Not all Wichita candidates support your right to know

As candidates spring up for Wichita mayor and city council, voters need to know that many, such as current district 2 council member Pete Meitzner and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell, have been openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent. Following is a news story by Craig Andres of KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.

“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”

The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.

“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.

“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”

Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.

“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”

Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.

“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Election results, Kansas school employment and spending, and government planning of the economy

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges after the November election. Then, what is the trend in Kansas school employment and spending, and what do voters think has happened? Finally, do you know how to make a simple lead pencil? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 66, broadcast November 23, 2014.

Detail of stairway in Kansas Capitol.

In Kansas, voters want government to concentrate on efficiency and core services before asking for taxes

A survey of Kansas voters finds that Kansas believe government is not operating efficiently. The also believe government should pursue efficiency savings, focus on core functions, and spend unnecessary cash reserves before cutting services or raising taxes.

This month Kansas Policy Institute produced a survey asking registered voters in Kansas questions on the topic of school spending. The final four questions asked voters’ opinion of government efficiency and how government should respond to budgetary issues.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 9 asked this: “How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: Kansas state government operates pretty efficiently and makes effective use of my tax dollars.” As you can see in the nearby table and chart, 31 percent of voters agreed with this statement. 65 percent disagreed, including 39 percent who said they strongly disagree with the statement. That was the most common response.

This result is similar with a survey of Wichita voters conducted by SurveyUSA for KPI in April. The first question in that survey asked “In the past few years, have Wichita city officials used taxpayer money efficiently? Or inefficiently?” Overall, 58 percent believed city spending was inefficient, compared to 28 percent believing spending was efficient.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
In question 10, the current survey of Kansas voters asked “How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: Kansas state government could run 5% to 10% more efficiently than it does now.” 74 percent of respondents agreed to some extent, with 42 percent indicating they strongly agree. Only six percent strongly disagreed.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 11 asked voters how Kansas state government should react to an unbalanced budget: “How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: I believe the Kansas state government should pursue efficiency savings, focus on core functions, and spend unnecessary cash reserves before raising taxes and/or cutting government functions.” 68 percent agreed with this statement, with 40 percent strongly agreeing. 24 percent disagreed.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 12 asked voters how to fix Kansas state budget problems: “What would be the single best way to fix state budget problems? Increasing the income tax? Increasing the sales tax? Cutting spending, even if it means reduced services? Or reducing spending by providing services more efficiently?”

Reducing spending by being more efficient received a majority — 54 percent — of responses. 26 percent of voters responded that taxes should be increased, with income tax hikes more popular than sales tax.

A press release announcing the survey is New Survey: Kansans Remain Misinformed Regarding K-12 Finance. The results of the survey from SurveyUSA are here. Coverage of questions from the survey on education funding is at Kansans still uninformed on school spending.

school-blackboard-56661

Kansans still uninformed on school spending

As in the past, a survey finds Kansans are uninformed or misinformed on the level of school spending, and also on the direction of its change.

This month Kansas Policy Institute produced a survey asking registered voters in Kansas questions on the topic of school spending. The first two questions measured the level of knowledge of Kansas school spending.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 1 asked: “How much state funding do you think Kansas school districts currently receive per pupil each year from JUST the state of Kansas?” As can be seen in the nearby table and chart, the most frequent response was less than $4,000 per year. 63 percent — nearly two-thirds — thought funding from the state was less than $5,000 per year.

The correct answer is that for the most recent school year (2013 — 2014) Kansas state funding per student was $7,088. This is estimated to rise to $8,604 for the current school year.

(The source of data for past school years is Kansas State Department of Education. Estimates for the current school year were obtained from Dale Dennis, who is Deputy Commissioner, Fiscal and Administrative Services.)

In the last school year base state aid per pupil was $3,838. How, then, does the state spend $7,088 per pupil? The answer is that various weightings are applied for things like bilingual education and at-risk pupils.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 2 asked about funding from all sources: “How much funding per pupil do you think Kansas school districts currently receive from ALL taxpayer sources per year, including State, Federal and Local taxpayers? The most common answer was less than $7,000. Two-thirds answered less than $10,000.

The correct answer is per-pupil spending from all sources for the 2013 — 2014 school year was $12,960. The estimate for the current school year is $13,268.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 3 asked about the change in school funding: “Over the last 4 years, how much do you think total per-pupil funding has changed?” 65 percent — nearly two-thirds — thought spending had fallen over this period. Only 14 percent thought spending had risen, and only seven percent by more than five percent. That last category holds the correct answer, which is 8.02 percent.

The findings of these three questions, which are that people are generally uninformed as to the level of school spending, are not able produce estimates that are in the same ballpark of actual values, and are wrong on the direction of change of spending, are not surprising. Past versions of similar surveys in Kansas have produced similar results. It’s not just a Kansas problem, as similar findings are found across the nation.

Commenting on the survey, KPI president Dave Trabert remarked:

It is impossible for citizens to develop informed opinions on education funding and state budget issues without accurate information. We continue to see that citizens who are accurately informed on K-12 funding have significantly different opinions than those who believe school funding is much lower than reality.” The number of Kansans who can correctly answer this question remains disturbingly low, but knowing how frequently funding is misrepresented by education officials and special interests, it’s not surprising. Instead of trying to low-ball school funding to justify increased aid, the focus should be on improving outcomes.

Kansans are providing record funding levels that exceed adjustments for enrollment and inflation over the last ten years, but outcomes on independent national assessments are relatively unchanged. It will always cost a lot of money to provide public education but the data shows that it’s how the money is spent that matters — not how much. “Just spend more” is about funding institutions. The focus needs to shift to getting more of the record-setting funding into classrooms where it will best help students.

Legislators and citizens cannot make good decisions about the challenges facing the state without good information. This survey confirms what we’ve known previously: Kansans are being misinformed and that cannot lead to good decision making. We encourage legislators and others to honestly examine facts without political bias. No finger pointing … no attempts to score political points … and no shading the facts … just civil discussion of the issues and facts.

A press release announcing the survey is New Survey: Kansans Remain Misinformed Regarding K-12 Finance. The results of the survey from SurveyUSA are here.

The problem with government spending

Of interest is that when people make major — or even minor — purchases, many will expend considerable effort researching the possibilities. Spending their own money, automobile purchasers want to get a good deal on a car that meets their preferences. That’s human nature.

But every two years, taxpayers spend on each student the amount that will buy a nice new car. In four years, taxpayers spend enough on each student to buy a new luxury car. The average taxpayer doesn’t pay that much tax for schools. But collectively, we all do.

The lack of knowledge of government spending reminds me of a passage from Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, written by Rose and Milton Friedman. It explains why government spending is wasteful, how it leads to corruption, how it often does not benefit the people it was intended, and how the pressure for more spending is always present. Spending on public schools falls in either category III — spending someone else’s money on yourself (or your children) — or category IV — spending someone else’s money on someone else. It’s no wonder it hasn’t worked very well.

Here’s a passage from Free to Choose.

A simple classification of spending shows why that process leads to undesirable results. When you spend, you may spend your own money or someone else’s; and you may spend for the benefit of yourself or someone else. Combining these two pairs of alternatives gives four possibilities summarized in the following simple table:

friedman-spending-categories-2013-07

Category I in the table refers to your spending your own money on yourself. You shop in a supermarket, for example. You clearly have a strong incentive both to economize and to get as much value as you can for each dollar you do spend.

Category II refers to your spending your own money on someone else. You shop for Christmas or birthday presents. You have the same incentive to economize as in Category I but not the same incentive to get full value for your money, at least as judged by the tastes of the recipient. You will, of course, want to get something the recipient will like — provided that it also makes the right impression and does not take too much time and effort. (If, indeed, your main objective were to enable the recipient to get as much value as possible per dollar, you would give him cash, converting your Category II spending to Category I spending by him.)

Category III refers to your spending someone else’s money on yourself — lunching on an expense account, for instance. You have no strong incentive to keep down the cost of the lunch, but you do have a strong incentive to get your money’s worth.

