notably by decreasing poverty. Today, approximately 50 million people (about 14 percent of the population) are at or below the U.S. poverty rate. Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.

We in Kansas have an opportunity to improve both our economy and social environment at the same time.

In a few weeks the Kansas Legislature will reconvene. There is still important business to conduct, such as passing a budget. But there will be time to consider and pass a law that would allow the will of Wichita voters to be implemented. Passing such a law doesn’t mean that legislators recommend or approve of marijuana. It simply means that they recognize a victimless crime for what it is, and in the process make Kansas a more tolerant and welcoming state.

  1. The Daily Chronic
    Kansas AG asks Supreme Court to Review Wichita Marijuana Ordinance
    The Daily Chronic, 2015. ‘Kansas AG Asks Supreme Court To Review Wichita Marijuana Ordinance’. Accessed April 13 2015. http://www.thedailychronic.net/2015/42204/kansas-ag-asks-supreme-court-review-wichita-marijuana-ordinance/.
  2. KRUSE, M.
    The Overcriminalization of America
    KRUSE, MICHAEL. 2015. ‘The Overcriminalization Of America’. POLITICO Magazine. Accessed April 13 2015. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/overcriminalization-of-america-113991.html.

Wichita Eagle fails readers, again

In its coverage of the 2015 election, the Wichita Eagle prints several stories that ought to cause readers to question the reliability of its newsroom.

Readers of the Wichita Eagle must be wondering if the newspaper trusts its own reporting. In a fact check article regarding the Wichita mayoral general election printed on March 27, the newspaper looked at claims made by campaign ads. The story examined this claim from an advertisement by Sam Williams, referring to opponent Jeff Longwell: “Supported government handouts for low-paying jobs and then chastised voters when they rejected his plan.”

The article’s verdict on this claim: “There is no apparent reference to ‘chastising’ comments in the blog posts or article.”

Here’s what the Eagle itself reported on September 14, 2011, regarding the possibility that citizens might petition to overturn a measure Longwell supported. I’ve emphasized a few portions.

City council member Jeff Longwell called the petition drive “disappointing.” “We had a very transparent, open hearing, listened to both sides, listened to all of the arguments,” Longwell said. “We moved in a direction we felt was most compelling, and now you have a group that still is unhappy and it is just sour grapes. I’d argue that when they keep pulling these kinds of stunts, they will continue to lose credibility.

The dictionary holds this definition for chastise: “To criticize severely; reprimand or rebuke.” I’d say that Longwell’s criticisms fit this definition. It’s unknown why the Eagle reporters and editors came to a different conclusion.

This is not the only example. Here’s the start of the newspaper’s profile of Longwell:

It’s 4:45 a.m. on a Friday, and Jeff Longwell is playing basketball with a group of guys at the Northwest YMCA. Three days a week, 10 to 15 men gather before dawn to shoot hoops. Sneakers squeak. Shouts echo. Longwell, 55, jokingly describes himself as a “prolific three-point shooter.” “I don’t think WSU is going to recruit me,” he says, worn out after the game. The guys say that if Longwell is elected mayor, he still has to play with them. He agrees. Teamwork is his style, he says, and not only in basketball.

For the Williams profile, the article started with this:

Sam Williams sits on a cerulean blue couch in his campaign headquarters, nervously picking at the edges. “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on the radio as volunteers – mostly family members – make calls, urging people to vote for Williams for mayor on April 7. For a few moments, a guy who spent a lifetime in advertising has trouble articulating why he should be mayor of Wichita. “It’s uncomfortable for me having this conversation talking about me,” Williams says, still picking at the couch.

The difference in the way the Wichita Eagle chose to portray the two candidates is startling. It’s not that there are no awkward or unflattering incidents that could be used to introduce Jeff Longwell. There are many. Likewise, there are many positive aspects to Sam Williams that could have been used in his introduction, including feats of athleticism. These two articles illustrate, in my opinion, an effort to promote Longwell and dismiss Williams.

Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Wichita Eagle Building, detail
This is not the only recent incident regarding the Eagle newsroom that is troubling. In the campaign for the Wichita sales tax last year, The newspaper published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” There was no similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigned for the sales tax. Also, there was little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.

It’s one thing for the opinion page to be stocked solely with liberal columnists and cartoonists, considering the content that is locally produced. But newspapers like the Eagle tell us that the newsroom is separate from the opinion page. The opinion page endorsed Jeff Longwell for mayor, just as it endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by failing to hold Longwell accountable for his remarks, by printing the two introductions illustrated above, and fact-checking one side of an issue and failing to produce similar pieces for the other side — well, readers are free to draw their own conclusions about the reliability of the Wichita Eagle newsroom.

Sedgwick County elections have an anomaly

A Wichita statistician is thwarted in efforts to obtain data that might explain a strange observation.

A paper details the discovery of unexplained patterns in election returns. The paper is titled 2008/2012 Election Anomalies, Results, Analysis and Concerns. The authors are Francois Choquette and James Johnson. A passage from the introduction explains what has been noticed:

Back in February 2012 during the South Carolina primaries, a keen observer noted that Republican candidate Mitt Romney had an unusual gain of votes in larger precincts. Analysts noted this effect violated expected statistics. Specifically, the percentage of votes in each precinct strangely increased as a function of precinct size (vote tally). The vote gain is correlated to precinct size, not the precinct location, be it in cities or rural areas. This anomaly is not apparent in other elections that don’t include Republican candidates. In 2008, Mitt Romney had the benefit of this anomaly and then the gain switched to John McCain once Romney exited the campaign. The Democrat Party elections we looked at don’t show this problem. (emphasis added)

There is a mysterious correlation between votes for Republican candidates and the number of votes cast in a precinct. So far no one has advanced a convincing reason why this should happen.

Results from Obama vs. Romney, Sedgwick County, 2012, showing Romney's lead increasing with precinct size. Click for larger version.
Results from Obama vs. Romney, Sedgwick County, 2012, showing Romney’s lead increasing with precinct size. Click for larger version.
In Wichita, WSU statistician Beth Clarkson has sought to obtain the paper tapes that Sedgwick County voting machines produce as voters make selections using the electronic machines. (“WSU statistician sues seeking Kansas voting machine paper tapes,” April 1, 2015 Wichita Eagle)

But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has said no, the time for viewing the tapes has passed. According to Kansas law, he says, the records are sealed. (“Kobach on Sedgwick County election lawsuit: Time is past, votes are sealed, April 5, 2015 Wichita Eagle)

The Choquette and Johnson paper gives the method for examining the relationship between precinct size and candidate vote percentages. I applied the method to three recent Sedgwick County elections. The anomaly appears to be present.

Results from Brownback vs. Davis vs. Umbehr, Sedgwick County, 2014, showing Brownback's percentage increasing with precinct size. Click for larger version.
Results from Brownback vs. Davis vs. Umbehr, Sedgwick County, 2014, showing Brownback’s percentage increasing with precinct size. Click for larger version.
If Kansas law does in fact prevent the release of voting machine tapes to Clarkson, we need to change the law, and right now. It’s curious that Secretary Kobach is not interested in investigating this apparent anomaly. Voting fraud has been one of Kobach’s key issues.

I was concerned that the paper tapes produced by voting machines might contain information that would link individual voters with the votes they cast. That would be a potential problem concerning the confidentiality of votes. But when I voted this week, I watched the information printed on the tape, and I don’t believe there is a concern.

Results from the Wichita marijuana ballot question, April 2015.
Results from the Wichita marijuana ballot question, April 2015.

Rich States, Poor States, 2105 edition

In Rich States, Poor States, Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance, and fell in the forward-looking forecast for the second year in a row.

In the 2015 edition of Rich States, Poor States, Utah continues its streak at the top of Economic Outlook Ranking, meaning that the state is poised for growth and prosperity. Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance rankings, and fell in the forward-looking forecast.

Rich States, Poor States is produced by American Legislative Exchange Council. The authors are economist Dr. Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, who is Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Project for Economic Growth at The Heritage Foundation, and Jonathan Williams, who is vice president for the Center for State Fiscal Reform at ALEC,

Rich States, Poor States computes two measures for each state. The first is the Economic Performance Ranking, described as “a backward-looking measure based on a state’s performance on three important variables: State Gross Domestic Product, Absolute Domestic Migration, and Non-Farm Payroll Employment — all of which are highly influenced by state policy.” The process looks at the past ten years.

Economic Outlook Ranking. Click for larger version.
Economic Outlook Ranking. Click for larger version.
Looking forward, there is the Economic Outlook Ranking, “a forecast based on a state’s current standing in 15 state policy variables. Each of these factors is influenced directly by state lawmakers through the legislative process. Generally speaking, states that spend less — especially on income transfer programs, and states that tax less — particularly on productive activities such as working or investing — experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more.”

For economic performance this year, Kansas is twenty-eighth. That’s up from thirty-second last year.

