Kansas cuts taxes and expands the economy

Ernie Goss is Jack A. MacAllister Chair in Regional Economics and Professor of Economics at Creighton University and an expert on the Midwest economy. Following is his assessment of the Kansas economy in recent years. The full report is here.

Kansas Cuts Taxes and Expands the Economy: Earnings Growth Four Times That of U.S. and Neighbors Since Passage

From the Mainstreet Economy Report, Creighton University, October 2014.

In 2012, Kansas Governor Brownback pushed the Legislature to whack individual tax rates by 25%, to repeal the tax on sole proprietorships, and to increase the standard deduction. In 2013, the Legislature cut taxes again. Since passage in 2012, how has the Kansas economy responded to these dramatic tax cuts? Post Tax-Cut Earnings: Since QIV, 2012, Kansas grew its personal income by 2.92% which was higher than the U.S. gain of 2.85%, and was greater than the growth experienced by each state bordering Kansas, except Colorado. Additionally in terms of average weekly earnings, Kansas experienced an increase of 4.82% which was almost four times that of the U.S., more than four times that of Missouri, approximately seven times that of Nebraska, and nearly four times that of Oklahoma.

Of Kansas’ neighbors, only Colorado with 4.82% average weekly wage growth outperformed Kansas.

Post Tax-Cut Job Performance: Between the last quarter of 2012 and August 2014, the U.S. and each of Kansas’ neighbors, except for Nebraska, experienced higher job growth than Kansas. However, much of Kansas’ lower job growth can be explained by the fact that during this period, Kansas reduced state and local government jobs by 1.4% while all of Kansas’ neighbors and the combined 50 U.S. states increased state and local government employment. In terms of unemployment, Kansas August 2014 joblessness rate was 4.9% compared to rates of 6.1% for the U.S., 5.1% for Colorado, 6.3% for Missouri, 3.6% for Nebraska, and 4.7% for Oklahoma.

Kansas job and income data since the tax cut show that, except for Colorado, the state economy has outperformed, by a wide margin, that of each of its neighbors and the U.S. To remain competitive, expect Kansas’ neighbors to reduce state and local taxes in the years ahead. Ernie Goss.

Kansas legislators: Don’t raise taxes

Letter from ALEC to Kansas lawmakers. Click to read.
Letter from ALEC to Kansas lawmakers. Click to read.
To balance the budget, there are many things Kansas lawmakers could do other than raising taxes.

In congratulating Kansas lawmakers for passing a pro-growth tax cut, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) reminds everyone that there is more than one way to balance a budget. Spending needs to be addressed:

However, as budget realities need to be addressed, the spending side of the fiscal coin is a good place to start. ALEC has conducted non-partisan research on how states can make government more efficient. In the State Budget Reform Toolkit, case studies and policy options are examined that allow the state to maintain core services of government at a lower cost. One example is to eliminate positions in state agencies that have been vacant for more than six months, or to adopt a sunset review process for state agencies, boards and commissions. These examples and many more can be found on our website for your review.

Some of the ideas in the State Budget Reform Toolkit have been considered and rejected by the Kansas Legislature. Others have not been considered, as far as I know. Most take more than one year to implement. These ideas remind us that when the Kansas Legislature and Governor Brownback cut taxes for everyone, they did not start planning for lower spending.

In Kansas and Wichita, there’s a reason for slow growth

If we in Kansas and Wichita wonder why our economic growth is slow and our economic development programs don’t seem to be producing results, there is data to tell us why: Our tax rates are too high.

In 2012 the Tax Foundation released a report that examines the tax costs on business in the states and in selected cities in each state. Location Matters Tax Foundation coverThe news for Kansas is worse than merely bad, as our state couldn’t have performed much worse: Kansas ranks 47th among the states for tax costs for mature business firms, and 48th for new firms. (Starting in 2013, Kansas income tax rates are lower, and we would expect that Kansas would rank somewhat better if the study was updated.)

The report is Location Matters: A Comparative Analysis of State Tax Costs on Business.

The study is unusual in that it looks at the impact of state tax burden on mature and new firms. This, according to report authors, “allows us to understand the effects of state tax incentives compared to a state’s core tax system.” In further explanation, the authors write: “The second measure is for the tax burden faced by newly established operations, those that have been in operation less than three years. This represents a state’s competitiveness after we have taken into account the various tax incentive programs it makes available to new investments.”

The report also looks at the tax costs for specific types of business firms. For Kansas, some individual results are better than overall, but still not good. For a mature corporate headquarters, Kansas ranks 30th. For locating a new corporate headquarters — one that would benefit from tax incentive programs — Kansas ranked 42nd. For a mature research and development facility, 46th; while new is ranked 49th. For a mature retail store the rank is 38th, while new is ranked 45th.

There are more categories. Kansas ranks well in none.

The report also looked at two cities in each state, a major city and a mid-size city. For Kansas, the two cities are Wichita and Topeka.

Among the 50 cities chosen, Wichita ranks 30th for a mature corporate headquarters, but 42nd for a new corporate headquarters.

For a mature research and development facility, Wichita ranks 46th, and 49th for a new facility.

For a mature and new retail store, Wichita ranks 38th and 45th, respectively.

For a mature and new call center, Wichita ranks 43rd and 47th, respectively.

Kansas tax cost compared to neighbors
Kansas tax cost compared to neighbors
In its summary for Kansas, the authors note the fecklessness of Kansas economic development incentives: “Kansas offers among the most generous property tax abatements and investment tax credits across most firm types, yet these incentives seem to have little impact on the state’s rankings for new operations.”

It’s also useful to compare Kansas to our neighbors. The comparison is not favorable for Kansas.

The record in Wichita

Earlier this year Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition issued its annual report on its economic development activities for 2014. GWEDC says its efforts created or retained 424 jobs.

gwedc-office-operationsThis report shows us that power of government to influence economic development is weak. GWEDC’s information said these jobs were for the geographical area of Sedgwick County. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in Sedgwick County in 2014 was 247,614 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.14 percent of the labor force. This is a vanishingly small fraction. It is statistical noise. Other economic events overwhelm these efforts.

GWEDC complains of not being able to compete because Wichita has few incentives. This is not true, as Wichita has many incentives to offer. Nonetheless, GWEDC says it could have created or retained another 3,010 jobs if adequate incentives had been available. Adding those jobs to the jobs it claims credit for amounts to 1.39 percent of the labor force, which is still a small number that is overwhelmed by other events.

Our tax costs are high

The report by the Tax Foundation helps us understand one reason why the economic development efforts of GWEDC, Sedgwick County, and Wichita are not working well: Our tax costs are too high.

While economic development incentives can help reduce the cost of taxes for selected firms, incentives don’t help the many firms that don’t receive them. In fact, the cost of these incentives is harmful to other firms. The Tax Foundation report points to this harm: “While many state officials view tax incentives as a necessary tool in their state’s ability to be competitive, others are beginning to question the cost-benefit of incentives and whether they are fair to mature firms that are paying full freight. Indeed, there is growing animosity among many business owners and executives to the generous tax incentives enjoyed by some of their direct competitors.”

It seems in Wichita that the thinking of our leaders has not reached the level of maturity required to understand that targeted incentives have great cost and damage the business climate. Instead of creating an environment in which all firms have a chance to thrive, government believes it can identify firms that are subsidy-worthy — at the exclusion of others.