Category IV refers to your spending someone else’s money on still another person. You are paying for someone else’s lunch out of an expense account. You have little incentive either to economize or to try to get your guest the lunch that he will value most highly. However, if you are having lunch with him, so that the lunch is a mixture of Category III and Category IV, you do have a strong incentive to satisfy your own tastes at the sacrifice of his, if necessary.

All welfare programs fall into either Category III — for example, Social Security which involves cash payments that the recipient is free to spend as he may wish; or Category IV — for example, public housing; except that even Category IV programs share one feature of Category III, namely, that the bureaucrats administering the program partake of the lunch; and all Category III programs have bureaucrats among their recipients.

In our opinion these characteristics of welfare spending are the main source of their defects.

Legislators vote to spend someone else’s money. The voters who elect the legislators are in one sense voting to spend their own money on themselves, but not in the direct sense of Category I spending. The connection between the taxes any individual pays and the spending he votes for is exceedingly loose. In practice, voters, like legislators, are inclined to regard someone else as paying for the programs the legislator votes for directly and the voter votes for indirectly. Bureaucrats who administer the programs are also spending someone else’s money. Little wonder that the amount spent explodes.

The bureaucrats spend someone else’s money on someone else. Only human kindness, not the much stronger and more dependable spur of self-interest, assures that they will spend the money in the way most beneficial to the recipients. Hence the wastefulness and ineffectiveness of the spending.

But that is not all. The lure of getting someone else’s money is strong. Many, including the bureaucrats administering the programs, will try to get it for themselves rather than have it go to someone else. The temptation to engage in corruption, to cheat, is strong and will not always be resisted or frustrated. People who resist the temptation to cheat will use legitimate means to direct the money to themselves. They will lobby for legislation favorable to themselves, for rules from which they can benefit. The bureaucrats administering the programs will press for better pay and perquisites for themselves — an outcome that larger programs will facilitate.

The attempt by people to divert government expenditures to themselves has two consequences that may not be obvious. First, it explains why so many programs tend to benefit middle- and upper-income groups rather than the poor for whom they are supposedly intended. The poor tend to lack not only the skills valued in the market, but also the skills required to be successful in the political scramble for funds. Indeed, their disadvantage in the political market is likely to be greater than in the economic. Once well-meaning reformers who may have helped to get a welfare measure enacted have gone on to their next reform, the poor are left to fend for themselves and they will almost always he overpowered by the groups that have already demonstrated a greater capacity to take advantage of available opportunities.

The second consequence is that the net gain to the recipients of the transfer will be less than the total amount transferred. If $100 of somebody else’s money is up for grabs, it pays to spend up to $100 of your own money to get it. The costs incurred to lobby legislators and regulatory authorities, for contributions to political campaigns, and for myriad other items are a pure waste — harming the taxpayer who pays and benefiting no one. They must be subtracted from the gross transfer to get the net gain — and may, of course, at times exceed the gross transfer, leaving a net loss, not gain.

These consequences of subsidy seeking also help to explain the pressure for more and more spending, more and more programs. The initial measures fail to achieve the objectives of the well-meaning reformers who sponsored them. They conclude that not enough has been done and seek additional programs. They gain as allies both people who envision careers as bureaucrats administering the programs and people who believe that they can tap the money to be spent.

Category IV spending tends also to corrupt the people involved. All such programs put some people in a position to decide what is good for other people. The effect is to instill in the one group a feeling of almost God-like power; in the other, a feeling of childlike dependence. The capacity of the beneficiaries for independence, for making their own decisions, atrophies through disuse. In addition to the waste of money, in addition to the failure to achieve the intended objectives, the end result is to rot the moral fabric that holds a decent society together.

Another by-product of Category III or IV spending has the same effect. Voluntary gifts aside, you can spend someone else’s money only by taking it away as government does. The use of force is therefore at the very heart of the welfare state — a bad means that tends to corrupt the good ends. That is also the reason why the welfare state threatens our freedom so seriously.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 2001 b

Commercial property taxes in Wichita are high

An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.

The study is produced by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. It’s titled “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study, March 2014″ and may be read here. It uses a variety of residential, apartment, commercial, and industrial property scenarios to analyze the nature of property taxation across the country. I’ve gathered data from selected tables for Wichita. A pdf version of the table is available here.

A pdf version of this table is available.
A pdf version of this table is available; click here.
In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its appraised value. (Appraised value is the market value as determined by the assessor. Assessed value is multiplied by the mill levy rates of taxing jurisdictions in order to compute tax.) Commercial property is assessed at 25 percent of appraised value, and public utility property at 33 percent.

This means that commercial property pays 25 / 11.5 or 2.18 times the property tax rate as residential property. (The study reports a value of 2.263 for Wichita. The difference is likely due to the inclusion on utility property in their calculation.) The U.S. average is 1.716.

Whether higher assessment ratios on commercial property as compared to residential property is good public policy is a subject for debate. But because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property.

For residential property taxes, Wichita ranks below the national average. For a property valued at $150,000, the effective property tax rate in Wichita is 1.324 percent, while the national average is 1.508 percent. The results for a $300,000 property were similar.

Wichita commercial property tax rates compared to national average
Wichita commercial property tax rates compared to national average
Looking at commercial property, the study uses several scenarios with different total values and different values for fixtures. For example, for a $100,000 valued property with $20,000 fixtures (table 25), the study found that the national average for property tax is $2,591 or 2.159 percent of the property value. For Wichita the corresponding values are $3,588 or 2.990 percent, ranking ninth from the top. Wichita property taxes for this scenario are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.

In other scenarios, as the proportion of property value that is machinery and equipment increases, Wichita taxes are lower, compared to other states and cities. This is because Kansas no longer taxes this type of property.

Institute for Economic Affairs iea logo

‘Public Choice’ explains much of government and politics

Public Choice - A PrimerIf you’ve wondered why government is as it is, the school of public choice economics offers insight and explanation. The Institute of Economic Affairs, a London think tank, has published Public Choice — A Primer. This short book explains the topic of public choice. By understanding it, we can learn more about how government and its actors operate.

Here’s a description of public choice from the book’s web page:

“Market failure” is a term widely used by politicians, journalists and university and A-level economics students and teachers. However, those who use the term often lack any sense of proportion about the ability of government to correct market failures. This arises from the lack of general knowledge — and the lack of coverage in economics syllabuses — of Public Choice economics.

Public Choice economics applies realistic insights about human behaviour to the process of government, and is extremely helpful for all those who have an interest in — or work in — public policy to understand this discipline. If we assumes that at least some of those involved in the political process — whether elected representatives, bureaucrats, regulators, public sector workers or electors — will act in their own self-interest rather than in the general public interest, it should give us much less confidence that the government can “correct” market failure.”

Here is the executive summary of the book:

  • Public Choice applies the methods of economics to the theory and practice of politics and government. This approach has given us important insights into the nature of democratic decision-making.
  • Just as self-interest motivates people’s private commercial choices, it also affects their communal decisions. People also “economise” as voters, lobby groups, politicians and officials, aiming to maximise the outcome they personally desire, for minimum effort. Consequently the well-developed tools of economics — such as profit and loss, price and efficiency — can be used to analyse politics too.
  • Collective decision-making is necessary in some areas. However, the fact that the market may fail to provide adequately in such areas does not necessarily mean that government can do things better. There is “government failure” too. Political decision-making is not a dispassionate pursuit of the “public interest,” but can involve a struggle between different personal and group interests.
  • There is no single “public interest” anyway. We live in a world of value-pluralism: different people have different values and different interests. Competition between competing interests is inevitable. This makes it vital to study how such competing interests and demands are resolved by the political process.
  • The self-interest of political parties lies in getting the votes they need to win power and position. They may pursue the “median voter” — the position at the centre, where voters bunch. Government officials will also have their own interests, which may include maximising their budgets.
  • In this struggle between interests, small groups with sharply focused interests have more influence in decision-making than much larger groups with more diffused concerns, such as consumers and taxpayers. The influence of interest groups may be further increased because electors are “rationally ignorant” of the political debate, knowing that their single vote is unlikely to make a difference, and that the future effects of any policy are unpredictable.
  • Because of the enormous benefits that can be won from the political process, it is rational for interest groups to spend large sums on lobbying for special privileges — an activity known as “rent seeking.”
  • Interest groups can increase their effect still further by “logrolling” — agreeing to trade votes and support each other’s favoured initiatives. These factors make interest group minorities particularly powerful in systems of representative democracy, such as legislatures.
  • In direct democracy, using mechanisms such as referenda, the majority voting rule that is commonly adopted allows just 51 per cent of the population to exploit the other 49 per cent — as in the old joke that “democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding who shall eat whom for dinner.” In representative democracies, much smaller proportions of the electorate can have undue influence.
  • Because of the problem of minorities being exploited — or minorities exploiting majorities — many Public Choice theorists argue that political decision-making needs to be constrained by constitutional rules.