In this year’s compilation for economic outlook, Kansas ranks eighteenth, down from fifteenth last year and eleventh the year before. In 2008, the first year for this measure, Kansas was twenty-ninth.

Kansas compared to other states

A nearby chart shows the Economic Outlook Ranking for Kansas and some nearby states, shown as a trend over time since 2008. The peak of Kansas in 2013 is evident, as is the decline since then.

Why Kansas fell

Rich States Poor States Kansas trends 2015 aloneKansas fell in the Economic Outlook Ranking from 2013 to 2015. To investigate why, I gathered data for Kansas from 2008 to 2015. The nearby table shows the results for 2015 and the rank among the states, with the trend since 2008 shown. A rank of one is the best ranking, so for the trend lines, an upward slope means a decline in ranking.

There are several areas that may account for the difference. One value, “Top Marginal Corporate Income Tax Rate,” did not change from 2013 to 2015, remaining at 7.00%. But the ranking for Kansas fell from 24 to 27, meaning that other states improved in this measure relative to Kansas.

For “Personal Income Tax Progressivity (change in tax liability per $1,000 of Income)” Kansas fell two positions in rank.

In “Property Tax Burden (per $1,000 of personal income)” Kansas fell three spots since 2013.

In “Sales Tax Burden (per $1,000 of personal income)” Kansas fell three spots in rank. The burden is calculated proportional to personal income.

In “Recently Legislated Tax Changes (per $1,000 of personal income)” Kansas fell one position in rank.

Kansas improved six rank positions for “Debt Service as a Share of Tax Revenue.”

Kansas remains one of the states with the most public employees, with 695.4 full-time equivalent employees per 10,000 population. This ranks forty-eighth among the states.

“Average Workers’ Compensation Costs (per $100 of payroll)” rose by one cent, and Kansas fell two spots in ranking.

Kansas has no tax and expenditure limitations, which is a disadvantage compared to other states.

How valuable is the ranking?

Correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance
Correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance
After the 2012 rankings were computed, ALEC looked retrospectively at rankings compared to actual performance. The nearby chart shows the correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance. In its discussion, ALEC concluded:

There is a distinctly positive relationship between the Rich States, Poor States’ economic outlook rankings and current and subsequent state economic health.

The formal correlation is not perfect (i.e., it is not equal to 100 percent) because there are other factors that affect a state’s economic prospects. All economists would concede this obvious point. However, the ALEC-Laffer rankings alone have a 25 to 40 percent correlation with state performance rankings. This is a very high percentage for a single variable considering the multiplicity of idiosyncratic factors that affect growth in each state — resource endowments, access to transportation, ports and other marketplaces, etc.

Rich States, Poor States compilation for Kansas. Click for larger version.
Rich States, Poor States compilation for Kansas. Click for larger version.

Wichita marijuana ballot issue, April 7, 2015

Following is a map of voting for the Wichita marijuana ballot issue, April 7, 2015. A vote of “Yes” was in favor of reducing the penalty for possession. View below, or click here to open in a new window or mobile device. Click or tap on a precinct to view data.

For a tabular presentation of this data and other Wichita election returns, click here. 37,166 votes were cast for the marijuana ballot measure, and 37,190 votes were cast for mayor.

Someone also asked if there was a correlation between the marijuana vote and the mayoral vote. A plot of the two is below. With R = .01, there is no correlation to speak of.

Longwell - marijuana plot 2015-04-07

Kansas Center for Economic Growth: Short on facts again

The Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s latest scare tactic on education funding is filled with demonstrably inaccurate data which they use to make false claims about tax reform and the efficacy of education spending, writes David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute.

KCEG won’t document their false claims on education funding — again

By David Dorsey

The Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s latest scare tactic on education funding is filled with demonstrably inaccurate data which they use to make false claims about tax reform and the efficacy of education spending. KCEG has a long history of making inaccurate claims and declining requests for documentation (here, here, and here for example) and this time is no different.

In Kansas Prioritizes Tax Cuts Over Kids, KCEG says a reduction in state revenue has caused cuts to education and attempts to send the message that not making even bigger “investments” in education means the state doesn’t care about student outcomes. To solidify that contention by making it appear universal, KCEG points to Wisconsin as another state that cut taxes (income and property taxes) and likewise, aid to education. But as it turns out, the only thing these assertions have in common is that neither is based in reality. Here is how their false allegations stack up to the facts.

1. KCEG claim: Kansas general aid per pupil is down 2.6% (about $129) between 2013 and 2014, a percentage that is proportionate to reduction in state revenues.

Fact: According to the Kansas Department of Education website (official data) “General State Aid Per Pupil” (a KSDE definition) increased $13 between 2013 and 2014 as shown in the table below (and all aid per pupil increased $179).

2. KCEG claim: Wisconsin cut taxes which led to cuts in education spending. General aid per pupil was cut by $36 from 2013 to 2014.

Fact: A quick look at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website indicates that statewide revenue per pupil (the term in Wisconsin is “member”) shows an increase of $193 between 2013 and 2014 as shown in the table below.

And here is another fact that KCEG conveniently omitted: 2013-14 was the second consecutive year of record funding in Kansas K-12 education with $12,959 per pupil, which totals nearly $6 billion in revenue. That trend will continue with the new block grant education funding set to start next year. As KPI pointed out in this blog, total funding to education is poised to set yet another record in 2015-16.

So much for letting the truth get in the way of a highly charged contention.

KCEG relied on tax revenue data from the Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG) and education spending data from a study by the Center for Budget and Public Policy (CBPP) to make their claims. KPI reached out to KCEG, RIG, and CBPP to source and verify their data. We received no response from KCEG or CBPP, but the director of RIG stated the 2.6% reduction in revenues was likely a misinterpretation of their data. So, instead of citing original source data from Kansas state government agencies, KCEG chose to cherry-pick and manipulate data from outside sources in order to fit their narrative. And that narrative includes the false choice that lower government spending automatically precipitates a lower quality of service.  By the way, CBPP is also notorious for making false and unsubstantiated claims; see here and here for examples.

KCEG has even gone a step farther by turning this mantra into a scare tactic. They declare less money will lead to lower educational outcomes because there will be less money to the classroom. So why are the students/teachers/classroom always the targets of the fear mongers? Why always the threat of teacher layoffs? Why not administrators? Could it be that it’s not as emotionally compelling to say an assistant principal, or a curriculum director, or even a communications officer may be let go? It is well documented that schools choose not to operate efficiently, so it’s always the students who are made human budget shields.

The idea that more money leads to better outcomes simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Much has been written to discredit that claim. Perhaps this quote from a Heritage Foundation study says it best: “Continuous spending increases have not corresponded with equal improvement in American educational performance.” NAEP reading and math scores have remained flat, as have ACT scores, and quoting KCEG in a different context: “[W]e don’t have to go any further than our own backyard to see that.”

Perhaps it’s time KCEG just acknowledge their affinity for high taxes and ineffective spending and stop pretending to present data-driven conclusions.

KPI has a history of reaching out to KCEG to have a public discussion on the issues. We again welcome that chance to provide the facts about education spending so Kansans can come to their own conclusions. We invite and are willing to host KCEG to an open debate on this issue.

For Wichita’s Longwell, flipping in the face of an election

Campaign season provides an opportunity to see just how malleable candidates’ positions can be, leaving us to wonder if some have any firm and guiding principles.

When Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell was asked about citizens exercising their constitutional right to challenge an ordinance passed by the council, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.” (Wichita Eagle, September 14, 2011)

Now that Wichitans are voting on controversial matter that was placed on the ballot using a similar procedure, Longwell told the same newspaper “I believe the voters should be allowed to decide this issue and I supported placing the issue on the ballot.”

What caused the evolution from “disappointing” to “supported”? Why was one a “stunt” and another a simple exercise in democracy?

It’s easy to see. The present issue — reducing the penalty for possession of marijuana — doesn’t involve money, at least to any appreciable extent. And even if it passes, it’s likely the state will try to block it from taking effect.

But the 2011 issue involved Longwell voting for a taxpayer-funded giveaway to the special interests that fund his campaigns. His cronies, in other words. That is what really counts for Longwell, and it shows his lack of respect for the rule of law.

Figeac Aero economic development incentives

Wichita politicians, economic development officials, and civic leaders bemoan the lack of incentives Wichita can offer. A deal under consideration illustrates what is really available.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider a forgivable loan to Figeac Aero North America related to its expansion of its Wichita facility. Following is an explanation of the various incentives and benefits planned for this company.

Figeac will receive forgivable loans of $250,000 each from Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita, with the State of Kansas adding $500,00, although it is not clear if that is a grant or forgivable loan.