But there is one incentive that can be offered to all firms: Reduce tax costs for everyone. The policy of reducing tax costs or granting incentives to the selected few is not working. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led companies in Wichita and Kansas to escape hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policycritical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Wichita and Kansas has been pursuing and Wichita’s leaders want to ramp up: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances, except to reduce the cost of government for everyone.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas legislative failure, newspaper editorials, and classical liberalism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The failure of Kansas lawmakers to reform state spending means you will pay. A newspaper editorial excuses bad behavior by government. Then: What do classical liberals and libertarians believe? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 85, broadcast May 24, 2015.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth: Show us the math

Why won’t Kansas Center for Economic Growth show its calculations and explain its data sources? Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute explains.

KCEG misleads on job growth — again

By Dave Trabert

The latest misleading claim on job growth from the Kansas Center for Economic Growth is loaded with misleading and irrelevant information; they don’t fully disclose their methodology and at this writing they have ignored our request to explain it. Sadly, this is not the first, second or even third time that KCEG has published misleading information and declined to produce documentation.

Here are the questions we posed to Annie McKay, executive director at KCEG:

We received a ‘read’ receipt but no reply, so we attempted to replicate their methodology to arrive at what they call “private sector job growth since tax changes” which they measure between January 2013 and March 2015. Based on tests of Kansas and national data, it appears that KCEG is using seasonally adjusted jobs but we couldn’t find a 6-state region including all of Kansas’ neighbors to match their number.

KCEG has the national average increasing 5.2% and Kansas 3.8%, so we assume they are comparing January 2013 to March 2015. This is not a true measure of post-tax reform activity, however; the base month of a point-to-point comparison should be the last month of the old tax system, which was December 2012. Comparing Kansas to the 5-state region does show that Kansas is slightly behind (4.0% vs. 4.2%) but by not showing the performance of individual states, KCEG hides the fact that Kansas beat three of its four neighbors.   

While Kansas is outperforming three of its neighboring states on this measurement, point-to-point comparisons are problematic; one or both points can be unusual spikes or declines, making the data less reliable.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes average annual employment, which minimizes the impact of any single data point.

The more stable comparisons of average annual employment show job growth trends for Kansas to be much more competitive since tax reform. Private sector jobs grew just 2.2% between 1998 and 2012, which ranked Kansas at #38, but Kansas moved up to #27 in 2013 and last year moved up again to #21. That’s still not good enough and it will take perhaps another decade to fully understand the impact of tax reform, but the early trend is very encouraging. Kansas still trails Colorado, but has improved its competitive position. The table below shows Kansas trailed Colorado by a factor of five (2.2% vs. 10.6%) between 1998 and 2012 but has since closed the gap to a factor of two.

KCEG noted that Utah and Idaho have higher taxes on “the wealthy” and better job growth than Kansas, but of course they don’t tell the whole story. Kansas does have a lower marginal rate than both states but that is a recent development; Kansas was higher than Utah until 2013 and much closer to Idaho when the marginal was 6.45%. Kansas’ lower rates are helping to reverse trends but it will take much more time to catch up to states that historically grew much faster – like Utah and Idaho.

Here’s the rest of the story that KCEG doesn’t want you to know. According to the Tax Foundation, the corporate income tax rate in Kansas is 40% higher than Utah’s and just slightly below Idaho’s.  State sales tax rates are comparable but Kansas has much higher local sales tax rates. 

Utah and Idaho also have much lower property taxes on commercial and industrial real estate. Kansas has the 10th highest effective tax rate on urban property and the worst in the nation on rural property!   Part of the reason that Kansas has very high effective tax rates is baked into the State Constitution, where Commercial and Industrial property is assessed at 25% of appraised value but Residential is assessed at 11.5%.

The other major factor driving up property taxes is that Kansas has too much government.  Kansas and Utah have about the same population but Kansas has 1,997 cities, counties and townships whereas Utah has only 274.  Idaho has just 244.  Extra government means extra government employees (and higher taxes to pay for all of that government); Kansas is ranked #47 in government employees per 10,000 residents (i.e., the 3rd worst in the nation) but Utah is ranked #15 and Idaho is #9.

These truths about private sector job growth and relevant competitive issues with Utah and Idaho are typical of KCEG efforts to mislead citizens and legislators – and probably explain why they refuse to engage KPI in public debates on tax, spending and education issues.

In Topeka, to raise taxes, scare the voters

The Topeka public school district is using scare tactics to persuade voters to raise taxes. David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute explains.

Topeka schools use scare tactics to justify LOB election

By David Dorsey

The USD 501 school board voted unanimously on April 29 to hold an election to increase the district’s local option budget (LOB). They claim the $3 million that could be raised with voter approval is necessary “in the face of state budget cuts.”  The district held three public meetings to discuss how to deal with what they called a $1.6 million cut in state funding this year and $2 million over the next two years. KPI has shown in this blog that Topeka Public Schools will actually get a total increase in state aid of 6.5% over the three years of the new block grant funding law.

But that’s not how a school district sees things. To the educrats, a cut means getting a smaller increase than they had planned.

If I were the suspicious type, I might think the meetings were just a ruse, using the implicit threat of cutting school programs in order to scare the public into supporting an override election to raise more money.

The purpose here is not to revisit the increase vs. decrease debate. The purpose here is to discuss the spending side of the equation and show just how easy it would be for USD 501 to meet their self-defined shortfalls – and without having any impact on students.

First, here’s a little perspective on the realities between what is budgeted and how much is actually  spent. The adjoining table shows the millions that have gone unexpended for the last four years. Given this recent history, it’s hard to imagine that a $1.6 million “cut” from the budgeted $203 million 2014-15 budget is even a concern, let alone cause for an election.

Even if one concedes the point of a revenue shortfall, should the taxpayers of USD 501 (in the name of full disclosure, I do not live in the district, so I don’t have a dog in this hunt) shell out more money to the district? Or could the district find ways to reduce spending and operate more efficiently (a concept foreign to any government organization)? As a former employee of USD 501 I can attest that finding a savings of what amounts to $114 per pupil should be pretty easy to accomplish.

I offer these three opportunities that would reduce spending far in excess of what the district calls a cut and save local taxpayers the burden of providing more financial support to a district that won’t look seriously at reducing spending.

Reduce a bloated administration

As the table shows, Topeka Public Schools has the highest per pupil administrative costs of the 25 largest districts in the state. A glance at their own budget document reveals the costs are trending significantly higher. The 2013-14 costs were a 14% increase from the previous year. The USD 501 2014-15 budget for administration and support of $28,301,407 is a whopping 25% higher than 2013-14! That’s an increase from two years ago of 41.8% when administration costs were just under $20 million.

Some of that increase can be explained by the decision made by the USD 501 school board to drastically increase salaries of the administrative staff by $435,400 in the summer of 2013 in the name of being competitive with other districts. Perhaps if USD 501 was “competitive” in terms of administrative costs per pupil, there would be no issue.

 I’m guessing these facts didn’t come up at the public meetings.

Put literacy and math coaches back in the classroom

Little-known to the public is that in every USD 501 school there are licensed teachers who do NOT teach students. They are known as math coaches and literacy coaches. Each school has at least one coach and most have more than one. What is their job, you ask? They are in the buildings to help classroom teachers do a better job. Furthermore, USD 501 forbids the coaches from directly teaching students, except in special circumstances. They are there to teach the teachers.

There are several reasons the practice of having licensed teachers be coaches should end.

  • “Teaching the teachers” is what professional development is supposed to do.
  • Dealing with ineffective teachers should be the job of the principals, not other teachers.
  • Since coaches have no contractual authority over teachers, teachers do not have to utilize coaches. In practice, that means teachers who are least effective don’t solicit assistance from the coaches, so the coaches end up spending most of their time with the most effective teachers.
  • Many coaches use the position as a stepping-stone toward getting into administration.
  • Most of the coaches are among the best teachers in the district and should be with students, not other teachers.