The book may be purchased, or downloaded at no cost in several formats.

Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Kansas school teacher cuts, student ratios

What has been the trend in Kansas school employment and pupil-teacher ratio?

“More students, but fewer teachers — Since 2009, Kansas schools have gained more than 19,000 students but have 665 fewer teachers.” (Quality at Risk: Impact of Education Cuts, Kansas Center for Economic Growth)

“Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off.” (What’s the Matter With Kansas’ Schools?, New York Times)

This is typical of the sentiment in Kansas — that there are fewer teachers since Sam Brownback became governor, and that class sizes have exploded.

Here’s the data, fresh from Kansas State Department of Education. Can you show me where there has been a reduction in teachers, or a rise in the ratio of pupils to teachers? (Class size is not the same as pupil-teacher ratio. But if there are proportionally more teachers than students, we have to wonder why class sizes are growing — if, in fact, they are.)

The story is not the same in each school district. So I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Kansas School Enrollment and Employment
Kansas School Enrollment and Employment
Kansas School Employment
Kansas School Employment
Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio
Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio
Richard Ranzau campaign team 2014 primary election

Richard Ranzau, slayer of cronyism

In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges in the battle for capitalism over cronyism.

Now that the result of the 2014 general election is official, Richard Ranzau has notched four consecutive election victories over candidates endorsed by the Wichita Eagle and often by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It’s interesting and useful to look back at what the Wichita Eagle wrote during each campaign as it endorsed Ranzau’s opponent.

In its endorsements for the 2010 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:

In a district reaching from downtown Wichita north to include Maize, Valley Center and Park City, Republican voters would do well to replace retiring Commissioner Kelly Parks with the commissioner he unseated in 2006, Lucy Burtnett. Her business experience and vast community involvement, as well as her understanding of the issues and thoughtful voting record during her two years on the commission, make her the pick in this primary. She would like to see a new life for the Kansas Coliseum site, perhaps including a year-round RV park, and favors the county’s continued role in Fair Fares and the National Center for Aviation Training.

The other candidate is Richard Ranzau , a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves who believes government is out of control, who would submit all tax increases to voters, and who opposes the county’s investments in air service and aviation training.

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce political action committee contributed to Burtnett.

In this election, Ranzau received 55 percent of the vote.

Then for the general election in November 2010, the Eagle editorial board wrote this:

State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, is by far the better choice in the race to replace Republican Kelly Parks, who is stepping down after one term representing the county’s north-central district. Her legislative experience, civic engagement and constituent service have prepared her for a seat on the county commission, where she wants to help attract businesses and jobs and would support efforts such as the new National Center for Aviation Training. “That’s a must,” she said. It’s a concern that Faust-Goudeau has been slow to address code violations at a house she owns, but the fact that neighbors have stepped up to help says a lot about her as a person and public servant. The first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate, Faust-Goudeau would make a hardworking and effective county commissioner.

Republican Richard Ranzau, a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves, holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views that would be disastrous for the county’s crucial efforts to support economic development and invest in affordable air service and aviation training.

In this election, Ranzau again earned 55 percent of the vote.

In the August 2014 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:

Carolyn McGinn is the clear choice to represent this district that includes part of north Wichita as well as Maize, Park City and Valley Center. McGinn served on the commission from 1998 through 2004. Since then, she has served in the Kansas Senate, including as past chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. As a result, McGinn knows state and local issues well and understands how they intersect. She is concerned about the region’s stagnant economic growth. In order to get businesses to come and grow here, the county needs a stable government structure that provides essential services, she argues. McGinn is a productive problem solver who could have an immediate positive impact on the commission.

Her opponent is incumbent Richard Ranzau, who is completing his first term. He has been a fierce advocate for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and for fiscal responsibility. But he also frequently badgers county staff and delivers monologues about federal government problems. He argued that a planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.”

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McGinn.

In this election, Ranzau received 54 percent of the vote.

For the 2014 general election, here’s what the Eagle editorial board had to say:

Democrat Melody McCray-Miller is the clear choice to represent District 4, which includes north Wichita, Maize, Park City and Valley Center. A former county commissioner and four-term state representative and a business owner, McCray-Miller understands government at both the state and local levels and how it affects communities, families and businesses. Her priorities include economic development and community livability and engagement. “I would like to put the public back in public policy,” she said, accusing her opponent of representing his ideological views and not the full district. McCray-Miller believes in a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people, focusing on “what’s best for the county.” She also would not turn down federal funds, as her opponent has voted to do, and supports using economic incentives to attract and retain businesses.

Republican incumbent Richard Ranzau is completing his first term, which has not been productive. Though he has done some good work watchdogging county spending, Ranzau frequently badgers county staff and other presenters at commission meetings. He also has used his position as an ideological platform to rant about the federal government, including by claiming that a federal planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.” McCray-Miller would be a better, more-constructive commissioner.

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McCray-Miller.

This election was closer, with Ranzau gathering 51 percent of the vote to McCray-Miller’s 49 percent.

As a private entity, the Wichita Eagle is free to print whatever it wants. So too is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce free to contribute to and endorse anyone.

But these two institutions appear to be out of touch with voters.

Do you sense a pattern? Ranzau’s opponents are thoughtful, would make hardworking and effective county commissioners, are productive problem solvers, understand government at both the state and local levels, and have a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people.

Ranzau, according to the Eagle, believes government is out of control and holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views. He frequently badgers county staff. (Believe me, they deserve scrutiny, which the Eagle calls “badgering.”) Oh, and he’s ideological, too. That simply means he has “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” As long as those ideals are oriented in favor of capitalism, economic freedom, and personal liberty, this is good. And that’s the way it is with Richard Ranzau. Would that the Wichita Eagle shared the same ideology.

I know what it is like to be on the losing side of issues year after year. Advocating for free markets and capitalism against the likes of the Wichita Eagle, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, most members of the Sedgwick County Commission, and all current members of the Wichita city council is a lonely job.

This makes it all the more remarkable that Richard Ranzau has won four consecutive elections running against not only his opponent, but also against the city’s entrenched establishment. Running against the crony establishment, that is, the establishment that campaigns against capitalism in favor of a “business-friendly” environment. The establishment that has presided over decades of sub-standard economic performance. The establishment that insisted on a sales tax that it hoped would gloss over the miserable results produced over the last two decades.

Thank goodness that defenders of capitalism are able to win an election now and then — or four in a row.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Results of and reflection on the Wichita sales tax election and campaign

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll look at the results of the Wichita sales tax election and what might happen next. Then, we’ll evaluate the Wichita Eagle’s coverage during the campaign. Also, this election raised issues of the privacy of voter data. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 65, broadcast November 16, 2014.

apple-chalkboard-books

In Kansas, school employment rises again

For the fourth consecutive year, the number of teachers in Kansas public schools has risen faster than enrollment, leading to declining pupil-teacher ratios.