City documents don’t mention this, but a letter from the Kansas Department of Commerce indicates that Figeac will benefit from the Promoting Employment Across Kansas program, commonly known as PEAK. This program rebates 95 percent of the state withholding taxes back to the company. An investigation from earlier this year showed that PEAK incentive payments can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions who earns $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week (for weekly payroll), or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children earning the same salary, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

Briefcase with moneyWe don’t know how much withholding tax Figeac employees will generate. An estimate is that with 200 employees earning $40,000, averaging the two withholding scenarios illustrated above, Figeac would receive $1040 * 200 * 95% = $191,900 per year in PEAK payments.

The Department of Commerce also offers tax credits through the High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP). This rebates, in the form of tax credits, 10% of the capital investment above $1.0 million. City documents state Figeac will invest about $21,000,000, with capital investment of $7,000,000 in machinery and equipment, which should qualify for HPIP credits. This means the company would receive tax credits equal to ($7000000 – $1000000) * 10% or $600,000. It’s possible that other expenditures would qualify for these credits. Tax credits are economically equivalent to a cash grant for both the state and the recipient.

The letter from Commerce also says the state will “underwrite a portion of the company’s actual expenses for training new employees.” No dollar value is given for this.

Finally, the city is issuing Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount up to $20,680,000. The city does not lend this money to Figeac. Instead, the purpose of the IRBs is to enable property tax and sales tax forgiveness. City documents are sketchy as to the amount of tax that will be saved, but documents state “After the five year exemption period, the new improvements would generate an estimated $82,470 annually for the General Fund and $29,196 for the Debt Service Fund.” This means the city alone is forgiving $111,666 per year in taxes. City documents usually give the amount of tax that overlapping jurisdictions are abating, but this information is missing. Based on relative mill levies for the county, school district, and state, I estimate the total property tax benefit at $414,000 per year.

The IRBs also carry a sales tax exemption. The $7,000,000 in machinery and equipment would be exempt from sales tax, and possibly some of the property improvements. If Figeac spent $10,000,000 in expenditures subject to sales tax, the one-time benefit to Figeac is $715,000.

The following table summarizes the benefits.

Summary of benefits for Figeac Aero

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute Vice President and Policy Director James Franko

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute has produced a study of the effect of state and local regulation on business. James Franko of KPI discusses. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 80, broadcast April 5, 2015.

The complete study from KPI may be read here.

Wichita city council member Jeff Longwell should not have voted

A sequence of events involving Jeff Longwell should concern citizens as they select the next Wichita mayor. Based on Wichita law, Longwell should not have voted on a matter involving the Ambassador Hotel, either for or against it.

In 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award millions of taxpayer subsidy to the developers of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Wichita. Because of the nature of one of the ordinances the council passed, citizens were able to petition to have it overturned. A successful petition was filed, so there was an election.

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07A group named “Moving Wichita Forward” was formed to campaign for the Ambassador Hotel for the February 28, 2012 election regarding the repeal of its special guest tax measure. The measure benefited Paul Coury, Dave Burk, and executives of Key Construction. The primary funder of the campaign was this ownership group.

As part of the campaign, on January 30, 2012 Moving Wichita Forward spent money with Luminance Display, a company that sold space on billboards.

Jeff Longwell Luminance Display 2012-01-30 excerpt

Based on a statement of substantial interests that Longwell filed in 2012, you can see that he had an ownership interest in Luminance Display.

Jeff Longwell SSI 2012-05-31 excerpt

So far, nothing contrary to Wichita city code has taken place. Yes, it is sleazy to sell advertising to people who have had business before the council in the past. But there’s nothing in the Wichita city code addressing this.

Then on April 16, 2013 Longwell voted in favor of Industrial Revenue Bonds for the Ambassador Hotel. The bond package allowed the hotel to avoid paying $703,017 in sales tax, according to city documents.

That is where Longwell crossed the line from being merely sleazy to acting contrary to city code. Here’s an excerpt from Section 2.04.050 Code of ethics for council members from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

The owners of the Ambassador Hotel were customers of a company that Jeff Longwell partially owned. Based on the laws of the City of Wichita, Longwell should not have voted on a matter involving the Ambassador Hotel, either for or against it.

Study on state and local regulation released

This week Kansas Policy Institute released a study of regulation and its impact at the state and local level. This is different from most investigations of regulation, as most focus on federal regulations.

Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation coverThe study is titled “Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation.” It was conducted by the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University. Click here to view the entire document.

Following in an excerpt from the introduction by James Franko, Vice President and Policy Director at Kansas Policy Institute.

Surprising to some, the businesses interviewed did not have as much of a problem with the regulations themselves, or the need for regulations, but with their application and enforcement. Across industries and focus group sessions the key themes were clear — give businesses transparency in what regulations are being applied, how they are employed, provide flexibility in meeting those goals, and allow an opportunity for compliance.

Sometimes things can be said so often as to lose their punch and become little more than the platitudes referenced above. The findings from Hugo Wall are clear that businesses will adapt and comply with regulations if they are transparent and accountable. Many in the public can be forgiven for thinking this was already the case. Thankfully, local and state governments can ensure this happens with minimal additional expense.

A transparent and accountable regulatory regime should be considered the “low hanging fruit” of government. Individuals and communities will always land on different places along the continuum of appropriate regulation. And, a give and take will always exist between regulators and the regulated. Those two truisms, however, should do nothing to undermine the need for regulations to be applied equally, based on clear rules and interpretations, and to give each business an opportunity to comply.

Ranzau, Peterjohn endorse Sam Williams for Wichita mayor

Despite past differences, two members of the Sedgwick County Commission have endorsed Sam Williams for Wichita Mayor.

Citing recent revelations that Jeff Longwell voted to use taxpayer funds that helped his private business profit, County Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn called on supporters of ethics reform and transparency to oppose Longwell and support Sam Williams.

“Even though Sam Williams has supported our opponents in the past, we think it is vital that he be elected over Longwell,” Peterjohn and Ranzau said in a joint statement.

“We have known for some time that Jeff Longwell has had a problem with ethics. In fact, the voters rejected his approach to government when he ran against me,” Karl Peterjohn stated. “It was during his race against me that Longwell presented the appearance that his vote was for sale. Now there is evidence that not only did he utilize his position on the City Council to enrich his campaign coffers, but he also has used it for his personal enrichment.”

According to campaign finance reports filed by Longwell, his campaign for County Commission accepted multiple out-of-state donations from the CEO of Walbridge and his spouse the day before he voted to award Walbridge a contract that was millions of dollars higher than another bid being considered. Three days after that vote, Longwell accepted thousands of dollars more from other Michigan-based employees of the company.

It was recently reported that Jeff Longwell made a motion and then supported the use of $10,000 in taxpayer money to sponsor the car show known as The Blacktop Nationals. What Longwell failed to disclose was that his company, Ad Astra Printing, which is registered as an LLC with Jeff Longwell as the only listed owner, received compensations for doing work for the event. Longwell recently admitted his firm did profit from the event. According to Wichita’s Code of Ethics for Council Members (Title 2, Section 2.04.050), council members “shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” Longwell’s motion to use public funds for a project where he would personally profit is clearly a violation of the Code of Ethics for Council Members. The relevant Wichita law can be found here.

“For Wichita to move forward and to grow the jobs we all want, we have to work together in the interest of south-central Kansas — not in the self-interests of politicians,” stated Commissioner Richard Ranzau. “It is well-documented that Sam Williams has actually supported my opponents, as well as those of Karl Peterjohn, in the past, but I know that Sam’s top priority is enriching Wichita, not enriching himself. That’s why I am supporting Sam Williams for mayor. The public needs to have greater transparency and I believe Sam Williams will be an advocate for that. Jeff Longwell has been in office for 20 years and has done nothing to increase transparency or to make local government more accessible to the people,” Ranzau stated.

“Longwell’s consistent ethical lapses will damage economic development opportunities in Sedgwick County. Business leaders will shy away doing business in that manner. Sam Williams is a proven job creator, and I urge voters to support him for mayor,” stated Peterjohn.

Downtown Wichita deal shows some of the problems with the Wichita economy

In this script from a recent episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at the Wichita city council’s action regarding a downtown Wichita development project and how it is harmful to Wichita taxpayers and the economy. This is from episode 77, originally broadcast March 8, 2015. View the episode here.

This week a downtown Wichita project received many economic benefits such as free sales taxes and a bypass of Wichita’s code of conduct for city council members.

Exchange Place
Exchange Place
The issue had to do with tax increment financing, or TIF. This is a method of economic development whereby property taxes are routed back to a real estate development rather than funding the cost of government. It’s thought that TIF is necessary to make certain types of projects economically feasible. I appeared before the Wichita city council and shared my concerns about the harmful effects of this type of economic development.

I said that regarding the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita, I’d like to remind the council of the entire subsidy package offered to the project.

There are historic preservation tax credits, which may amount to 25 percent of the project cost. These credits have the same economic impact as a cash payment, and their cost must be born by taxpayers.

There is $12.5 million in tax increment financing, which re-routes future property tax revenues back to the project for the benefit of its owners. Most everyone else pays property taxes in order to pay for government, not for things that benefit themselves exclusively, or nearly so.