To be fair to USD 501, math and literacy coaches are an educational trend and most districts now employ them. However, it doesn’t stray from the fact that money spent on coaches doesn’t directly benefit students. In fact, students lose out anytime a quality teacher chooses to become a coach and leaves the classroom.

Putting just one coach per building back in the classroom through attrition would go a long way toward dealing with the budget “cut.”

Cash reserves

The district could easily deal with any short-term budget issue simply by using their current operating cash reserves. The following table shows USD 501’s cash reserves for the past ten years. The table not only shows the district had in excess of $24 million from which to draw at the beginning of this school year, but that is 56.2% more than a decade ago. I doubt they explained that fact to the patrons at the public meetings.

I now present a rather conservative approach to dealing with the “budget cut.” A 5% reduction in administration, returning just one coach in each building to the classroom, and tapping 10% from the operating cash reserves, hardly Draconian measures, would generate nearly twice as much as they could take from the voters.

Savings Category Spending reduction
5% reduction in administration costs $1.41 million
Returning 1 coach to the classroom (through attrition) in each traditional public school building – 26 X $60,000 (salary/benefits)  

$1.56 million

10% from operating cash reserves $2.47 million

Total reduction

 $5.44 million

Board member Patrick Woods was quoted as saying K-12 funding is a “state responsibility.” Maybe it’s time the state starts taking responsibility for how the money gets managed.

Wichita water statistics update

Updated statistics show that the Wichita ASR water project has not been producing water at the projected rate, even after projections were halved.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. Last year the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax.

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative
Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)

I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. So I started this chart with January 2012.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013
Some have said that since 2013 was a drought year, we shouldn’t evaluate the production of ASR during a drought. So to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining so much we had floods, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II
On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised (lowered) annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as rainfall and river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in just one month.

Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center.  The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs, which is the dark line.
Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs, which is the dark line. Source of data is here.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Initiative and referendum

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast May 3, 2015.

For more about this issue, see Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum and Initiative and referendum.

Kansas school weightings and effects on state aid

In making the case for more Kansas school spending, the focus on base state aid per pupil leaves out important considerations.

Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history tableMuch of the discussion surrounding school funding in Kansas has centered around base state aid per pupil. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula, and therefore an important number. But base state aid is not the only important number. Action taken by the Kansas Legislature has led to increases in state funding for schools at the same time that base state aid has fallen. Much of the increase is due to the conditions that schools say are costly, such as teaching students from low-income families or non-English speaking students.

School districts are compensated for these costs through weightings. If a district has a student who falls into certain categories — like qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — that adds a weighting in that category. The number of pupils plus the number of weightings are multiplied by base state aid to determine total state aid. 1

A large weighting — in terms of its magnitude — is the bilingual education weighting, intended to cover additional costs of non-English speaking students. This weighting was originally 20 percent. Starting with the 2005-2006 school year it was raised to 39.5 percent.

Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history. Click for larger version.
Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history. Click for larger version.
Another large weighting is the at-risk weighting, intended to cover the additional costs of teaching students from low-income families. This started at five percent. As shown in the nearby chart, it has risen by a factor of nine, reaching 45.6 percent starting with the 2008-2009 school year. This chart doesn’t include the high-density at-risk weighting. Starting with the 2006-2007 school year districts with a high concentration of at-risk students could receive an extra weighting of four percent or eight percent. Two years later the weightings were raised to six percent and ten percent. This formula was revised again in 2012 in a way that probably slightly increased the weightings.

The weightings have a large effect on school funding. For the 2004-2005 school year, base state aid was $3,863 and the at-risk weighting was ten percent. An at-risk student, therefore, generated $4,249 in funding. Other weightings might also apply.

Ten years later base state aid is $3,852 and the at-risk weighting is 45.6 percent. This generates funding of $5,609. If in a district that qualifies for the maximum high-density at-risk weighting, an additional $404 in funding is generated. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)

Kansas school spending per student, compared to base state aid, adjusted for CPI, 2014. Click for larger version.
Kansas school spending per student, compared to base state aid, adjusted for CPI, 2014. Click for larger version.
As can be seen in the charts produced from data available from the Kansas State Department of Education, the ratio of total state spending to base state aid has generally risen since the adoption of the school finance formula two decades ago. For the school year ending in 1993 the ratio was 0.7, meaning that state aid was less than base state aid. For the school year ending in 2014, the ratio was 1.85, or 2.6 times as much as in 1993. This means that while base state aid per pupil for 2014 was $3,838, total spending by the state was $7,088 per pupil.

Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014
Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014
  1. AMENDMENTS TO THE 1992 SCHOOL DISTRICT FINANCE AND QUALITY PERFORMANCE ACT AND THE 1992 SCHOOL DISTRICT CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS STATE AID PROGRAM (FINANCE FORMULA COMPONENTS), Kansas Legislative Research Department, May 20, 2014
    http://ksde.org/Portals/0/School%20Finance/amends_to_sdfandqpa_2015.pdf

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas legislative failure means you pay

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Legislature has had several years to come up with plans for reforming government spending. But it didn’t do that. Now, it is most likely you will be asked to pay more taxes to compensate for the legislature’s failure. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Originally broadcast May 3, 2015.

For more on this issue, see: In Kansas, a lost legislative opportunity and Efficiency has not come to Kansas government.

Soviet-style society seen as Wichita’s future

If local governments don’t fund arts, we risk a Soviet-style existence. This line of thought is precisely backwards.

Facing the possible loss of funds from Sedgwick County, the Wichita Arts Council paints a bleak future for Wichita, as reported in the Wichita Eagle:

The Wichita Arts Council receives approximately $14,000 from the county, which it uses to provide seed money for start-up art projects, president Arlen Hamilton said. It also receives about $6,000 from the city, he said.

“Without us being there to provide that start, many of these things would never get off the ground, and we’d end up with more of a Soviet-style society than the bright, colorful and educational environment that we get to live in instead,” Hamilton said. (Sedgwick County to warn organizations of possible funding cuts)

This line of reasoning is precisely backwards. When government taxes us and turns over the funds to a group of elitists to make decisions about which art is desirable and which is not, that is characteristic of totalitarian, socialist societies. In a civil society people don’t expect others to be forced to pay for things like this.

Defenders of government spending on arts say it’s a small amount of money. It’s just seed money. This “seed money” effect is precisely why government should not be funding arts. David Boaz explains:

Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the [National Endowment for the Arts] be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?” … I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have.

The leveraging effect of seed money means that elitists like the members of the Wichita Arts Council have great power in deciding who will succeed in the arts in Wichita. We give up a lot when we turn over this power to government bureaucrats and arts commission cronies. Contrary to the argument of the Arts Council president, arts thrive in markets where people are free to choose, and stagnate under taxation and bureaucracy.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.
The attitude of Wichita elected officials regarding art: If you don’t like this statue, just don’t go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you still must pay for it.

Kansas state aid to schools is increasing

The top school finance official in Kansas says that says that state aid for schools has risen for the current year. From Kansas Policy Institute.

KSDE confirms that state aid to schools is increasing this year

By Dave Trabert

While some school districts and special interests claim state aid to schools is declining this year, Kansas State Department of Education Deputy Commissioner for Finance Dale Dennis confirms that state aid to schools is increasing.

KSDE published spreadsheets comparing block grant equivalent funding for the 2013-14 school year with block grant funding for this year and the next two school years. SF15-092 shows total funding last year was $3.263 billion including KPERS and $2.951 billion without KPERS. SF15-109 shows total funding this year of $3.408 billion including KPERS and $3.093 billion without.  Even excluding KPERS, state aid to schools under the block grants will increase by $142 million.