Listening to Kansas school officials and legislators — not to mention politicians campaigning for office — you’d think that Kansas schools had very few teachers left, and that students were struggling in huge classes. But statistics from Kansas State Department of Education show that school employment has rebounded, both in terms of absolute numbers of teachers and certified employees, and the ratios of pupils to these employees.

The story is not the same in every district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past four years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Since the number of teachers has risen proportionally faster than enrollment, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

The trend for certified employees is a year behind that of teachers, but the number of certified employees has also risen, and the ratio to pupils has mostly fallen.

(In the chart, “fiscal year” refers to the calendar year in which the school year ends. So fiscal year 2015 refers to the 2015-15 school year.)

Public school advocates complain that class sizes in Kansas schools are rising. I understand that the ratio of teachers to pupils is not the same statistic as class size. They measure different things. But if Kansas schools, considered as a whole, have rising teacher and certified employment levels that leads to decreasing pupil to teacher ratios, and at the same time class sizes are increasing — we have to wonder about the management of schools.

I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for larger version.
Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for larger version.

Cato Institute: A discussion of net neutrality

From Cato Institute, a discussion of net neutrality.

The debate continues over whether “net neutrality” is the equivalent of old-school utility regulation of telecommunication firms. The President and others are now asking the FCC to treat telecom firms in the same ways telephone companies were treated decades ago. Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, comments.

View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Kansas school spending, per pupil

Kansas school spending visualization updated

visualization-example-small

There’s new data available from Kansas State Department of Education on school spending. I’ve gathered the data, adjusted it for the consumer price index, and now present it in this interactive visualization.

Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Kansas school spending, per pupil
Kansas school spending, per pupil
Kansas school spending, per pupil
Kansas school spending, per pupil
Carl Brewer Wichita Mayor press conference 2014-11-05

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on citizen engagement

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the city council are proud of their citizen engagement efforts. Should they be proud?

The day after the November 2014 election in which Wichita voters rejected a proposed city sales tax, Mayor Carl Brewer and most members of the Wichita City Council held a press conference to discuss the election. A theme of the mayor is that the city reached out to citizens, gathered feedback, and responded. Here are a few of his remarks:

As elected officials, it’s our duty and responsibility to listen to citizens each and every day. And certainly any and every thing that they have to say, whether we agree or disagree, is important to each and every one of us. Anytime they are able to provide us that, we should continue to try to reach out and try to find ways to be able to talk to them. …

We appreciate the engagement process of talking to citizens, finding out what’s important to them. Last night was part of that process. …

We will certainly be engaging them, the individuals in opposition. As you heard me say, the city of Wichita — the city council members — we represent everyone in the entire city. From that standpoint, everyone’s opinion is important to us. As you heard me say earlier, whether we agree or disagree, or just have a neutral position on whatever issue that may be, it is important to us, and we’re certainly willing to listen, and we certainly want their input.

So just how does Wichita city government rate in citizen involvement and engagement? As it turns out, there is a survey on this topic. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Wichita citizen involvement, percent rating excellent or good 2012

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. It also tells us that the city expects to re-survey citizens in 2014. For that year, the city has given itself the lofty target of 40 percent of citizens rating the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement as excellent or good.

In the press conference Mayor Brewer also said “We did the Facebook and we did the Twitter.” Except, the city ignored many questions about the sales tax that were posted on its Facebook wall.

Here’s another example of how the mayor and council welcome citizen involvement. Wichita participates in a program designed to produce lower air fares at the Wichita airport. It probably works. But I’ve done research, and there is another effect. As can be seen in the nearby chart, the number of flights and the number of available seats is declining in Wichita. These measures are also declining on a national level, but they are declining faster in Wichita than for the nation. See also Wichita airport statistics: the visualization and Kansas Affordable Airfares program: Benefits and consequences.

wichita-airport-dashboard-2013-07-29About this time Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to serve on the Wichita Airport Advisory Board. That required city council approval. Only one council member vote to approve my appointment. In its reporting, the Wichita Eagle said: “Mayor Carl Brewer was clear after the meeting: The city wants a positive voice on the airport advisory board, which provides advice to the council on airport-related issues. ‘We want someone who will participate, someone who will contribute,’ Brewer said. ‘We want someone who will make Affordable Airfares better, who will make the airport better. You’ve seen what he does here,’ Brewer went on, referencing Weeks’ frequent appearances before the council to question its ethics and spending habits. ‘So the question becomes, ‘Why?'”

As far as I know, I am the only person who has done this research on the rapidly declining availability of flights and seats available in Wichita. You might think the city would be interested in information like this, and would welcome someone with the ability to produce such research on a citizen board. But that doesn’t matter. From this incident, we learn that the city does not welcome those who bring inconvenient facts to the table.

Then there’s this, as Carrie Rengers reported in the Wichita Eagle in October 2013:

“I don’t normally spend this much time having a conversation with you because I know it doesn’t do any good.”

— Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to conservative blogger Bob Weeks as the two argued over cronyism during Tuesday’s City Council meeting

“I really wasn’t offended today … because the mayor’s been ruder to better people than me.”

— Weeks’ response when asked about the exchange after the meeting

At least Mayor Brewer didn’t threaten to sue me. As we’ve seen, if you ask the mayor to to live up to the policies he himself promotes, he may launch a rant that ends with you being threatened with a lawsuit.

So much for welcoming citizen engagement.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer should stand down on tax projects

By Mike Shatz.

Despite the stunning defeat of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s proposed sales tax increase, and the fact that in April, Brewer’s term limit will expire, he and the City Council are determined to take action in financing the projects that the Wichita voters just shot down.

The sales tax increase was defeated by an overwhelming 62-38 percentage margin, signifying very low support for the Mayor’s plan, largely due to a severe lack of transparency in regards to economic development, and the fact that the four proposed projects (water, transit, street maintenance, and job incentives) were bundled together, forcing voters to either approve or deny the entire package.

Continue reading at Kansas Exposed.

Kansas County Property Taxes, Change in Collections, 1997 to 2013

Kansas property tax data, the interactive visualization

(Note: Based on feedback from readers, I’ve made a change in the way the change in tax collections is reported. Instead of showing 179 percent, I now show 79 percent. This expresses the value as a percentage change rather than a change in index value from 100. The meaning of the data is the same, but now it is expressed in a manner that is easier to understand and consistent with other figures in this visualization.)

Here is an interactive visualization that holds property tax data for Kansas counties from 1997 to 2013.

There are several charts, including line charts of trends and maps of data and changes in data. On the line charts, click on any single county or more to highlight. (Use Ctrl+click to add counties.)

Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Data is from KansasOpenGov, a project of Kansas Policy Institute. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Kansas County Property Taxes, Change in Collections, 1997 to 2013
Kansas County Property Taxes, Change in Collections, 1997 to 2013
newspaper-folded-01

Newspaper editorialists with an ideology? Not in Kansas, surely.

Caution, Kansas newspaper editorialists. Your ideology is showing.

Seeking to minimize the fallout from this week’s elections in Kansas, Kansas City Star editorialist Yael T. Abouhalkah warns the governor that this election didn’t really mean much, after all. (See No, Sam Brownback, Kansans didn’t give you a mandate for more tax cuts.)

This op-ed, like many others that appear in Kansas newspapers, are useful for exposing the ideologies of their writers. Here’s an example from Abouhalkah: “Already, the first round of tax cuts have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated revenues.”

The corollary of this is that Kansans have saved hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. That’s money that has stayed in the productive private sector. For those who believe that government spends wisely and efficiently, I can understand how they think there’s a problem. Everyone else thinks it’s an improvement.

The only framework — ideology? — in which tax cuts are a cost to government is if we believe that government has first claim to citizens’ money. This is a difference in fundamental beliefs. There is an ideology expressed here, one that says government spending is more important than people and their property rights.

Here’s something else from Abouhalkah’s keyboard:

And things could get worse, because the state already is more than $40 million short of its expected revenues for the current fiscal year, which is one-third of the way over.