There is a federal loan guarantee, which places the federal taxpayer on the hook if this project isn’t successful.

The owner of this project also seeks to avoid paying sales taxes on the purchase of materials. City documents don’t say how much this sales tax forgiveness might be worth, but it easily could be several million dollars.

I said: Mayor and council, if it in fact is truly necessary to layer on these incentives in order to do a project in downtown Wichita, I think we need to ask: Why? Why is it so difficult to do a project in downtown Wichita?

Other speakers will probably tell you that rehabilitating historic buildings is expensive. If so, working on historic buildings is a choice they make. They, and their tenants, ought to pay the cost. It’s a lifestyle choice, and nothing more than that.

I told the council that I’m really troubled about the sales tax exemption. Just a few months ago our civic leaders, including this council, recommended that Wichitans add more to our sales tax burden in order to pay for a variety of things.

Only 14 states apply sales tax to food purchased at grocery stores for home consumption, and Kansas has the second-highest statewide rate. We in Kansas, and Wichita by extension, require low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries. But today this council is considering granting an exemption from paying these taxes that nearly everyone else has to pay.

I told the council that these tax subsidies are not popular with voters. Last year when Kansas Policy Institute surveyed Wichita voters, it found that only 34 percent agreed with the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. Then, of course, there is the result of the November sales tax election where city voters emphatically said no to the council’s plan for a sales tax increase.

This project is slated to receive many million in taxpayer-funded subsidy. Now this council proposes to wave a magic wand and eliminate the cost of sales tax for its owners. People notice this arbitrary application of the burden of taxation. They see certain people treated differently under the law, rather than all being treated equally under the law. People don’t like this. It breeds distrust in government. This council can help restore some of this trust by not issuing the Industrial Revenue Bonds and the accompanying sales tax exemption.

In response to my remarks, city council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell had a few comments, as we see here in video from the meeting.

We see city council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell contesting the idea that TIF funds are being rerouted to the benefit of the owners of the project. We’re getting a public parking garage is the city’s response.

Let’s look at the numbers and see if we can evaluate this claim. According to city documents, the project will hold 230 apartments, and the garage is planned to hold 273 parking stalls. You can imagine that many of the apartment renters or buyers will want a guaranteed parking space available to them at all times. And in fact, an early version of the development plan states: “A minimum of 195 spaces will be allocated for use by the apartments. The remaining 103 spaces will be for public parking.” So the city is giving up $12.5 million of tax revenue to gain 103 parking spaces. That’s 121 thousand dollars per parking spot. You can buy a very nice house in Wichita for that.

The actual situation could be even worse for the city’s taxpayers. The development agreement
states: “A minimum of 103 parking spaces shall be set aside in the Parking Garage for public parking and the balance for the exclusive use of the residents and guests of Exchange Place Building and Douglas Building.” It also holds this: “This allocation can be revised by Developer as market experience may demonstrate a need to reallocate parking spaces with consent of the City Representative (which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed).”

So a large portion of the parking garage is not a public benefit. It’s for the benefit of the apartments developer. If not for the city building the garage, the developer would need to provide these parking spaces in order to rent the apartments. And because of tax increment financing, the developer’s own property taxes are being used to build the garage instead of paying for government, like almost all other property taxes do, like your property taxes do. If this was not true, there would be no benefit to the developer for using tax increment financing. And if TIF did not have a real cost to the rest of the city’s taxpayers, we might ask this question: Why not use TIF more extensively? Why can’t everyone benefit from a tax increment financing district?

In his remarks, the city manager mentioned the Block One garage as a public asset, as it was funded by tax increment financing, so let’s look at the statistics there. According to the revised budget for the project, the plan is for 270 stalls in the garage. But 125 stalls are allocated for the hotel, and 100 are allocated for the Slawson development, and 45 allocated for the Kansas Leadership Center building. That leaves precisely zero stalls for public use. That’s right. If these three businesses make full use of their allocation of parking stalls, there will be zero stalls available for the public.

It’s not quite that simple, as Slawson will use its spaces only during the workday, leaving them available to the public evenings and weekends. Perhaps the same arrangement will be made for the Kansas Leadership Center. Being near the Intrust Bank Arena, the garage is used for parking for its events. Except, there aren’t very many event in the arena. In some months there are no events. But you can see that something that is promoted for the public good really turns out to be narrowly focused on private interests.

The manager also mentioned the garage on Main Street. According to city documents, the cost to rehabilitate this garage is $9,685,000, which creates 550 parking stalls. But the city is renting 180 parking stalls to a politically-connected company at monthly rent of $35. We looked at this a few months ago and saw how bad this deal is for city taxpayers.

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer thanked city staff and the developers for “working collectively as a team.” He criticized those who say, in his words, “let’s not do anything, let’s just see where the chips may fall.” As an alternative, he said “we can come together, we can work together, we can work collectively together, and we can bring about change and form it the way we want.”

These remarks illustrate the mayor’s hostility to free markets, that is, to thousands and millions and billions of people trading freely in order to figure out how to allocate scarce resources. But the mayor likens the marketplace of free people to a random event — where the chips may fall, he said. But that’s not how markets work. Markets are people planning for themselves, using their knowledge and preferences and resources in order to build things they want, and what they think others will want. That’s because in markets, the only way you can earn a profit is by doing things that other people want. You have to please customers in order to profit.

But Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer says we need to work collectively together. He says we can form the future the way “we” want. Well, who is the “we” he’s talking about? As we see, the dynamics of free markets results in people doing what other people want. But the “we” the mayor talks about is politicians, bureaucrats, cronies, and do-gooders deciding how they want things to be done, and using your money to do it. That reduces your economic freedom. Your money is directed towards satisfying the goals of politicians and bureaucrats rather than actual, real people.

Here’s how bad this deal really is for Wichita. In my remarks to the council I also said this: Might I also remind the people of Wichita that some of their taxpayer-funded subsidies are earmarked to fund a bailout for a politically-connected construction company for work done on a different project, one not related to Exchange Place except through having common ownership in the past? I don’t think it is good public policy for this city to act as collection agent for a private debt that has been difficult to collect.

I was referring to the fact that the Exchange Place project started as an endeavor of the Minnesota Guys, two developers who bought a lot of property in downtown Wichita and didn’t do very well. They both have been indicted on 61 counts of securities violations in relation to their work in downtown Wichita. One of their projects was the Wichita Executive Center on north Market Street. The Minnesota Guys still owe money to contractors on that project, and some of the taxpayer funding for the Exchange Place project will be used to pay off these contractors.

Why, you may be asking, is the city acting as collection agent for these contractors? There’s an easy answer to this. Money is owed to Key Construction company. We’ve talked about this politically-connected construction firm in the past. Through generous campaign contributions and friendships, Key Construction company manages to gain things like no-bid contracts and other subsidies from the city.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
This is a problem. Dave Wells, the president of Key Construction, is a friend of the mayor, as well as frequent and heavy campaign financier for the mayor and other council members. And the mayor voted for benefits for Wells and his company. That is a violation of Wichita city code, or at least it should be. Here’s an excerpt from Wichita city code section 2.04.050, the Code of ethics for council members as passed in 2008: “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Dave Wells and Carl Brewer are friends. The mayor has said so. But the City of Wichita’s official position is that this law, the law that seem to plainly say that city council members cannot vote for benefits for their friends, this law does not need to be followed. Even children can see that elected officials should not vote economic benefits for their friends — but not the City of Wichita.

There’s much research that shows that tax increment financing is not an overall benefit to a city’s economy. Yes, it is good for the people that receive it, like the developer of Exchange Place and the mayor’s friends and cronies. But for cities as a whole, the benefit has found to be missing. Some studies have found a negative effect of TIF on economic progress and jobs. That’s right — a city is worse off, as a whole, for using tax increment financing. The evolving episode involving Exchange Place — the massive taxpayer subsidies, the cronyism, the inability of the mayor and council members to understand the economic facts and realities of the transactions they approve, the hostility towards free markets and their benefits as opposed to government planning of the economy — all of this contributes to the poor performance of the Wichita-area economy. This is not an academic exercise or discussion. Real people are hurt by this.

Mayor Brewer has just a month left in office, and there will be a new mayor after that. We, the people of Wichita, have to hope that a new mayor and possibly new council members will chart a different course for economic development in Wichita.

School employment data shows gaps in reporting and wide variations among districts

Kansas school districts vary widely in employment ratios, and that’s not counting the unreported employees, writes David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute.

School employment data shows gaps in reporting and wide variations among districts

By David Dorsey

Kansas Policy Institute has created a state public education employment metrics report for FY 2014 and the file can be accessed here. The file contains employment totals and also five categories of pupil-per-employee ratios. Here are some highlights and analysis.