In Wichita, bad governmental behavior excused

A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell.

In a column just before the April 2015 Wichita election, Bill Wilson, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, reported on fallacies during the mayoral campaign, fallacies he called “glaring.” 1 But only a juvenile interpretation of the facts surrounding the events could find them fallacious. This is especially troubling since Wilson covered city hall as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.

The first reported fallacy concerns the award of the contract for the new Wichita airport terminal. Jeff Longwell, then a city council member, had received campaign contributions from executives of Key Construction, the local company bidding on the contract. He also received contributions from Walbridge, the Michigan partner of Key. The Walbridge contributions are problematic, as they were made just a few days before the vote. More arrived a few days after Longwell’s vote. 2

In his column Wilson had an explanation as to why the council voted the way it did. That explanation was a matter of dispute that the council had to resolve. But the validity of the explanation is not the point. The point is something larger than any single issue, which is this: The Wichita city council was asked to make decisions regarding whether discretion was abused or laws were improperly applied. It is not proper for a council member to participate in decisions like this while the ink is still wet on campaign contribution checks from a party to the dispute. Jeff Longwell should not have voted on this matter.

For that matter, several other council members should not have voted. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received substantial campaign contributions from Key Construction executives several months before he voted on the airport contract. So too did Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) . In fact, the only contributions Williams received in 2012 were from Key Construction interests. 3

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
Then we have Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Here he’s pictured fishing with his friend Dave Wells of Key Construction. Do you think it is proper for the mayor to have voted in a quasi-judicial role on a matter worth millions to his fishing buddy? How do you feel about the mayor voting for no-bid construction contracts for his friend? Contracts that later were found to be overpriced? 4

In Wichita, city council members receive campaign contributions while participating in a quasi-judicial proceeding involving the contributors. This doesn’t seem to be improper to the Wichita Business Journal. But it isn’t alone. The Wichita Eagle doesn’t object to any of this. Well, maybe once in a while it does, but not very strenuously or for very long.

Another problem: Wilson dismisses the claim that Longwell was able to exert much influence over the other six council members in order to benefit a project in his council district. But during the campaign, Longwell eagerly took credit for the good things that the city council did. Though Longwell was but one of seven votes, his commercials made it seem like he performed these deeds all by himself. But when things go wrong, well, he’s just one of seven votes.

The last fallacy Wilson objects to is this: “The idea that a $500 campaign contribution buys a vote, a specious claim by Americans for Prosperity that inexplicably lives on. If a council member’s vote is for sale for $500, their stupidity trumps their corruption. And yet some of these false claims remain in political advertising, despite being debunked by two media outlets — and here.”

A few points: First, it’s not just a $500 contribution. We find many examples of individual $500 contributions from executives of the same company, along with spouses and other family members. The contributions are effectively stacked. Second, sometimes campaigns are funded to a large extent by these stacked contributions from just one or two firms. 5 Third, if these contributions are not seen as valuable to those who make them, why do the same small groups of business interests make the maximum contributions year after year?

As far as the claims being debunked: A few weeks ago I showed you the inexplicably bad reporting from the Wichita Eagle. 6 The Business Journal didn’t do any better.

Wilson’s op-ed seems more like an audition for a job at city hall than a critical look at the campaign and its issues. Making a move from news media to a government job in communications is a common career move. There are three former journalists working in Wichita city hall. One former Wichita Eagle reporter went to work for the Wichita school district. There are many examples in Topeka. It’s a problem when journalists who are supposed to be exercising watchdog duty over government agencies end up working for them. We can also recognize when journalists are auditioning for jobs in government.

In Kansas, a lost legislative opportunity

Kansas legislators are struggling to balance the state’s budget. In 2012 the legislature passed a tax cut, although it was unevenly applied. But in the intervening years, the legislature has not taken serious steps to cut state spending to match. Legislators failed to consider bills to streamline and outsource government functions, although the bills had passed in a previous session. The legislature has also failed to consider budgetary process reform as explained below in an article from May 2012.

Leaders in the Kansas legislature and executive branch tell us the only way to balance the Kansas budget this year is by raising more revenue through taxation. That may be true, as reforming spending and budgeting takes time to accomplish. We had the time. But our legislature and executive branch squandered that opportunity. Now, they ask you for more tax revenue.

This year Kansas made a leap forward in reducing income tax rates. The next step for Kansas is to reduce its spending, both to match the reduced revenue that is forecast, but also to improve the efficiency of Kansas government and leave more money in the hands of the private sector. Specifically, Kansas needs to improve its budgeting process and streamline state government.

In Kansas, like in many states, the budgeting process starts with the previous year’s spending. That is then adjusted for factors like inflation, caseloads, and policy changes that necessitate more (or rarely, less) spending. The result is that debates are waged over the increment in spending. Rarely is the base looked at to see if the spending is efficient, effective, or needed.

There are several approaches Kansas could take to improve on this process. One is zero-based budgeting. In this approach, an agency’s budget set to zero. Then, every spending proposal must have a rationale or justification for it to be added to the budget.

Zero-based budgeting can be successful, but, according to the recent paper Zero-base Budgeting in the States from National Conference of State Legislatures, it requires a large commitment from the parties involved. It also can take a lot of time and resources. Kansas could start the process with just a few agencies, and each agency could go through the process periodically, say once every five or six years. Some states have abandoned the zero-based budgeting process.

In its State Budget Reform Toolkit, American Legislative Exchange Council advocates a system called priority-based budgeting. This process starts with deciding on the core functions of state government. That, of course, can be a battle, as people have different ideas on what government should be doing.

ALEC reports that “In 2003, Washington state actually implemented priority based budgeting to close a budget deficit of $2.4 billion without raising taxes.”

The spending cuts Kansas needs to balance the budget are not large. Kansas Policy Institute has calculated that a one-time cut of 6.5 percent next year would be sufficient to bring the budget to balance.

The problem that Kansas will face in reducing state spending and streamlining its government is that there are those who are opposed. Streamlining often means eliminating programs that aren’t needed, aren’t performing as expected, or are very costly. These programs, however, all have constituencies that benefit from them — the concept of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs that public choice economics has taught us. These constituencies will be sure to let everyone know how harmful it will be to them if a program is scaled back or ended.

Streamlining also means that there may be fewer state employees. Some will say that the loss of state employees means a loss for the economy, as the state workers will no longer be receiving a paycheck and spending it. This reasoning, however, ignores the source of state workers’ pay: the taxpayers of Kansas. With fewer state employees, taxpayers will have more money to spend or invest. The problem is that it is easier to focus on the employees that may lose their jobs, as they are highly visible and they have vocal advocacy groups to watch out for them. This is an example of the seen and unseen, as explained by Henry Hazlitt.

Brownback derangement syndrome on display

A newspaper op-ed illustrates some of the muddled thinking of Kansas newspaper editorialists, not to mention Brownback derangement syndrome.

Recent discussion about restricting the ability to spend welfare benefits has lead one newspaper editorialist to compare elected politicians with welfare recipients. The writer is Dave Helling of the Kansas City Star, and his target is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. Attempting to paint the governor as a government-paid freeloader, Helling wrote: “He’s earned his living from taxpayers almost all his life. He’s worked in state government, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and now as governor, where he earns around $100,000 a year.” (Dave Helling: It’s time to break lawmakers’ ‘cycle of dependency’)

Except: Helling’s own words undermine his point. He wrote that Brownback earned his living. Welfare recipients are not earning their benefits.

Helling also wrote that Brownback worked in government. Welfare recipients aren’t working for their benefits.