What does that mean? Budget cuts are ahead, and public education would top the list, given the large amount of spending provided by the state.

This is the standard plaint, also voiced by the editorial board of the Wichita Eagle. Because tax revenues are lower, budget cuts are ahead. Except by budget cuts, these advocates of government spending really mean to say that government services will be cut.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a plan — a policy brief — for balancing the Kansas budget immediately. This plan fully funds the increases in school spending and social welfare caseloads that the non-partisan official state agency Kansas Legislative Research Department projects for the future.

But there’s a problem.

As they lambaste conservatives for blind adherence to ideology, the editorial writers at the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle have their own ideological blind spots. In particular, they’re not likely to read anything produced by Kansas Policy Institute, much less give it the consideration it deserves.

Oh well. It’s all about the kids, after all.

The policy brief I referenced may be downloaded from KPI at A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions or alternatively from Scribd here (may work better on mobile devices). A press release from KPI announcing the policy brief is at 5 Year Budget Plan Outlines Path To Protect Essential Services and Tax Reform.

Sedgwick County Commission precinct map, November 4, 2014

Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage received by Republican candidates by precinct in the two Sedgwick County Commission districts that were contested. In district 4 (the northern district) the Republican Candidate was Richard Ranzau, with Melody McRae-Miller the Democratic Candidate. In district 5 (the southern district) the Republican and Democrat were Jim Howell and Richard Young, respectively.

To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.

Precinct Map, Sedgwick County Commission 4 and 5 2014-11-04

Wichita Eagle Now Consider This

For Wichita Eagle, no immediate Kansas budget solution

The Wichita Eagle shows how its adherence to ideology misinforms Kansans and limits their exposure to practical solutions for governance.

In an op-ed posted the day before election day, the editorial board of the Wichita Eagle wrote of the problems it believes the next Kansas governor will face:

The candidates vying to be Kansas governor have lofty-sounding goals and campaign promises. But here’s the grim reality: Whoever wins Tuesday will spend the next several years trying to fill a budget hole.

And that hole keeps growing deeper. (“Budget hole awaits winner,” November 3, 2014)

The state has to make changes. We’ve cut taxes, but we’ve not yet met the challenge of cutting spending to match. The problem with this op-ed is the assertion that will take several years to fix. Here’s what I left in reply:

I have to disagree. Kansas Policy Institute has examined the Kansas budget and found ways to make several structural changes that would immediately (within one year) balance the Kansas budget. This would preserve existing services and fully fund the increases in K-12 school spending and social service caseloads that Kansas Legislative Research has projected. The policy brief that KPI has prepared on this matter is only ten pages long and not difficult to comprehend.

The changes that KPI recommends are specific adjustments to the way Kansas spends money. They are not the vague calls to eliminate waste that we see politicians campaign on. This is something that Kansas could do if both Democrats and Republicans have the will.

Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute, added this:

Bob is right. And the Eagle is well aware of our budget plan but declines to let readers know that the budget can be balanced without service reductions or tax increases. It won’t take “several years” to fix the budget; our plan could be implemented by passing a few pieces of legislation.

The policy brief I referenced may be downloaded from KPI at A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions or alternatively from Scribd here (may work better on mobile devices). A press release from KPI announcing the policy brief is at 5 Year Budget Plan Outlines Path To Protect Essential Services and Tax Reform.

Old voting place

Voter privacy a subject ready for debate

Campaign methods used in the recent election may spark debate on the information government makes available about voters and their voting behavior.

This election day, after voting, someone posted on their Facebook page: “I’m not comfortable with the GOP observer writing down the names of those who appear to vote.”

Elsewhere on Facebook and other online sites stories like this were common: “I received a palm card that had names and addresses of my neighbors, and whether they voted in the last four elections. This was supposed to motivate me, a woman voter, to vote. It actually freaked me out that someone is distributing that information without my consent.”

The practice referred to in the first comment — poll watching — is common and has been used for decades. The practice objected to by the second writer is new. By sending mail or email informing people of the voting practices of their neighbors, campaigns attempt to shame people into voting. Research suggests shaming is effective in motivating people to vote.

Both major parties and independent groups from all sides of the political spectrum used this technique this year.

From social media and news stories, it seems that people are surprised to learn that their voter information is a public record. It’s important to know that the contents of your ballot — that is, which candidates you voted for — is secret. Here’s what anyone can acquire in Kansas about voters (other states may be different, but I think most are similar):

Voter registration ID number, name, address, mailing address, gender, date of registration, date of birth, telephone number (if the voter supplies it; it is not required) whether the voter is on the permanent advance list, party registration, precinct number, and all the different jurisdictions the voter lives in such as city council district, county commission district, school district, Kansas House and Senate districts, and others.

Then, for each election you can learn whether the voter voted, and by which method (mail, advance in person, polling place). For primary elections, you can learn whether the voter selected a Republican or Democratic ballot.

(I should mention that in Kansas this information is supplied in a clumsy format that is difficult to use. I’ve developed procedures whereby I restructure this data to a relational data model that allows for proper analysis.)

Other organizations may enhance these records with data of their own. For example, in the government-supplied voter file, many telephone numbers are missing. Others are out-of-date, especially as households abandon traditional telephone service for cell phones. So candidates may use services that provide telephone numbers given names and addresses. Or, organizations may add other data purchased from marketing research services, such as magazines subscribed to, etc.

It would be useful to have a debate over whether the fact of being a registered voter and the act of voting should be a public record. This is the first election where people have become widely aware of the nature of the voting information that is available, and how campaigns and advocacy groups use it. I wonder if the new awareness of the availability of this information will deter people from registering and voting?

As far as government transparency and open records is concerned, we can distinguish voting data from other government data. When we ask for records of spending, contracts, correspondence, and the like, we asking for information about government and the actions government has taken.

But voter data is information about action taken by people, not by government. There’s a difference.

Secretary of State vote in Sedgwick County, November 4, 2014

Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach received by precinct. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.

Secretary of State votes in Sedgwick County, November 4, 2014
Secretary of State votes in Sedgwick County, November 4, 2014

Governor vote in Sedgwick County, November 4, 2014

Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage Governor Sam Brownback received by precinct. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.

Governor vote in Sedgwick County, November 4, 2014
Governor vote in Sedgwick County, November 4, 2014
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In election coverage, The Wichita Eagle has fallen short

Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.

The Wichita Eagle last week published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” As of today, the day before the election, I’ve not seen any similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigns for the sales tax. Also, there has been little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.

Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Someone told me that I should be disappointed that such articles have not appeared. I suppose I am, a little. But that is balanced by the increasing awareness of Wichitans that the Wichita Eagle is simply not doing its job.

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 has endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by printing an article 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.

As a privately-owned publication, the Wichita Eagle is free to do whatever it wants. But when readers see obvious neglect of a newspaper’s duty to inform readers, readers are correct to be concerned about the credibility of our state’s largest newspaper.

Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.

Here are some topics and questions the Eagle could have examined in fact-checking articles on the “Yes Wichita” campaign and the City of Wichita’s informational and educational campaign.

The Wichita Eagle could start with itself and explain why it chose a photograph of an arterial street to illustrate a story on a sales tax that is dedicated solely for neighborhood streets. The caption under the photo read “Road construction, such as on East 13th Street between Oliver and I-135, would be part of the projects paid for by a city sales tax.”

Issues regarding “Yes Wichita”

The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s).

The “Yes Wichita” campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true?

The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is there any guarantee that the council will do that?

The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5 percent. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters.

The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates.

“Yes Wichita” says there is a plan for the economic development portion of the sales tax. If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?

Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?

Issues regarding the City of Wichita

Mayor Carl Brewer said the city spent $47,000 of taxpayer funds to send a letter and brochure to voters because he was concerned about misinformation. In light of some of the claims made by the “Yes Wichita” group, does the city have plans to inform voters of that misinformation?