Pupils per classroom teacher

The employment metrics file shows considerable variation among the districts when it comes to the number of pupils per classroom teacher. Weskan, with an enrollment of just 92 students has a ratio of 6.2 pupils for every classroom teacher, while Spring Hill with 2,850 students has 20.5 students for every classroom teacher. Among the state’s largest districts, Shawnee Mission has the highest ratio at 17.9 and Salina is the lowest at 14.6. The state median is 13, while the mean is 15.4 pupils per classroom teacher. (KSDE excludes special education and reading specialists from their definition of classroom teaches.)

These ratios are considerably smaller than what is typically reported as classroom size. It is impossible to make an exact comparison because KSDE does not keep data on classroom size.

Administrative manager employment

As the table below shows, there is a wide range of pupils per manager* across the state. Manhattan-Ogden (USD 383) carries the distinction of having the most top-heavy administration among the state’s 20 largest districts with a ratio of 96.2 pupils per manager. Contrast that with Andover (USD 385), which has 238.7 pupils per manager. Put another way, USD 383 has 5 percent more students, but 160 percent more administrators than USD 385.

Among the biggest districts, Shawnee Mission is the most efficient with nearly twice as many pupils per manager than fellow Johnson County district Blue Valley and more than twice as many pupils per manager than Topeka. Shawnee Mission claims an even smaller administrative footprint in FY 2015 in favor of more money going toward instruction.

The following table summarizes the ranges among all districts on a per-pupil basis through the low, high, and median values for each metric.

Special Education Cooperatives and Interlocals Make Comparisons Difficult

Most school districts in Kansas enter into inter-district agreements to provide special education services in an effort to provide those services in a more cost-effective manner. According to the KSDE directory, 252 of the 286 schools districts in the state are part of what is called either a cooperative or an interlocal. Essentially, it means two or more school districts in an area pool their teaching resources to serve special education kids. This distorts the employment reporting for these two reasons:

  • About half the districts are in cooperatives that list all the employees of the cooperative in only the “home” district of that cooperative. Example: the East Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative consists of 8 districts. The home district, Paola USD 368, reports 60 special education teachers and 253 special education paraprofessionals. The other 7 districts report zero special education teachers and zero special education paraprofessionals.
  • The remaining cooperatives have been given a school district number (all in the 600s), but the number of special education teachers, paraprofessionals and other employees go unreported. According to the KSDE directory of schools there are 19 such “districts” that include 143 unified school districts. And, according to KSDE, these cooperatives have 5,284 employees, none of whom are included in state employment totals because KSDE only reports employment for unified school districts.

*”Manager” is a KPI defined category that combines the 17 KSDE administrative categories reported by all school districts (superintendents, asst. superintendents, principals, asst. principals, business managers, and directors of all other functions).

No-bid contracts still passed by Wichita city council

Despite a policy change, the Wichita city council still votes for no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayer funds.

In the current campaign for Wichita mayor, one candidates says he never has voted for no-bid contracts: “[Longwell] also takes issue with the claim he has ever voted for any no-bid contract, something he says his voting record will back up. ‘That’s the beauty of having a voting record,’ he says.” Mayoral candidate Williams decries ‘crony capitalism’ of critics, Wichita Business Journal, March 12, 2015

We don’t have to look very hard to find an example that contradicts Longwell’s claim of never voting for a no-bid contract. Minutes from the August 9, 2011 meeting of the city council show that there was discussion about the no-bid contract for the garage benefiting the Ambassador Hotel. Then-council member Michael O’Donnell questioned if the city was getting the best deal for taxpayers, since the garage was to be built with public funds. O’Donnell was told that the no-bid contract was at “the developer’s request.” These developers include principals and executives of Key Construction and Dave Burk, all who have been generous and consistent funders of Longwell’s campaigns.

But we don’t have to go back that far to find voting for no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayer funds. Longwell has voted several times in favor of the Exchange Place project, starting when it was a project of the Minnesota Guys. The latest such vote was on March 3, 2015, when Longwell voted in favor of a project that contained this benefit, according to city documents: “The City will also provide TIF funding in an amount not to exceed $12,500,000 for the acquisition of land and construction of the parking structure.”

This garage, to be paid for through public funds, was not competitively bid. Despite the garage being pitched as a public good, most parking spaces are for the exclusive benefit of Exchange Place.

Impetus for change

The votes by Longwell and others for no-bid contracts sparked the city manager to ask for a change in policy. The Wichita Eagle reported in 2012:

The days of awarding construction projects without taking competitive bids might be numbered at City Hall if City Manager Robert Layton has his way, especially with public projects such as parking garages that are part of private commercial development.

Layton said last week that he intends to ask the City Council for a policy change against those no-bid contracts.

Three years later, Longwell and others are still voting to spend taxpayer funds on no-bid contracts.


Minutes from August 8, 2011 meeting

Council Member O’Donnell stated and we will not being going out to bid to find the best
deal on that and are just awarding.

Allen Bell Urban Development Director stated that is the developer’s request. Council Member O’Donnell asked if that is City precedent and that with a government project in the tune of $6 million dollars, does not have to be sent out for bid?

Gary Rebenstorf Director of Law stated we have Charter Ordinance No. 203 that has been adopted by the City Council, which provides a procedure to exempt these types of projects from the bidding requirements from the City and has to meet certain requirements in order for it to be used by the Council. Stated the most significant is that there has to be a public hearing and has to be a 2/3 vote by the Council to approve this development agreement that sets up this type of project.

Council Member O’Donnell stated he is glad the media is here to pick up on that because he thinks that $6 million dollars is a lot of money and to just award that to a contractor that has special ties to campaign finance reports of everyone on the City Council except himself, seems questionable.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute explains the block grants for Kansas school funding. Also: What did the school efficiency commission learn? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 79, broadcast March 22, 2015.

Kansas conservatives call for repeal of death penalty

From Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Kansas Conservatives Call for Repeal of Death Penalty

TOPEKA, Kan. — Today at the Capitol, Representative Bill Sutton, R–Gardner, joined a group of conservative leaders calling for support of HB 2129. This bill would replace the death penalty in Kansas with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Their case is straightforward: the death penalty is at odds with core conservative values — a commitment to fiscal responsibility, limited government, and valuing life.

 Ron Keine, Anthony Brown, Laura Peredo, Rep. Bill Sutton, Jill Craven, Ray Krone
Ron Keine, Anthony Brown, Laura Peredo, Rep. Bill Sutton, Jill Craven, Ray Krone
“There are millions of dollars spent on trials and appeals and we have nothing to show for it,” said Sutton. “There is absolutely zero utility for the tax dollars spent.” Earlier this year, Rep. Sutton detailed the high cost of Kansas’ death penalty in an op-ed appearing in Watchdog.org.

“More Kansas conservatives like myself are recognizing that the death penalty is unnecessary and in many ways harmful to the state,” said former Republican State Representative Anthony Brown. “Because of this growing conservative support, red states like Kansas are considering ending the death penalty.”

In addition to Kansas, Nebraska is also considering legislation to repeal the death penalty. A bill repealing the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole passed the Nebraska Judiciary Committee unanimously earlier this month.

Two individuals wrongfully sentenced to death and later found innocent, Ray Krone and Ron Keine of Witness to Innocence, also spoke at today’s event. Keine, who has been active in Republican politics since his release, does not trust government with the power to execute. “The government almost killed me and dozens of other innocent individuals across the country who were wrongfully sentenced to death. Kansas has an opportunity this year to ensure that the state never runs that risk.”

Krone said, “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody.” Krone was the 100th person in America to have faced the death penalty and to be later proven innocent. Since 1973, 150 people have been wrongfully sentenced to death and later exonerated.

Young conservatives also call for repealing the death penalty. Laura Peredo, president of Ravens Respect Life at Benedictine College, explained her rationale for opposing the death penalty: “No crime can change the fundamental truth that every human life possesses dignity from the moment of conception until natural death. I am one of a growing number of young people who support repealing the death penalty — a reform that demonstrates our unwavering commitment to safeguarding life at all stages, without exceptions.”

Jill Craven, Secretary of the Fourth District of the Kansas Republican Party, said it’s time that Republicans take a stand on the death penalty consistent with party values. “I challenge conservatives to take a fresh look at all the details surrounding this issue — moral implications and fiscal impact — and again stand boldly for what is right,” said Craven.

The call for repeal is stated in an open letter signed by Craven, Sutton, Brown and other prominent conservatives from across Kansas. Speakers are hopeful that the growing conservative support in Kansas for repeal of the death penalty will lead to a hearing and a vote on HB 2129, which currently is in the House Appropriations Committee.

More information about the death penalty can be found online at ksabolition.org and conservativesconcerned.org.

Kansas school funding block grants, new formula benefits students

Estimates from the Kansas Department of Education show that school funding would set new records under the block grant proposal, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Block grants, new formula benefits students

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

The debate over whether to replace the current school funding formula with a temporary block grant exposed one of the greatest challenges facing public education in Kansas. Most school administrators and the special interest groups that lined up in opposition of the proposal focused almost exclusively on their institutional desire for more money and only mentioned students in the context of how they would suffer if the institutions’ demands are not met.