Also: “Taxpayers long have provided Brownback money to buy shelter, food, health care, safety and transportation.” I don’t know how this is relevant. If Brownback worked and earned his pay, it’s of concern to no one how he spends it.

Helling also wrote: “Brownback’s long ride on the public dime is supposed to come to an end in 2019, when term limits force him to finally find a private-sector job.” He follows with speculation that Brownback may run again for the U.S. Senate. Of interest is that Sam Brownback is a rare example of a politician who self-imposed term limits on himself and actually kept the promise, leaving the U.S. Senate after two full terms. As far as serving in the Senate again, most advocates of term limits agree that if officeholders sit out a term, they may run again.

This op-ed was mentioned by the Wichita Eagle, where editorialist Rhonda Holman added “Brownback has held a government job since he became state agriculture secretary in 1986, at age 30.” It’s curious that the Eagle editorial board would criticize someone for working for government. Its usual stance is that there should be more government workers doing more things and spending more money.

There is legitimate criticism of governor Brownback. He has not been an advocate for school choice. He has not been interested in setting Kansas on a path to controlling state spending. (These are some of the reasons why I did not vote for Browback.) But these are not the goals of the Star or Eagle editorial boards, or for that of most newspapers. Instead they pick at the governor with nonsensical arguments. That’s derangement syndrome.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita economic development, Kansas schools and spending, minimum wage

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Can we reform economic development in Wichita to give us the growth we need? Kansas school test scores, school spending, and how the Wichita district spends your money. Then, who is helped by raising the minimum wage? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 84, broadcast May 10, 2015.

Kansas school employees, the trend

The trend in Kansas public school employment and teacher/pupil ratios may surprise you, given the narrative presented by public schools.

“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.

Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for the interactive visualization of this data.
Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for the interactive visualization of this data.
Below is a chart of data from Kansas State Department of Education. This data shows that for the past four years employment is rising, both for teachers and certified employees. Also, the ratio of these employees to students is falling, meaning fewer pupils per employee.

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. What are the teachers doing?

The story is not the same in each school district. I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in individual 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

Wichita area job growth

Private sector job growth in the Wichita area is improving, but lags behind local government employment growth.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through 2014 allows us to compare trends of employment in the Wichita metropolitan area. Over the past few years we see private sector employment rising. At the same time government employment, particularly state and local government employment, has declined or leveled.

Wichita area employment. Click for larger version.
Wichita area employment. Click for larger version.
Over the 24 years covered by the chart, private sector employment grew by 16 percent. Local government employment grew by 41 percent.

This long-term trend is a problem. It is the private sector that generates the taxes that pay for government. When government grows faster than the private sector, economic activity is shifted away from productive activities to unproductive. The economist Dan Mitchell has proposed what he calls the “Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy,” which is: “The Private Sector should Grow Faster than Government.” This is not happening in the Wichita metropolitan area.

Classical liberalism means liberty, individualism, and civil society

Not to be confused with modern American liberalism or liberal Republicans, classical liberalism places highest value on liberty and the individual.

In a short video, Nigel Ashford of Institute for Humane Studies explains the tenets of classical liberalism. Not to be confused with modern American liberalism or liberal Republicans, classical liberalism places highest value on liberty and the individual. Modern American liberals, or progressives as they often prefer to be called, may value some of these principles, but most, such as free markets and limited government — and I would add individualism and toleration — are held in disdain by them.

Here are the principles of classical liberalism that Ashford identifies:

Liberty is the primary political value. “When deciding what to do politically — what should the government do — classical liberals have one clear standard: Does this increase, or does it reduce the freedom of the individual?”

Individualism. “The individual is more important than the collective.”

Skepticism about power. “Government, for example, often claims ‘we’re forcing you to do X because it’s in your own interests to do so.’ Whereas very often, when people with power do that, it’s really because it’s good for themselves. Classical liberals believe that the individual is the best judge of their own interests.”

Rule of law.

Civil society. Classical liberals believe that problems can be dealt with best by voluntary associations and action.

Spontaneous order. “Many people seem to assume that order requires some institution, some body, to manipulate and organize things. Classical liberals don’t believe that. They believe that order can arise spontaneously. People through their voluntary interaction create the rules by which people can live by.”

Free markets. “Economic exchange should be left to voluntary activity between individuals. … We need private property to be able to do that. … History show us that leaving things to free markets rather than government planning or organization, increases prosperity, reduces poverty, increases jobs, and provides good that people want to buy.”

Toleration. “Toleration is the belief that one should not interfere with things on which one disapproves. … It’s a question of having certain moral principles (‘I think this action is wrong’), but I will not try and force my opinions — for example through government — to stop the things I disapprove of.”

Peace. Through free movement of capital, labor, goods, services, and ideas, we can have a world based on peace rather than conflict and war.

Limited government. “There are very few things the government should do. The goal of government is simply to protect life, liberty, and property. Anything beyond that is not justifiable.”

This video is available on YouTube through LearnLiberty.org, a site which has many other informative videos. Besides this video, other resources on classical liberalism include What Is Classical Liberalism? by John C. Goodman, Christianity, Classical Liberalism are Liberty’s Foundations by Leonard P. Liggio, What is Libertarian? at the Institute for Humane Studies, Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism (review of James M. Buchanan book by William A. Niskanen), Myths of Individualism by Tom G. Palmer, and Palmer’s book Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice.

Wichita property tax rates up again

The City of Wichita says that it hasn’t raised its mill levy in many years. Data shows the mill levy has risen, and its use has shifted from debt service to current consumption.

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 1994 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290. In 2014 it was 32.652, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.362 mills, or 4.35 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action 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 Wichita taxation.

Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.35 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not actual tax revenue. The revenue collected is a function of the mill levy rate multiplied by the value of taxable property. Revenue has risen, due both to appreciation in the value of property and an increase in the amount of property.

Application of tax revenue has shifted

The allocation of city property tax revenue has shifted over the years. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
In 2005 the mill levy dedicated to debt service was 10.022. In 2014 it was 8.537. That’s a reduction of 1.485 mills (14.8 percent) of property tax revenue dedicated for paying off debt. Another interpretation of this is that in 2005, 31.4 percent of Wichita property tax revenue was dedicated to debt service. In 2014 it was 26.1 percent.

This shift has not caused the city to delay paying off debt. This city is making its scheduled payments. But we should recognize that property tax revenue that could have been used to retire debt has instead been shifted to support current spending. Instead of spending this money on current consumption — including economic development spending that has produced little result — we could have, for example, used that money to purchase some of our outstanding bonds.

Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed and/or uninformed. The video below provides insight into the level of knowledge of some elected officials and city staff.

Wichita economic development, the need for reform

An incentives deal for a Wichita company illustrates a capacity problem and the need for reform.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentives package intended to enable a local manufacturing company to expand its operations.

R and R Aerospace benefits 2015-05-05City documents give some detail regarding the amounts of property tax to be forgiven on an annual basis, for a period of up to ten years. In the past, city documents have often mentioned other incentive programs that will benefit the company, but that information is missing. Other sources mention two state programs — PEAK and HPIP — the company may benefit from, but amounts are not available.

In order to prepare the incentives package, several events took place. There was a visit to the company. Then another visit and tour. Then economic development officials helped the company apply for benefits from the Kansas Department of Commerce. Then these officials worked closely with Wichita city staff on an incentive package.

City documents state that the expansion will create 28 jobs over the next five years. Obtaining these jobs took a lot of effort from Wichita and Kansas economic development machinery. Multiple agencies and fleets of bureaucrats at GWEDC, the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and the State of Kansas were involved. Wichita State University had to be involved. All this to create 5.6 jobs per year for five years.