Hasn’t the city really been campaigning in favor of the sales tax? Has the city manager been speaking to groups to give them reasons to vote against the tax? Does the city’s website provide any information that would give voters any reason to consider voting other than yes?

The “Yes Wichita” group refers voters to the city’s website and information to learn about the sales tax issue. Since the “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for the sales tax, it doesn’t seem likely it would refer voters to information that would be negative, or even neutral, towards the tax. Is this evidence that the city is, in fact, campaigning for the sales tax?

The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5%. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters. If “Yes Wichita” is wrong, will the city send a mailer to correct the misinformation?

The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” But the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports show that in 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. Is this misinformation that needs to be corrected?

The city says that the ASR project is a proven solution that will provide for Wichita’s water needs for a long time. Has the city told voters that the present ASR system had its expected production rate cut in half? Has the city presented to voters that the present ASR system is still in its commissioning phase, and that new things are still being learned about how the system operates?

The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is the any guarantee that the council will do that?

If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?

Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?

The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? If this advertisement by “Yes Wichita” is misleading, will the city send an educational mailing to correct this?

The Yes Wichita campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true? If not, will the city do anything to correct this misinformation?

Campaign activity at the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

Wichita Downtown Development Corporation campaigns for higher taxes, paid for by taxes

Campaign activity by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation appears to be contrary to several opinions issued by Kansas Attorneys General regarding the use of public funds in elections.

While the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation presents itself as a non-profit organization that is independent of the City of Wichita, it receives 95 percent of its revenue from taxes, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. While Kansas has no statutes or court cases prohibiting the use of public funds for electioneering, there are at least two Kansas Attorney General opinions on this topic.

One, opinion 93-125, states in its synopsis: “The public purpose doctrine does not encompass the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate. However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted upon by the electorate.”

Campaign activity at the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.
Campaign activity at the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.
The “governing body” in this instance is the Wichita City Council.

While some governing bodies spend taxpayer funds to present information about ballot measures, this is not the case with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It explicitly campaigns in favor of the issue. It displays pro-sales tax campaign signs at its office. It publicly endorsed passage of the sales tax.

A more recent Kansas Attorney General opinion, 2001-13, holds this language: “While the Kansas appellate courts have not directly addressed the issue of whether public funds can be used to promote a position during an election, there are a number of cases from other jurisdictions that conclude that a public entity cannot do so.”

The opinion cites a court case: “Underlying this uniform judicial reluctance to sanction the use of public funds for election campaigns rests an implicit recognition that such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions. A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”

The opinion reaffirms 93-125, stating: “In Attorney General Opinion No. 93-125, Attorney General Robert T. Stephan concluded that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate a city governing body’s position on a matter that is before the electorate.”

Given these Kansas Attorney General opinions, and considering good public policy, Wichita voters need to ask: Should an organization that is funded 95 percent by taxes be campaigning for a ballot issue?

Religion and politics; two subjects that divide friends and family members alike

By Eileen Umbehr, wife of Libertarian Candidate for Kansas Governor Keen Umbehr
November 1, 2014

Keen and Eileen Umbehr
Keen and Eileen Umbehr
As this campaign draws to a close, my heart is heavy. Not so much because Keen was treated as a second-class candidate who didn’t deserve a seat at the table with his Democrat and Republican opponents, but because of the way I’ve seen God used as a selling point in politics.

For example, Keen is solidly pro-life. He believes in freedom as long as you do not cause harm to another human being, and a baby is a human being. But because he also acknowledges the reality that unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned women maintain their right to choose, he is not considered pro-life enough.

The issue of same-sex marriage has also been deeply divisive and been used to garner votes. How a candidate may feel about two members of the same sex uniting in marriage is separate from his or her duty as a government official to ensure that all laws apply equally to all citizens. Could the government decide not to issue gay people a license to teach, cut hair, practice law, or engage in business?

What each of us believe and the tenets we choose to follow in our private lives is a personal matter. While Keen and I are both Christians who try to live according to the principles set forth in the Bible, where we differ from many of our fellow Christians is that we don’t believe it is our right — or the government’s right — to impose any particular religious belief on anyone. Even God doesn’t do that. If He did, wouldn’t He simply force everyone to believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins so they would all go to Heaven?

Keen is a strict constitutionalist. He believes in the First Amendment right of free speech even when it means that the Phelps’ family can spew messages of hate, causing immeasurable harm to families burying their loved ones. And he believes in the Sixth Amendment right to counsel even when the accused may be guilty of a heinous crime.

When it comes to the Fourteenth Amendment, there are many who feel it should not apply to gays wanting to marry because homosexuality is classified as a sin in the Bible. But isn’t fornication and sex before marriage also classified as a sin in the Bible? And yet no one is suggesting that folks who have engaged in these acts should be denied a marriage license.

Someone posted the following statement about Keen on a liberty-based Facebook page: “Don’t be deceived, this guy is pumping for same sex marriage.” Keen posted the following reply: “I am not ‘pumping’ for same sex marriage, I am ‘pumping’ for adhering to the Constitution which requires equal protection under the law. As long as the State of Kansas is in the business of issuing licenses — whether they be drivers’ licenses, marriage licenses or business licenses — they cannot discriminate against individuals on the basis of religion, gender, or race. How each individual chooses to live their lives is their business, not the government’s.”

In conclusion, if we really want to protect religious freedom in our country, then we should elect candidates who will defend the rights of all citizens to practice whichever religion they choose. That is true religious liberty.

But then, a candidate like that wouldn’t be considered Christian enough.

"Yes Wichita" Facebook post. Click for larger version.

Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s)

The “Yes Wichita” campaign group makes a Facebook post with false information to Wichita voters. Will Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer send a mailer to Wichitans warning them of this misleading information?

"Yes Wichita" Facebook post. Click for larger version.
“Yes Wichita” Facebook post. Click for larger version.
Here’s a post from the “Yes Wichita” Facebook page. This group campaigns in favor of the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax that is on the November ballot.

The claim made in this post is incorrect and misleading.

The sales tax plan regarding water calls for the augmentation of one pipe, as shown in this table from the city’s plan. The plan does not say, or imply, replacing pipes, as this advertisement indicates.

The plan also says that sales tax revenue “Builds an additional pipeline.” Not “Replace 60 year old water pipes” as promoted to voters by “Yes Wichita.” The plan builds an additional parallel pipeline.

Wichita Water Supply Plan Capital Costs
Wichita Water Supply Plan Capital Costs
Plus, the pipe that is the subject of the city’s water plan is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement.

This isn’t the first time “Yes Wichita” has tried to mislead Wichita voters on the replacement of water pipes. See Misleading Wichita voters on water pipes.

Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.

Wichita to consider tax exemptions

A Wichita company asks for property and sales tax exemptions on the same day Wichita voters decide whether to increase the sales tax, including the tax on groceries.

This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing concerning the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. The purpose of the bonds is to allow Spirit to avoid paying property taxes on taxable property purchased with bond proceeds for a period of five years. The abatement may then be extended for another five years. Additionally, Spirit will not pay sales taxes on the purchased property.

City documents state that the property tax abatement will be shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts:

City $81,272
State $3,750
County $73,442
USD 259 $143,038

No value is supplied for the amount of sales tax that may be avoided. The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:

City of Wichita 1.98 to one
General Fund 1.78 to one
Debt Service 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas 28.23 to one

The City of Wichita has a policy where economic development incentives should have a benefit cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater for the city to participate, although there are many loopholes the city regularly uses to approve projects with smaller ratios. Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses a loophole.

We have to wonder why the City of Wichita imposes upon the Derby school district an economic development incentive that costs the Derby schools $143,038 per year, with no payoff? Generally the cost of economic development incentives are shouldered because there is the lure of a return, be it real or imaginary. But this is not the case for the Derby school district. This is especially relevant because the school district bears, by far, the largest share of the cost of the tax abatement.

Of note, the Derby school district extends into Wichita, including parts of city council districts 2 and 3. These districts are represented by Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin, respectively.