Every Legislative Post Audit study on schools has found them to be inefficient operators, but no administrators opposing the block grants said they would choose to operate efficiently if they wanted more money for instruction under the block grants. School administrators testifying before the K-12 Commission on Efficiency acknowledged that more money could go to classrooms if they outsourced certain functions, but no one opposing the block grants offered up those solutions. No one said that block grants would force them to cut back on their multiple layers of administration or use much of their $857 million in cash reserves. The message was pretty clear; give institutions what they want or the students will suffer.

Opponents also didn’t let facts get in their way. One superintendent said the current formula is “… tied to what it costs to educate kids” but that is a demonstrably false statement. The current formula is based on a cost study that has been proven to be deliberately skewed to produce inflated numbers. Legislative Post Audit gave legislators some estimates years ago but stressed that those estimates were only based on a specific set of variables and said “different decisions or assumptions can result in very different cost estimates.” Even the State Supreme Court said cost studies are “… more akin to estimates that the certainties …” suggested by the district court.

Administrators spoke of how much they would be “cut” under the block grants but that is largely government-speak for not getting as much of an increase as they want. Estimates from the Kansas Department of Education show that school funding would set new records under the block grant proposal, at $6.147 billion or $13,347 per pupil; only $3 million of the $171 million increase this year is for KPERS.

School funding has increased by more than $3 billion since 1998 and is $1.5 billion higher than if adjusted for enrollment and inflation. Yet only 36 percent of White students scored well enough on the 2014 ACT exam to be considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science; it’s even worse for Hispanic and African American students, at 14 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Only 38 percent of 4th Grade students are Proficient in Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and Low Income 4th Graders are almost three years’ worth of learning behind everyone else — in the 4th Grade!

The old school formula certainly gave institutions a lot more money but it didn’t work for students. The new formula should hold districts accountable for improving outcomes; it should also be transparent and require efficient use taxpayer money.

WichitaLiberty.TV: United States Congressman Mike Pompeo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Congressman Mike Pompeo talks about risks to America from overseas, Benghazi, congressional scorecards, the Grant Return for Deficit Reduction Act, and labeling food with genetically engineered ingredients. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 78, broadcast March 15, 2015.

Block grants a chance for more school choice in Kansas

The block grant school funding bill under consideration in the Kansas Legislature would hold districts harmless for enrollment declines due to school choice.

Critics of school choice programs allege that as public school districts lost students to other schools, and the students’ funding follows the students to the new schools, school districts are worse off, financially speaking. That’s because school districts say that their costs do not fall as rapidly as does enrollment, although this has been found to be untrue.

But under the block grant bill in Kansas, school funding is no longer tied to enrollment, at least for the next two years. This means that when school districts lose students for any reason, including due to school choice programs, their revenue stays the same. Funding rises, when measured on a per-pupil basis.

This should be an opening for increased school choice programs in Kansas. Presently Kansas has a law that allows charter schools, but there are few such schools. That’s because local school districts have to approve a charter school, and few districts will do that. We have a tax credit scholarship program in Kansas this year, but it is capped at a small amount of money, and student eligibility requirements mean that not everyone can participate. An “eligible student” is a child who qualifies as an at-risk pupil (eligible for free lunch under the National School Lunch Act) and either attends a school that would qualify as either a Title I Focus School or a Title I Priority School; or has received an educational scholarship under this program and has not graduated from high school or reached 21 years of age. Also, eligible students must have been enrolled in a public school in the year prior to receiving the scholarship or be eligible to be enrolled in a public school, if under the age of six. These are significant restrictions that focus the scholarship program on students who need it most, and who are least likely to be able to afford private schools on their own. But many other Kansas schoolchildren would also benefit from school choice, as they do in other states.

With the primary criticism of school choice out of the picture (the alleged “drain” on public school funding) supporters of choice have an opportunity to advance their cause. So far, no one has publically advanced any proposals or legislation for expansion of school choice in Kansas.

Kansas slips in Tax Foundation business tax climate index

Based on five components of taxation important to business, Kansas ranks twenty-second among the states, two positions lower than last year.

The Tax Foundation collects and presents data regarding taxation in the states. From this data, analysts compute the State Business Tax Climate Index. In the Facts & Figures 2015 compilation released today, Kansas ranks 22 among the states. A rank of 1 means the most favorable business tax climate.

In 2014 Kansas ranked at position 20.

The index is composed of five components: Corporate tax rates, individual income tax rates, sales tax rate, unemployment insurance tax rate, and property tax rate.

In many of the areas where data is gathered Kansas ranks near the middle of the states, but there are exceptions.

One area where Kansas ranks low among the states is in “Federal aid as a percentage of general revenue.” For Kansas the value is 24.9 percent, which is 44th among the states. For Missouri the value is 38.2 percent, which ranks fifth.

Another area where Kansas is outside of the middle is in “State general sales tax collections per capita.” The value for Kansas is $1,003, which ranks 12th. This high ranking is probably due to the sales tax on groceries in Kansas. Many states do not tax groceries. In a similar measure “State and local general sales tax collections per capita” Kansas ranks 11th.

In “State and local cell phone tax rates” Kansas ranks 11th highest, with a tax rate of 12.87 percent.

In “State and local excise tax collections per capita” Kansas ranks 42nd at $384.

In “Property taxes paid as a percentage of owner-occupied housing value” Kansas ranks 15th, with a rate of 1.39 percent. In this ranking, first position means the highest tax rate, so only 14 states have a rate higher than Kansas.

In “State debt per capita” Kansas ranks lower than most, at position 37 with debt at $2,362 per person. But in “State and local debt per capita” Kansas is higher than most states, at position 16 with debt of $9,274 per person.

Energy subsidies for electricity production, in proportion

To compare federal subsidies for the production of electricity, we must consider subsidy values in proportion to the amount of electricity generated, because the magnitude is vastly different.

Kansas wind turbinesWhen comparing federal subsidies for the production of electricity, it’s important to look at the subsidy values in proportion to the amount of electricity generated. That’s because the scales vary widely. For example, in 2010 for the United States, as can be seen in the accompanying table, coal accounted for the production of 1,851 billion kWh (or megawatt hours) of electricity production. That’s 44.9 percent of all electricity produced. Solar power accounted for the production of 1,851 billion kWh, which is 0.025 percent of all electrical production.

Solar power, however, received 8.2 percent of all federal subsidies, or about 328 times its share of production.

The nearby table and chart are based on data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010 through the Congressional Research Service, along with the author’s calculations.

Click table for larger version.
Click table for larger version.

Of particular interest is wind power, as it receives subsidy in the form of cash equivalent tax credits, and many states (including Kansas) have mandates forcing its use. For the year covered in the table, wind accounted for 2.3 percent of U.S. electricity generation. It received 42.0 percent of federal energy subsidies.

Electricity production and subsidy, 2010

Huelskamp, Pompeo at top of Club for Growth scorecard

Kansans Tim Huelskamp and Mike Pompeo are among the eight U.S. House Members who scored 100 percent for 2014 on Club for Growth’s scorecard.

Slider_ScorecardLegislative2013Update[1]Club for Growth describes itself as “a national network of over 100,000 pro-growth, limited government Americans who share in the belief that prosperity and opportunity come from economic freedom.”

On the scorecard for 2014, released today, Kansas Representatives Tim Huelskamp and Mike Pompeo voted with the Club for Growth’s preferred position one hundred percent of the time. So did six other members of the House of Representatives.

Kansans Lynn Jenkins and Kevin Yoder were tied at rank 73, with scores of 77.

On the club’s Senate scorecard for 2014, Pat Roberts was ranked at number 11 with a score of 90, far above his lifetime score of 76. Jerry Moran was ranked at spot 25, with a score of 69 (lifetime score 73).

Kansas school funding still sets new record with block grant proposal

Kansas school funding is at a record high this year and is projected to rise next year, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

School funding still sets new record with block grant proposal

By Dave Trabert

You wouldn’t know it from media reports or school district newsletters, but school funding will still set another new record this year. Superintendents say they are dealing with budget cuts but that is largely government-speak for not getting as much of an increase as they would like — and media laps it up without asking how this year’s funding compares with last year.

The Kansas Department of Education (KDSE) says the proposed block grants for the current school year total $3.409 billion, but the block grants do not include state funding for Special Education or Bond and Interest aid. Including those amounts as listed in the Governor’s Budget Report puts total state aid at $3.985 billion. A few months ago, KSDE Deputy Superintendent of Finance Dale Dennis estimated Local aid at $1.652 billion and Federal aid at $510 million. That would put total taxpayer support at $6.147 billion this year and set a new funding record for the fourth consecutive year.

Funding per-pupil would be $13,262 (based on KSDE estimated enrollment of 463,500) and set a new record for the third consecutive year.