The jobs are welcome. But this incident and many others like it reveal a capacity problem, which is this: We probably need to be creating 5.6 jobs every working hour of every day in order to make any significant progress in economic growth. If it takes this much effort to create 28 jobs over five years, how much effort will it take to create the many thousands of jobs we need to create every year?

This assumes, of course, that the incentives are necessary to enable the company to expand. City documents state that the tax exemption is necessary to make the project “viable.” It’s likely that the mayor or city council members will say that if we don’t award the incentives, the company won’t be able to expand. Or perhaps the company will expand in some other city. So the incentives really don’t have any cost, they will tell citizens.

This only hints at a larger problem. If companies can’t afford to make investments in Wichita unless they receive exemptions from paying taxes, we must conclude that taxes are too 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. See here.) It’s either that, or this company simply doesn’t want to participate in paying for the cost of government like most other companies and people do.

To top it off, this expansion and the new jobs seem far from certain. City documents state the company is “bidding on a new work package” and the “expansion project would be completed in phases
based upon the timing and demand of the work package.”

Civic leaders say that our economic development policies must be reformed. So far that isn’t happening. Our leaders say that cash incentives are on the way out. This deal does not include grants of cash, that is true. But forgiveness of taxes is more valuable to business firms than receiving cash. That’s because cash incentives are usually taxable as income, while forgiveness of taxes does not create taxable income. Each dollar of tax that is forgiven adds one dollar to after-tax profits. 1

The large amount of bureaucratic effort and cost spent to obtain a small number of speculative jobs lets us know that we need to do something else in order to grow our local economy. We need to create a dynamic economy, focusing our efforts on creating an environment where growth can occur organically without management by government. Dr. Art Hall’s paper
Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy provides much more information on the need for this.

Another thing we can do to help organically grow our economy and jobs is to reform our local regulatory regime. Recently Kansas Policy Institute released a study of regulation and its impact at the state and local level. This is different from most investigations of regulation, as they usually focus on regulation at the federal level.

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

Following is an excerpt from the introduction by James Franko, Vice President and Policy Director at Kansas Policy Institute. It points to a path forward.

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

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

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

Creating a dynamic economy and a reformed regulatory regime should cost very little. The benefits would apply to all companies — large or small, startup or established, local or relocations, in any industry.

Our civic leaders say that our economic development efforts must be reformed. Will the path forward be a dynamic economy and reformed regulation? Or will it be more bureaucracy, chasing five jobs at a time?

  1. Site Selection magazine, September 2009. 2015. ‘INCENTIVES — Site Selection Magazine, September 2009′. Siteselection.Com. Accessed May 1 2015. http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2009/sep/Incentives/

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas revenue and spending, initiative and referendum, and rebuliding liberty

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Legislature appears ready to raise taxes instead of reforming spending. Wichita voters have used initiative and referendum, but voters can’t use it at the state level. A look at a new book “By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 83, broadcast May 3, 2015.

Kansas school test scores, an untold story

If the Kansas public school establishment wants to present an accurate assessment of Kansas schools, it should start with its presentation of NAEP scores.

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

I’ve gathered scores from the 2013 administration of the test, which is the most recent data available. I present data in an interactive visualization that you may use through the links at the end of this article. The most widely available NAEP data is for two subjects: reading and math, and for two grades, fourth and eighth. In the nearby images captured from the visualizations, I present data for Kansas and the average for national public schools. I’ve also added Texas and Florida, as schools in those states have sometimes been mentioned in comparisons to Kansas. The numbers in the charts are the percent of students that score at or above proficient.

NAEP scores grouped by ethnicity. Click for larger version.
NAEP scores grouped by ethnicity. Click for larger version.

Considering all students, Kansas has the best scores for all combinations of grade levels and subjects, except for one.

When we compare black students only, we find Kansas outperformed by Texas in all cases. National public schools beat Kansas in one case, and tie in another.

Looking at Hispanic students only, Florida beats Kansas in three cases and ties in one. In some cases the difference is large.

Looking at white students only, Texas outperforms Kansas in all cases. National public schools score higher than Kansas in three of four cases.

Another way to look at test scores is to group students by eligibility for free or reduced school lunches. This is a widely used surrogate for family income. In this analysis Kansas performs better in comparison to other states, but Kansas is not always the best.

NAEP scores grouped by free/reduced lunch eligibility. Click for larger version.
NAEP scores grouped by free/reduced lunch eligibility. Click for larger version.

These visualizations are interactive, meaning that you may adjust parameters yourself. For the visualization grouping students by ethnicity, click here. For the visualization grouping students by school lunch eligibility, click here.

More government spending is not a source of prosperity

Kansas needs to trim state government spending so that its economy may grow by harnessing the benefits of the private sector over government.

In the debate over how to balance the Kansas budget, those who oppose low state taxes say the burden of taxation is simply transferred to other sources, usually in the form of sales and property taxes. Cutting spending is the other possibility, but it is argued that state spending is a good thing, a source of prosperity that Kansas should exploit.

The idea that government spending is a generator of wealth and prosperity is true for only a certain minimal level of spending. We benefit from government provision of things like national defense, public safety, and a court system. But once government grows beyond these minimal core functions, it is markets — that is, free people trading in the private sector — that can produce a wider variety of better goods and services at lower cost.

Those who call for more government spending seem to fail to realize spending has a cost, and someone has to pay. They see the salary paid to a government worker and say that money gets spent, thereby producing economic activity and jobs. But what is the source of the government worker’s salary? It is money taken from someone through taxation. By necessity, money spent on government reduces the private sector economic activity of those who paid the taxes. (At the federal level, government also spends by borrowing or creating inflation. Kansas can’t do this.)

If this loss was economically equivalent to the gain, we might be less concerned. But there is a huge cost in taxation and government inefficiency that makes government spending a negative-sum proposition.

Another fundamental problem with government taxation and spending is that it is not voluntary. In markets, people voluntarily trade with each other because they feel it will make them better off. That’s not the case with government. I do not pay my taxes because I feel doing so makes me better off, other than for that small part that goes to the basic core functions. Instead, I pay my taxes so that I can stay out of jail. This fundamentally coercive method of generating revenue for government gets things off to a bad start.

Then, ask how that money is spent. Who decides, and how? Jeffrey A. Miron explains: “The political process, alas, does not lend itself to objective balancing of costs and benefits. Most programs benefit well-defined interest groups (the elderly, teachers unions, environmentalists, defense contractors) while imposing relatively small costs per person on everyone else. Thus the winners from excess spending fight harder than the losers, and spending far exceeds the level suggested by cost-benefit considerations.” 1

An example in Kansas is the special interest group that benefits from highway construction. They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

As Miron explained, groups like this will spend almost limitlessly in order to receive appropriations from the government. It’s easier than competing in markets for customers and business. It’s perhaps the largest problem with government spending: Decisions are made by a few centralized actors who are subject to intense lobbying by special interests. It is the well-known problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. 2

Some argue that without government spending, certain types of goods and services will not be provided. A commonly cited example is education, which accounts for about half of Kansas general fund spending. Would there be schools if not for government? Of course there would be. There are many non-government schools now, even though those who patronize them must first pay for the government schools before paying for their own schools. And there were many schools and educated, literate Americans before government decided it need to monopolize education.

Still, it is argued that government spending on education is needed because everyone benefits from an educated citizenry. Tom G. Palmer explains: “Thus, widespread education generates public benefits beyond the benefits to the persons who are educated, allegedly justifying state provision and financing through general tax revenues. But despite the benefits to others, which may be great or small, the benefits to the persons educated are so great for them that they induce sufficient investment in education. Public benefits don’t always generate the defection of free-riders.”