The city’s past experience

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Facebook 2012-01-04Spirit Aerosystems is a spin-off from Boeing and has benefited from many tax abatements over the years. In a written statement in January 2012 at the time of Boeing’s announcement that it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer wrote “Our disappointment in Boeing’s decision to abandon its 80-year relationship with Wichita and the State of Kansas will not diminish any time soon. The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.”

Along with the mayor’s statement the city released a compilation of the industrial revenue bonds authorized for Boeing starting in 1979. The purpose of the IRBs is to allow Boeing to escape paying property taxes, and in many cases, sales taxes. According to the city’s compilation, Boeing was granted property tax relief totaling $657,992,250 from 1980 to 2017. No estimate for the amount of sales tax exemption is available. I’ve prepared a chart showing the value of property tax abatements in favor of Boeing each year, based on city documents. There were several years where the value of forgiven tax was over $40 million.

Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.
Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.
Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives:

Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.

Not all the Boeing incentives started with Wichita city government action. But the biggest benefit to Boeing, which is the property tax abatements through industrial revenue bonds, starts with Wichita city council action. By authorizing IRBs, the city council cancels property taxes not only for the city, but also for the county, state, and school district.

Dave Trabert WichitaLiberty TV 2014-11-02

WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute on the Kansas budget

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute talks about KPI’s recent policy brief “A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 64, broadcast November 2, 2014.

The policy brief may be downloaded from KPI at A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions or alternatively from Scribd here (may work better on mobile devices). A press release from KPI announcing the policy brief is at 5 Year Budget Plan Outlines Path To Protect Essential Services and Tax Reform.

Wichita property tax mill levy 1994 to 2013 chart

Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates

At a forum on October 28, “Yes Wichita” co-chair Moji Fanimokun told the audience that “Property taxes haven’t been raised in over 21 years in Wichita.”

Wichita property tax mill levy 1994 to 2013This claim — that the mill levy has not been raised for a long time — is commonly made by the city and “Yes Wichita” supporters. It’s useful to take a look at actual numbers to see what has happened.

In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen, contrary to the claims of “Yes Wichita.”

Wichita property tax mill levy 1994 to 2013 chartApart from the focus on the mill levy, voters may want to know that the dollars of property tax the city collects has risen. This growth comes from new property being created (although old property disappears, too), and from increases in assessed value of existing property. From 1994 to 2011 property tax revenue increased from $58.672 to $119.745 million, or 104 percent. We didn’t experience anything near that rate of growth in the combination of population or inflation. It’s true that these values have slowed in growth or even declined in recent years. But that’s a symptom of the problem: When tax revenue increases, so to does spending, and we become accustomed to a certain level. When revenue increases don’t keep pace with history, government finds it difficult to make the necessary cuts.

While campaigning for higher sales tax, the Wichita Chamber president seeks an extension of his exemption from that tax

This is awkward.

The material below is from the agenda for the October 28, 2014 Wichita City Council meeting. It appeared on the consent agenda, which means it was handled in bulk with other items. The meeting minutes don’t show that there was any discussion on this item.

Without some background information, it may be difficult to interpret this material, so I’ll do it for you.

High Touch Technologies in downtown Wichita, with sign calling for higher sales tax.
High Touch Technologies in downtown Wichita, with sign calling for higher sales tax.
There is a company in Wichita named High Touch Technologies. Last year it asked the city council for relief from paying property taxes and sales taxes to help pay for the renovation of its headquarters building. Now it has asked for an extension of this tax relief period.

Shortly after receiving the tax exemptions the company CEO — a man named Wayne Chambers — became chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

This year the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is campaigning for a higher sales tax in Wichita.

Did you know that Kansas is one of only 14 states that apply sales tax to groceries? And that only Mississippi has a higher statewide sales tax rate on groceries than does Kansas?

I told you this is awkward.

Here’s an excerpt from the relevant city document.

On November 19, 2013 the City Council approved a one-year Letter of Intent for the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds (“IRBs”) in an amount not to exceed $2,000,000 for the purpose of financing the cost of acquiring and remodeling a 106,000 square foot office building located at 110 S. Main in downtown Wichita, for use as a corporate headquarters for High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC is the real estate holding entity that acquired the building and will sublease space to High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC originally intended to finance the acquisition and renovation with one bond issue. It is now planning on two bonds issues, one in late 2014 and one in late 2015. The first bond issue will finance the acquisition of the building and repairs to the elevators. The second will finance the cost of tenant improvements to occur in 2015. No additional bonding capacity is being requested. The current Letter of Intent and sales tax exemption expire November 19, 2014. One Twenty South Main, LLC is requesting an extension of the Letter of Intent and the sales tax exemption through December 31, 2015 to accommodate all work contemplated as part of this project.

Wichita proposed sales tax explanation on water

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is concerned about misinformation

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is concerned about misinformation being spread regarding the proposed Wichita sales tax.

In November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a sales tax of one cent per dollar. The largest intended purpose of the funds is to create a new water supply. Set aside for a moment the question whether Wichita needs a new water source. Set aside the question of whether ASR is the best way to provide a new water source. What’s left is how to pay for it.

In its informational material, the city presents two choices for paying for a new water supply: Either (a) raise funds through the sales tax, or (b) borrow funds that Wichitans will pay back on their water bills, along with a pile of interest.

Wichita proposed sales tax explanation on water

As you can see in the nearby material prepared by the city, the costs are either $250 million (sales tax) or $471 million (borrow and pay interest). The preference of the city is evident: Sales tax. The “Yes Wichita ” group agrees.

Are there other alternatives to these two choices? Could we raise the funds through water bills over the same five-year period as the proposed sales tax? Would this let commercial and industrial water users participate in the costs of a new water supply?

Last week I posed this question at a Wichita water town hall meeting. Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King responded yes, this is possible, adding “I think you’re right. I think that there’s more than one alternative to funding.” A video excerpt of this meeting is available here.

The response of the city’s public works director contradicts the possibilities the city presents to voters. Is this an example of the type of misinformation the mayor wants to clear up?

Last week Mayor Carl Brewer told the Wichita Eagle “We decided to do a mailer because there was a lot of misinformation that was going out where people didn’t quite understand what was going on. By doing the mailer, we’re able to educate everyone.”

The city spent $47,000 sending the mailer. But as we see, it has only contributed to the misinformation.

The city’s threat to voters

Here’s what is happening. City hall gives us two choices. It’s either (a) do what we want (sales tax), or (b) we’ll do something that’s really bad (borrow and pay interest). Wichita voters shouldn’t settle for this array of choices.

Let me emphasize that. The city’s informational material says if voters don’t pass the sales tax, the city will do something unwise. But the city did that very same bad thing to pay for the current ASR project, that is, borrow money and pay interest. But now the city says pass the sales tax or we will do something bad to you. Pass the sales tax or the city will issue long-term debt and you will pay a lot of interest.

Pass the sales tax, or we will do again what we did to pay for the current ASR project. And that would be bad for you and the city.

Are there other alternatives for raising $250 million for a new water source (assuming it is actually needed)? Of course there are. The best way would be to raise water bills by $250 million over five years. In this way, water users pay for the new water supply, and we avoid the long-term debt that city council members and “Yes Wichita” seem determined to avoid.

Water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $250 million over five years. The city could decide to raise rates by different amounts for different classes of water users. The city could adjust its tiered residential rate structure to be more in line with the average of other large cities. (See Wichita water rates seen as not encouraging conservation.) But the total cost of the higher water bills would be exactly the same as the cost of the sales tax: $250 million.

It’s important to have water users pay for a new water supply. The benefit is that water users will become acutely aware of the costs of a new water supply. That awareness is difficult to achieve. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program. Almost all of that was paid for with long-term debt, the same debt that the city now says is bad.