Total funding last year according to KSDE was $5.976 billion, so the revised estimate for this year represents a $171 million increase. Also of note, KSDE puts KPERS funding last year at $312 million and shows $315 million included in the block grant. That means — contrary to claims you might have heard — that almost all of the funding increase is not related to pension funding.

Here is a historical perspective on per-pupil school funding, adjusted upward for KPERS in the years prior to 2005 (when it wasn’t included in KSDE funding reports). The blue line shows actual funding and red line show what funding would have if adjusted for inflation each year. FYI, funding this year would be $1.503 billion less if it had just been increased for inflation and enrollment.

A Wichita Shocker, redux

Based on events in Wichita, the Wall Street Journal wrote “What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful …” But Wichita’s elites don’t seem to understand this.

A Wichita ShockerThree years ago from today the Wall Street Journal noted something it thought remarkable: a “voter revolt” in Wichita. Citizens overturned a decision by the Wichita City Council regarding an economic development incentive awarded to a downtown hotel. It was the ninth layer of subsidy for the hotel, and because of our laws, it was the only subsidy that citizens could contest through a referendum process.

In its op-ed, the Journal wrote:

The elites are stunned, but they shouldn’t be. The core issue is fairness — and not of the soak-the-rich kind that President Obama practices. One of the leaders of the opposition, Derrick Sontag, director of Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, says that what infuriated voters was the veneer of “political cronyism.”

What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful, whether the beneficiaries are a union that can carve a sweet deal as part of an auto bailout or corporations that can hire lobbyists to write a tax loophole.

The “elites” referred to include the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the political class, and the city newspaper. Since then, the influence of these elites has declined. Last year all three campaigned for a sales tax increase in Wichita, but voters rejected it by a large margin. It seems that voters are increasingly aware of the cronyism of the elites and the harm it causes the Wichita-area economy.

Last year as part of the campaign for the higher sales tax the Wichita Chamber admitted that Wichita lags in job creation. The other elites agreed. But none took responsibility for having managed the Wichita economy into the dumpster. Even today the local economic development agency — which is a subsidiary of the Wichita Chamber — seeks to shift blame instead of realizing the need for reform. The city council still layers on the levels of subsidy for its cronies.

Following, from March 2012:

A Wichita shocker

“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.

The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.

The Wichita business community, headed by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed this measure, too.

Hopefully this election will convince Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders that our economic development policies are not working. Combined with the startling findings by a Tax Foundation and KMPG study that finds Kansas lags near the bottom of the states in tax costs to business, the need for reform of our spending and taxing practices couldn’t be more evident. It is now up to our leaders to find within themselves the capability to change — or we all shall suffer.

Legislation to end Economic Development Administration introduced

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo calls for an end to a wasteful federal economic development agency.

economic-development-administrationIf you think a proper function of the federal government is spending your tax dollars to build replicas of the Great Pyramids in Indiana or a gift shop in a winery, you’re not going to like legislation introduced by U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican who represents the Kansas fourth district, including the Wichita metropolitan area.

Others, however, will appreciate H.R. 661: EDA Elimination Act of 2015. In the following article from 2012, Pompeo explains the harm of the Economic Development Administration, which he describes as a “politically motivated federal wealth redistribution agency.” Pompeo had introduced similar legislation in the past, and this bill keeps the effort alive in the new Congress.

In his article Pompeo mentions the trip by Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development John Fernandez to Wichita. This was in conjunction with EDA’s grant to Bombardier, part of which was to facilitate production of a new airplane, the LearJet 85. Since then, Fernandez has moved on to the private sector, working for a law firm in a role that seems something like lobbying.

Unfortunately, earlier this year Bombardier mothballed the LearJet 85 project, with industry observers doubting it will be revived.

For more background on the EDA, see Economic Development Administration at Downsizing the Federal Government.

End the Economic Development Administration — Now

By U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, January, 2012

As part of my efforts to reduce the size of government, I have proposed to eliminate the Economic Development Administration (EDA), a politically motivated federal wealth redistribution agency. Unsurprisingly, the current leader of that agency, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development John Fernandez, has taken acute personal interest in my bill to shutter his agency.

Last week, Secretary Fernandez invited himself to Wichita at taxpayer expense and met with the Wichita Eagle’s editorial board. Afterwards, the paper accurately noted I am advocating eliminating the EDA even though that agency occasionally awards grant money to projects in South Central Kansas. They just don’t get it. Thanks to decades of this flawed “You take yours, I’ll take mine” Washington logic, our nation now faces a crippling $16 trillion national debt.

I first learned about the EDA when Secretary Fernandez testified in front of my subcommittee that the benefits of EDA projects exceed the costs and cited the absurd example of a $1.4 million award for “infrastructure” that allegedly helped a Minnesota town secure a new $1.6 billion steel mill. As a former CEO, I knew there is no way that a taxpayer subsidy equal to less than one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) of the total capital needed made a difference in launching the project. That mill was getting built whether EDA’s grant came through or not. So, I decided to dig further.

I discovered that the EDA is a federal agency we can do without. Similar to earmarks that gave us the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” or the Department of Energy loan guarantee scandal that produced Solyndra, the EDA advances local projects that narrowly benefit a particular company or community. To be sure, the EDA occasionally supports a local project here in Kansas. But it takes our tax money every year for projects in 400-plus other congressional districts, many if not most of which are boondoggles. For example: EDA gave $2 million to help construct UNLV’s Harry Reid Research and Technology Park; $2 million for a “culinary amphitheater,” tasting room, and gift shop at a Washington state winery; and $500,000 to construct (never-completed) replicas of the Great Pyramids in rural Indiana.

Several times in recent decades, the Government Accountability Office has questioned the value and efficacy of the EDA. Good-government groups like Citizens Against Government Waste have called for dismantling the agency. In addition, eliminating the EDA was listed among the recommendations of President Obama’s own bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission.

So why hasn’t it been shut down already? Politics. The EDA spreads taxpayer-funded project money far and wide and attacks congressmen who fail to support EDA grants. Soon after that initial hearing, Secretary Fernandez flew in his regional director — again at taxpayer expense — to show me “all the great things we are doing in your home district” and handed me a list of recent and pending local grants. Hint, hint. You can’t say I wasn’t warned to back off. Indeed, Eagle editors missed the real story here: Secretary Fernandez flew to Wichita because he is a bureaucrat trying to save his high-paying gig. The bureaucracy strikes back when conservatives take on bloated, out-of-control, public spending, so I guess I’m making progress.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not faulting cities, universities, or companies for having sought “free” federal money from the EDA. The fault lies squarely with a Washington culture that insists every program is sacred and there is no spending left to cut.

A federal agency run at the Assistant Secretary level has not been eliminated in decades. Now is the time. My bill to eliminate the EDA (HR 3090) would take one small step toward restoring fiscal sanity and constitutional government.

WichitaLiberty.TV: A downtown Wichita deal shows some of the problems with the Wichita economy

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll examine the city council’s action regarding a downtown Wichita development project and how it is harmful to Wichita taxpayers and the economy. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 77, broadcast March 8, 2015.

Exchange Place incentives, including free sales tax and an ethics bypass

A downtown Wichita project receives free sales taxes and a bypass of Wichita’s code of conduct for city council members. Remarks to the Wichita City Council, March 3, 2015.

Regarding the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita, I’d like to remind the council of the entire subsidy package offered to the project.

There are historic preservation tax credits, which may amount to 25 percent of the project cost. These credits have the same economic impact as a cash payment, and their cost must be born by taxpayers.

There is $12.5 million in tax increment financing, which re-routes future property tax revenues back to the project for the benefit of its owners. Most everyone else pays property taxes in order to pay for government, not for things that benefit themselves exclusively, or nearly so.

There is a federal loan guarantee, which places the federal taxpayer on the hook if this project isn’t successful.

The owner of this project also seeks to avoid paying sales taxes on the purchase of materials. City documents don’t say how much this sales tax forgiveness might be worth, but it easily could be several million dollars.

Mayor and council, if it in fact is truly necessary to layer on these incentives in order to do a project in downtown Wichita, I think we need to ask: Why? Why is it so difficult to do a project in downtown Wichita?

Other speakers will probably tell you that rehabilitating historic buildings is expensive. If so, working on historic buildings is a choice they make. They, and their tenants, ought to pay the cost. It’s a lifestyle choice, and nothing more than that.

But I’m really troubled about the sales tax exemption. Just a few months ago our civic leaders, including this council, recommended that Wichitans add more to our sales tax burden in order to pay for a variety of things.

Only 14 states apply sales tax to food purchased at grocery stores for home consumption, and Kansas has the second-highest statewide rate. So we in Kansas, and Wichita by extension, require low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries. But today this council is considering granting an exemption from paying these taxes that nearly everyone else has to pay.

These tax subsidies are not popular with voters. Last year when Kansas Policy Institute surveyed Wichita voters, it found that only 34 percent agreed with the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. Then, of course, there is the result of the November sales tax election.