Those who still argue that government spending in education is for the good of everyone will also need to defend the sagging and declining performance of public schools. They need to persuade us that government schools are producing an educated citizenry. They need to defend the capture of Kansas spending on schools by special interest groups that benefit from this spending. They actually do a pretty good job of this, which illustrates the lengths to which special interest groups will go. In Kansas, they throw children under the bus.

Back to the basics: Government spending as economic booster is the theory of the Keynesians, including the administration of Barack Obama. Miron, from the same article cited above, explains the problems with this:

That brings us to the second argument for higher spending: the Keynesian claim that spending stimulates the economy. If this is accurate, it might seem the U.S. should continue its high-spending ways until the recession is over.

But the Keynesian argument for spending is also problematic. To begin with, the Keynesian view implies that any spending — whether for vital infrastructure or bridges to nowhere — is equally good at stimulating the economy. This might be true in the short term (emphasis on might), but it cannot be true over the long haul, and many “temporary” programs last for decades. So stimulus spending should be for good projects, not “digging ditches,” yet the number of good projects is small given how much is already being spent.

More broadly, the Keynesian model of the economy relies on strong assumptions, so we should not embrace it without empirical confirmation. In fact, economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy.

Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments — attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure — work better when they focus on tax cuts. This does not fit the Keynesian view, but it makes perfect sense given that high taxes and ill-justified spending make the economy less productive.

The implication is that the U.S. may not face a tradeoff between shrinking the deficit and fighting the recession: it can do both by cutting wasteful spending (Medicare, Social Security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for starters) and by cutting taxes.

The reduced spending will make the economy more productive by scaling government back to appropriate levels. Lower tax rates will stimulate in the short run by improving consumer and firm liquidity, and they will enhance economic growth in the long run by improving the incentives to work, save, and invest.

Deficits will therefore shrink and the economy will boom. The rest of the world will gladly hold our debt. The U.S. will re-emerge as a beacon of small government and robust capitalism, so foreign investment (and talented people, if immigration policy allows) will come flooding in.

In Kansas, we need to scale back government to appropriate levels, as Miron recommends. That means cutting spending. That will allow us to maintain low tax rates, starting with the income tax. Then we in Kansas can start to correct the long record of sub-par economic performance compared to other states and bring prosperity and jobs here.

  1. Cato Institute, 2010. ‘Slash Expenditure To Balance The Budget’. Accessed April 28 2015. http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/slash-expenditure-balance-budget.
  2. David Boaz: “Economists call this the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. The benefits of any government program — Medicare, teachers’ pensions, a new highway, a tariff — are concentrated on a relatively small number of people. But the costs are diffused over millions of consumers or taxpayers. So the beneficiaries, who stand to gain a great deal from a new program or lose a great deal from the elimination of a program, have a strong incentive to monitor the news, write their legislator, make political contributions, attend town halls, and otherwise work to protect the program. But each taxpayer, who pays little for each program, has much less incentive to get involved in the political process or even to vote.”

The Kansas revenue problem in perspective

If we take the budgetary advice of a former Kansas state budget official, we need to be ready to accept the economic stagnation that accompanied his boss’s tenure.

Writing in his blog, former Kansas budget director Duane Goossen offers his advice for fixing the Kansas budget: “The state has a revenue problem that will not fix itself. Lawmakers have to face up to the fact that they must make revenue match expenditures. Unaffordable income tax cuts caused the problem. That’s the place to look for a correction.” (Lawmakers Make It Clear: Kansas Has A Revenue Problem)

Goossen has one thing correct: revenue and expenditures must be equal, over any long period of time. The preference for Goossen, as we see, is to raise revenue to support more spending. We can’t afford tax cuts, he writes.

But this is a backwards way of looking at the relationship between government and its subjects. When someone says we can’t afford tax cuts, that presumes a few things. First, it presumes that the previous level of taxation was better than the current level.

Second, it presumes that tax cuts have a cost that can’t be afforded. The only way this is true is if we believe that the state has first claim on our incomes. The state takes what it believes it needs, and we get to keep the rest. Then if, somehow, the government is persuaded to give any of that claim back to us, this “gift” has to be paid for.

But for those who believe in self-ownership, this is nonsense. It’s the people who “give” tax money to the government, not the government who “gives” it back in the form of tax cuts. If the government cuts taxes, the government gives us nothing. It simply takes less of what is ours in the first place.

Growth of jobs in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
Growth of jobs in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
But the attitude of many government officials is the opposite. In 2006 Kansas cut taxes on business equipment and machinery. At the time, the Wichita Eagle reported: “Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, who first proposed the business machinery tax cut, agreed. ‘We’re not giving away money for the sake of giving it away,’ she said. ‘I’m hoping that the economic growth will actually help fund the school plan that we just passed.'” (emphasis added) (Lawmakers hope for growth)

Growth of gross domestic product in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
Growth of gross domestic product in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
For the former governor of Kansas, letting business firms keep a little more of the money they earn means the state is “giving it away.” By the way, Duane Goossen — who now believes the only solution for the Kansas budget is to raise taxes — was the state’s budget director when Sebelius said the state is going to “give away money” in the form of tax cuts.

If take Goossen’s advice and return to the tax rates of the Sebelius and Graves eras, let’s make sure we understand the economic growth Kansas experienced during those years. Nearby is a snapshot of Kansas job growth starting when Bill Graves became governor, along with growth in some nearby states. A chart of GDP growth starts in 1997, two years into the Graves administration. We don’t want to return to these levels of growth.

If you’d like to use the interactive visualizations of this employment and GDP data, click here for employment, and click here for GDP.

Efficiency has not come to Kansas government

Kansas state government needs to cut spending, but finds itself in a difficult situation of its own making.

The budget bill under consideration in the Kansas Legislature calls for spending $3 million for the production of an efficiency analysis review. It’s a good idea, but is too late to help the legislature balance the budget this year.

Trimming Kansas government spending is a long-term project. The legislature has looked at several bills that would help control spending, but has not passed the bills. Had they been passed when introduced, the state would be in a much better position to make reforms. But a look at the history of these bills leads us to wonder if the leaders of our state government — both in the executive and legislative branches — are really serious about controlling spending.

The three bills — explained in detail below — were in play during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions. They all passed the House of Representatives in 2011. But given that the Senate was in the hands of moderate Republicans, there was little chance that the bills would also pass the Senate. That’s what happened. Each bill died in the Senate.

Starting with the 2013 session, however, the Senate has been in conservative hands. Have the bills been reintroduced? With the exception of the efficiency analysis review mentioned above and a look at K — 12 education, I don’t believe the bills, or anything else like them, have been introduced or considered.

Both chambers of the Kansas Legislature and the governor’s mansion have been under the control of conservatives for three years, but no serious initiative to control spending has emerged, with the exception of the efficiency task force on K — 12 education. This ought to cause voters to ask if the desire and will to cut spending truly exists.

It’s curious that liberals and progressives in Kansas are opposed to efforts to increase efficiency, such as the school task force. If the government services that liberals support are truly vital, they ought to insist that they are delivered as efficiently as possible so that the greatest number may benefit to the greatest extent. But that doesn’t happen.

A simple path forward

Recently I attended a meeting where a speaker reported his observations of state workers wasting time while at work. He contrasted that to the private sector, where he said this waste is less likely to happen. Shouldn’t we investigate state agencies, looking for instances of waste, and when found, eliminate the waste, he asked? It’s a good idea, but something that I think would be difficult to accomplish.