Paying for a new water supply through water bills would let commercial and industrial users participate in paying the cost of the project. These water users usually don’t pay a lot of sales tax. A restaurant, for example, does not pay sales tax on the food ingredients it purchases. An aircraft manufacturer does not pay sales tax on the raw materials and component parts it buys. But these companies do have a water bill. Yet, the city recommends that low income households pay more sales tax on their groceries. The city says this is the best way to pay for a new water supply to protect our lawns and golf courses during a drought.

Yes Wichita logo

‘Yes Wichita’ co-chairs serve up contradicting plans for sales tax revenue

At two forums on the proposed Wichita sales tax, leaders of the “Yes Wichita” group provided contradicting visions for plans for economic development spending, and for its oversight.

On Tuesday the League of Women Voters — Wichita Metro sponsored a forum on the proposed one cent per dollar sales tax that appears on the November ballot. I appeared on behalf of the Coalition for a Better Wichita, a group that opposed the proposed sales tax. At the forum, a member of the audience wondered about whether proceeds of the sales tax would be given to Wichita State University. Speaking on behalf of “Yes Wichita,” one of its co-chairs Harvey Sorensen replied “there’s been no ask from Wichita State, there’s been no commitment to Wichita State.” When the questioner pushed back, Sorensen named several infrastructure needs of the WSU innovation campus that might be funded by sales tax revenue. Later, he said “there really have been no commitments” and challenged the questioner to “read me the data.” (For audio of this forum, click here.)

The next day television station KCTU sponsored a debate in which I also participated. Michael Monteferrante represented “Yes Wichita.” He is a co-chair of that campaign. In response to a question, he said of the $80 million of sales tax dollars earmarked for economic development and jobs, “32 million dollars of it will be going to Wichita State University to work on fantastic training for our workforce. Another 32 million will go to just training some of the workforce in terms of our elimination of aerospace jobs. And just 16 million of the 80 million dollars will be going to retention and jobs and areas that will require the oversight that Mr. Weeks is talking about.” (For audio of this event, click here.)

These two co-chairs of the “Yes Wichita” campaign offered contradictory answer to questions about the plans for the economic development aspect of the proposed sales tax. Coupled with Wichita’s hiring two weeks ago of a firm to form an economic development plan for Wichita, citizens are rightly concerned to doubt that the city has a plan for the sales tax.

As far as the promised oversight, citizens might also be alarmed to learn of Monteferrante’s statement that only $16 million of the spending requires oversight.

Wichita proposed sales tax ballot language example

Another Wichita sales tax forum

On Wednesday October 29 KCTU Television held a televised debate on the issue of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. Michael Monteferrante represented “Yes Wichita.” He is a co-chair of that campaign. I represented Coalition for a Better Wichita, substituting for Jennifer Baysinger, who was not able to attend. R.J. Dickens was the moderator.

This is the audio portion of the broadcast. It is about one hour in length. It represents the complete program.

Wichita proposed sales tax background example

Wichita sales tax forum

Voice for Liberty Radio 150x150On Tuesday October 28 the League of Women Voters — Wichita Metro held a lunchtime forum on the issue of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. Harvey Sorensen and Moji Fanimokun represented “Yes Wichita.” Both are co-chairs of that campaign. I represented Coalition for a Better Wichita, substituting for Jennifer Baysinger, who was not able to attend. Paul Babich was the moderator.

The audio presentation is about 53 minutes long. It represents the complete forum.

In Wichita, the public deserves and should demand answers

Following, from Kansas Senator Michael O’Donnell, a discussion of issues surrounding the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax. O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council for nearly two years before resigning to serve in the senate.

Kansas Senator Michael O'Donnell
Kansas Senator Michael O’Donnell
We are less than one week from an incredibly important election cycle where those of us in Wichita will vote for our future in a 4, 5 or 6 year timeframe; Governor for 4, Sales tax for 5 and Senator for 6. Before we go to the polls, the Wichita City Council needs to level with the public and answer critical questions, if not, they continue the “politics-as-usual” game that has been exhaustingly prevalent during the all-too-disappointing Brewer administration. Is City Hall hoping to “run out the clock,” praying the public will become so disengaged with the election that somehow Wichitans will think the city has been straight-forward? Maybe I am being too critical, but it’s hard not to be critical when I experienced the “you can’t fight City Hall” realities directly. I saw first-hand how City Hall can be a barrier to quality of life instead of helping to enable it. Here are a list of 5 questions — one for each year of the tax — we need to have answered (and should have had answered long ago):

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Kansas school spending and achievement

Following, from Dr. Walt Chappell, a discussion of Kansas school spending. Chappell served on the Kansas State Board of Education from 2009 to 2012.

The truth is, Governor Brownback and most Kansas legislators have worked hard to get more money into K-12 classrooms and have increased funding to educate our children each of the last four years. Claims that funds for schools have been cut, supposedly causing test scores to drop, schools to close, class sizes to go up and college tuition to increase are totally false.

apple-chalkboard-books-2Yes, there was a large reduction of $419 million to fund Kansas schools in 2009 when Mark Parkinson was Governor. The 2008 Great Recession hit Americans hard and state tax revenues dropped like a rock. Then, in 2011, the Federal government stopped sending emergency TARP funds to all states.

The Kansas Legislature made up the $219 million in Federal cuts by raising the amount spent from state tax revenues by $223 million. Brownback signed that budget bill.

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ASR website as it appeared in January 2012. Click for larger version.

Wichita wants to expand water project, but abandons its website

As the City of Wichita recommends voters spend $250 million on the expansion of a water project, the project’s accompanying website was abandoned, and has now disappeared.

ASR website as it appeared in January 2012. Click for larger version.
ASR website as it appeared in January 2012. Click for larger version.
The Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project is a Wichita water utility system. So far its cost has been $247 million. As part of the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax, another $250 million is earmarked to be spent on its expansion.

To help Wichitans learn about the ASR system, the city built a website at wichitawaterproject.org. Nearby is how the front page of that website appeared in January 2012. As you can see, it’s an attractive design. It holds much information about how ASR works and why the city says we need it.

ASR website as it appears today. Click for larger version.
ASR website as it appears today. Click for larger version.
Here’s how the same website looks today. Around the middle of October the website went “dark.” Prior to this shutdown, it appears that the last time the website was significantly updated was December 2011.

What has happened since January 2012 and now? First, a major city investment was completed. That’s Phase II of the ASR project. The ASR website says Phase II is expected to cost $220 million. But the ASR website was not updated to track the progress of Phase II during its completion and commissioning stages.

The second thing that’s happened since the ASR website was abandoned is that the city has decided that expansion of the ASR system is the best way to provide for future Wichita water supply. In November voters will decide whether a one cent per dollar sales tax will be implemented, with 63 percent of the funds used to pay for ASR expansion.

So the ASR system is important. If the city proceeds with its plan, about one-half billion dollars will have been spent on the project, plus an unknown amount of financing charges from the city’s decision to pay for the current system with long-term debt. ($500 million is about $1,300 for each Wichita resident.)

Here’s an indication of the city’s priorities. The city’s communication staff has time to produce videos about something called “Ghoulish Gala.” (It’s a fundraising event for Botanica.) The city has the time and capability to produce and post news releases on items like a Beatles tribute concert coming to Century II.

But what about something really important, like the spending of half a billion dollars on a water project? That website has been abandoned.

City Government Relations Director Dale Goter explained to me that a staff person had been updating the ASR website, but that person is no longer available.

The handling of the ASR website represents a management failure. The ASR website was attractive. It had a lot of functionality. Sites like that are somewhat complex and may require people with experience and training for their creation and updating.

But citizens need basic information about their government. Websites that are simple and functional are easy to build, maintain, and update. There are systems like wordpress.com where websites can be hosted at no charge. It takes about five minutes to take a press release or budget document and post it on a WordPress site.

But that’s not what the city decided to do. It went with a fancy design instead of a simple and functional design that could be maintained and updated by city communications or public works staff. Now, that website has disappeared, right at the time the ASR system is in the center of the news.

I wonder: Was the ASR website really needed, if the city did not care that it was abandoned?

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