Might I also remind the people of Wichita that some of their taxpayer-funded subsidies are earmarked to fund a bailout for a politically-connected construction company for work done on a different project, one not related to Exchange Place except through having common ownership in the past? I don’t think it is good public policy for this city to act as collection agent for a private debt that has been difficult to collect.

This project is slated to receive many million in taxpayer-funded subsidy. Now this council proposes to wave a magic wand and eliminate the cost of sales tax for its owners. People notice this arbitrary application of the burden of taxation. They see certain people treated differently under the law, rather than all being treated equally under the law. People don’t like this. It breeds distrust in government. This council can help restore some of this trust by not issuing the Industrial Revenue Bonds and the accompanying sales tax exemption.

The ethics problem for the city

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with friend and major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with friend and major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Today Brewer voted for benefits for Wells, in apparent contradiction of city code.
Although I did not mention this to the council, Mayor Carl Brewer should not have voted on this matter. The politically-connected construction company that benefits from this deal through a taxpayer-funded bailout Key Construction. Its president, Dave Wells, is a friend of the mayor, as well as frequent and heavy campaign financier for the mayor and other council members.

This is a problem, as there is a law in Wichita. Here’s an excerpt from Section 2.04.050 Code of ethics for council members from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Dave Wells and Carl Brewer are friends. The mayor has said so. But the City of Wichita’s official position is that Section 2.04.050 does not need to be followed. Even children can see that elected officials should not vote economic benefits for their friends — but not the City of Wichita.

How TIF routes taxpayer-funded benefits to Wichita’s political players

From January 2012, how tax increment financing routes benefits to politically-connected firms.

It is now confirmed: In Wichita, tax increment financing (TIF) leads to taxpayer-funded waste that benefits those with political connections at city hall.

The latest evidence we have is the construction of a downtown parking garage that benefits Douglas Place, especially the Ambassador Hotel, a renovation of a historic building now underway.

The flow of tax dollars Wichita city leaders had planned for Douglas Place called for taxpayer funds to be routed to a politically-connected construction firm. And unlike the real world, where developers have an incentive to build economically, the city created incentives for Douglas Place developers to spend lavishly in a parking garage, at no cost to themselves. In fact, the wasteful spending would result in profit for them.

The original plan for Douglas Place as specified in a letter of intent that the city council voted to support, called for a parking garage and urban park to cost $6,800,000. Details provided at the August 9th meeting of the Wichita City Council gave the cost for the garage alone as $6,000,000. The garage would be paid for by capital improvement program (CIP) funds and tax increment financing (TIF). The CIP is Wichita’s long-term plan for building public infrastructure. TIF is different, as we’ll see in a moment.

At the August 9th meeting it was also revealed that Key Construction of Wichita would be the contractor for the garage. The city’s plan was that Key Construction would not have to bid for the contract, even though the garage is being paid for with taxpayer funds. Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern about the no-bid contract. As a result, the contract was put out for competitive bid.

Now a winning bid has been determined, according to sources in city hall, and the amount is nearly $1.3 million less than the council was willing to spend on the garage. This is money that otherwise would have gone into the pockets of Key Construction. Because of the way the garage is being paid for, that money would not have been a cost to Douglas Place’s developers. Instead, it would have been a giant ripoff of Wichita taxpayers. This scheme was approved by Mayor Carl Brewer and all city council members except O’Donnell.

Even worse, the Douglas Place developers have no incentive to economize on the cost of the garage. In fact, they have incentives to make it cost even more.

Two paths for developer taxes

Recall that the garage is being paid for through two means. One is CIP, which is a cost to Wichita taxpayers. It doesn’t cost the Douglas Place developers anything except for their small quotal share of Wichita’s overall tax burden. In exchange for that, they get part of a parking garage paid for.

Flows of funds in regular and TIF development.
Flows of funds in regular and TIF development.
But the tax increment financing, or TIF, is different. Under TIF, the increased property taxes that Douglas Place will pay as the project is completed won’t go to fund the general operations of government. Instead, these taxes will go to pay back bonds that the city will issue to pay for part of the garage — a garage that benefits Douglas Place, and one that would not be built but for the Douglas Place plans.

Under TIF, the more the parking garage costs, the more Douglas Place property taxes are funneled back to it — taxes, remember, it has to pay anyway. (Since Douglas Place won’t own the garage, it doesn’t have to pay taxes on the value of the garage, so it’s not concerned about the taxable value of the garage increasing its tax bill.)

Most people and businesses have their property taxes go towards paying for public services like police protection, firemen, and schools. But TIF allows these property taxes to be used for a developer’s exclusive benefit. That leads to distortions.

Why would Douglas Place be interested in an expensive parking garage? Here are two reasons:

First, the more the garage costs, the more the hotel benefits from a fancier and nicer garage for its guests to park in. Remember, since the garage is paid for by property taxes on the hotel — taxes Douglas Place must pay in any case — there’s an incentive for the hotel to see these taxes used for its own benefit rather than used to pay for firemen, police officers, and schools.

Second, consider Key Construction, the planned builder of the garage under a no-bid contract. The more expensive the garage, the higher the profit for Key.

Now add in the fact that one of the partners in the Douglas Place project is a business entity known as Summit Holdings LLC, which is composed of David Wells, Kenneth Wells, Richard McCafferty, John Walker Jr., and Larry Gourley. All of these people are either owners of Key Construction or its executives. The more the garage costs, the higher the profit for these people. Remember, they’re not paying for the garage. City taxpayers are.

The sum of all this is a mechanism to funnel taxpayer funds, via tax increment financing, to Key Construction. The more the garage costs, the better for Douglas Place and Key Construction — and the worse for Wichita taxpayers.

Fueled by campaign contributions?

It’s no wonder Key Construction principals contributed $16,500 to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and five city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

This scheme — of which few people must be aware as it has not been reported anywhere but here — is a reason why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws. These laws impose restrictions on the activities of elected officials and the awarding of contracts.

An example is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

This project also shows why complicated financing schemes like tax increment financing need to be eliminated. Government intervention schemes like this turn the usual economic incentives upside down, and at taxpayer expense.

School choice and state spending on schools

States like Kansas that are struggling to balance budgets could use school choice programs as a way to save money.

When states consider implementing school choice programs, a common objection is that the state can’t afford school choice. Public school spending interest groups will tell legislators that school choice programs drain money from already under-funded public schools. School choice, they will say, is a luxury the state can’t afford, much less local school districts.

Research shows, however, that school choice programs can be constructed in a way that does not harm local school districts. Simply: A typical Kansas school district has variable costs of $8,709 per student. If such a district loses a student and associated funding, as long as that funding is less than $8,709, the district’s fiscal situation is improved. Base state aid in Kansas is $3,852, although state spending per student is $7,088 (2013 to 2014 school year). So it’s quite likely that any student who leaves a public school for any reason, including attending a private school or home school, improves the fiscal standing of the district, on a per student basis.

At the state level, a similar dynamic applies, although the reasoning is easier to follow: If the state funds that follow the child are less than average state spending per student, the state has the opportunity to save. The savings can be large, if states are willing to embrace choice programs.

Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
In the report The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?, prepared for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the author finds that from 1991 to 2011, voucher programs alone have saved state governments a cumulative $1.7 billion. While representing just a small portion of total state spending, this total is from the ten states that had voucher programs in effect at the time of the study. In 2011 about 70,000 students were in these voucher programs.

The key understanding is that when student enrollment declines — for whatever reason — schools see reduced costs. For those who deny that, there is a corollary:

Opponents claim, simplistically, that school choice drains money from the public school system. That rhetoric obscures an important fact: A public school is also relieved of a cost burden for any student switching to private school. By not acknowledging such variable cost savings, opponents implicitly argue that all public school costs are “fixed.” By extension, they then conclude that the loss of funding for a student using a voucher to transfer to a private school harms all the remaining students at the affected public school. But that argument strains credulity: If there were no savings when a public school’s enrollment declines, logic dictates there would be no additional costs for schools when their enrollment grows.

It may be that costs do not decrease (or rise) smoothly as enrollment declines: “That phenomenon reflects the reality that schools must fund classrooms, not students.” Many businesses face this cost structure and are able to adapt, and it should be no different for schools.

An important note is that as students leave a school and its cost burden falls, the school must actually take steps to reduce spending in response to the reduced cost burden it experiences.

A problem is that critics of school choice may notice that no money has been saved after school choice programs are implemented. This is because “savings are typically reallocated to other spending, either directly or indirectly.” It is not uncommon for public schools to be held fiscally harmless for declining enrollments. The net effect is that public schools are paid for students that are no longer enrolled, and that absorbs the savings due to school choice. The cost savings are there; but are still spent on schools rather than spent elsewhere, saved, or returned to taxpayers.

Individual liberty, limited government, economic freedom, and free markets in Wichita and Kansas

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