There is an easier way to root out inefficiencies in the operations of state government — and local and federal too. That is to use the benefits of the private sector that the speaker praised. We can do this by outsourcing government functions to the private sector. Then, the work is done under the motivations that exist in the private sector.

Kansas Policy Institute produced a report in 2013 that shows how Kansas can save using the principles of privatization and outsourcing. The report is Better Service, Better Price: How privatization can streamline government, improve services, and reduce costs for Kansas taxpayers.

Reforms of this nature take some time to implement. Several years ago Kansas governmental leaders had time to start the state on a path to reform, but did not take the opportunity. Now these same leaders are considering raising taxes to balance the Kansas budget. This did not have to happen.

The bills that did not pass

In 2011 the Kansas Legislature lost three opportunities to do just this. Three bills, each with this goal, were passed by the House of Representatives, but each failed to pass through the Senate, or had its contents stripped and replaced with different legislation.

Each of these bills represents a lost opportunity for state government services to be streamlined, delivered more efficiently, or measured and managed. These goals, while always important, are now essential for the success of Kansas government and the state’s economy. There is no reason why these bills, or similar measures, could not be revived. The improvements these bills would foster will not balance next year’s budget. But they will set the stage for controlling the growth of Kansas government spending. This will leave more money in the private sector, which will help Kansas grow.

Kansas Streamlining Government Act

HB 2120, according to its supplemental note, “would establish the Kansas Streamlining Government Act, which would have the purpose of improving the performance, efficiency, and operations of state government by reviewing certain state agencies, programs, boards, and commissions.” Fee-funded agencies — examples include Kansas dental board and Kansas real estate commission — would be exempt from this bill.

In more detail, the text of the bill explains: “The purposes of the Kansas streamlining government act are to improve the performance, streamline the operations, improve the effectiveness and efficiency, and reduce the operating costs of the executive branch of state government by reviewing state programs, policies, processes, original positions, staffing levels, agencies, boards and commissions, identifying those that should be eliminated, combined, reorganized, downsized or otherwise altered, and recommending proposed executive reorganization orders, executive orders, legislation, rules and regulations, or other actions to accomplish such changes and achieve such results.”

In testimony in support of this legislation, Dave Trabert, President of Kansas Policy Institute offered testimony that echoed findings of the public choice school of economics and politics: “Some people may view a particular expenditure as unnecessary to the fulfillment of a program’s or an agency’s primary mission while others may see it as essential. Absent an independent review, we are expecting government employees to put their own self-interests aside and make completely unbiased decisions on how best to spend taxpayer funds. It’s not that government employees are intentionally wasteful; it’s that they are human beings and setting self-interests aside is challenge we all face.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 79 to 40. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs, where it did not advance.

Privatization and public-private partnerships

Another bill that did not advance was HB 2194, which in its original form would have created the Kansas Advisory Council on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.

According to the supplemental note for the bill, “The purpose of the Council would be to ensure that certain state agencies, including the Board of Regents and postsecondary educational institutions, would: 1) focus on the core mission and provide goods and services efficiently and effectively; 2) develop a process to analyze opportunities to improve efficiency, cost-effectiveness and provide quality services, operations, functions, and activities; and 3) evaluate for feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency opportunities that could be outsourced. Excluded from the state agencies covered by the bill would be any entity not receiving State General Fund or federal funds appropriation.”

This bill passed by a vote of 68 to 51 in the House of Representatives. It did not advance in the Senate, falling victim to a “gut-and-go” maneuver where its contents were replaced with legislation on an entirely different topic.

Opposing this bill was Kansas Organization of State Employees (KOSE), a union for executive branch state employees. It advised its “brothers and sisters” that the bill “… establishes a partisan commission of big-business interests to privatize state services putting a wolf in charge of the hen house. To be clear, this bill allows for future privatization of nearly all services provided by state workers. Make no mistake, this proposal is a privatization scheme that will begin the process of outsourcing our work to private contractors. Under a privatization scheme for any state agency or service, the employees involved will lose their rights under our MOA and will be forced to adhere to the whims of a private contractor who typically provides less pay and poor benefits. Most workers affected by privatization schemes are not guaranteed to keep their jobs once an agency or service is outsourced.”

Note the use of “outsourcing our work.” This underscores the sense of entitlement of many government workers: It is not work done for the benefit of Kansans; to them it is our work.

Then, there’s the warning that private industry pays less. Most of the time representatives of state workers like KOSE make the case that it is they who are underpaid, but here the argument is turned around when it supports the case they want to make. One thing is probably true: Benefits — at least pension plans — may be lower in the private sector. But we’re now painfully aware that state government has promised its workers more pension benefits than the state has been willing to fund.

Performance measures

Another bill that didn’t pass the entire legislature was HB 2158, which would have created performance measures for state agencies and reported that information to the public. The supplemental note says that the bill “as amended, would institute a new process for modifying current performance measures and establishing new standardized performance measures to be used by all state agencies in support of the annual budget requests. State agencies would be required to consult with representatives of the Director of the Budget and the Legislative Research Department to modify each agency’s current performance measures, to standardize such performance measures, and to utilize best practices in all state agencies.” Results of the performance measures would be posted on a public website.

This bill passed the House of Representatives by a nearly unanimous vote of 119 to 2. In the Senate, this bill was stripped of its content using the “gut-and-go” procedure and did not proceed intact to a vote.

Opposition to these bills from Democrats often included remarks on the irony of those who were recently elected on the promise of shrinking government now proposing to enlarge government through the creation of these commissions and councils. These bills, however, proposed to spend modest amounts increasing the manageability of government, not the actual range and scope of government itself. As it turns out, many in the legislature — this includes Senate Republicans who initiated or went along with the legislative maneuvers that killed these bills — are happy with the operations of state government remaining in the shadows.

These proposals to scale back the services that government provides — or to have existing services be delivered by the private sector — mean that there will be fewer government employees, and fewer members of government worker unions. This is another fertile area of gathering support for killing these bills.

State workers and their supporters also argue that fewer state workers mean fewer people paying state and other taxes. Forgotten by them is the fact that the taxes taken to pay these workers means less economic activity and fewer jobs in the private sector.

As to not wanting performance measures: Supporters of the status quo say that people outside of government don’t understand how to make the decisions that government workers make. In one sense, this may be true. In the private sector, profitability is the benchmark of success. Government has no comparable measure when it decides to, say, spend some $300 million to renovate the Kansas Capitol. But once it decides to do so, the benchmark and measurement of profitability in executing the service can be utilized by private sector operators. Of course, private contractors will be subject to the discipline of the profit and loss system, something missing from government.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Shari Howard McMinn, author of “Stretched Yet Unbroken”

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Former Wichitan Shari Howard McMinn talks about her book “Stretched Yet Unbroken: A Family Knit Together Continues Their Legacy of Faith” and her remarkable journey through life. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 82, broadcast April 26, 2015.

The website for this book is Stretched Yet Unbroken.

Rebuilding liberty without permission

A forthcoming book by Charles Murray holds an intriguing idea as to how Americans can reassert liberty: Civil disobedience. Make the federal government an “insurable hazard.”

I think it’s a great idea. For an easy introduction to this concept, listen to the Cato Institute’s seven-minute podcast of Murray speaking about these ideas.

From the publisher:

American freedom is being gutted. Whether we are trying to run a business, practice a vocation, raise our families, cooperate with our neighbors, or follow our religious beliefs, we run afoul of the government—not because we are doing anything wrong but because the government has decided it knows better. When we object, that government can and does tell us, “Try to fight this, and we’ll ruin you.”

In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt no matter which party is in control.

But there’s good news beyond the Beltway. Technology is siphoning power from sclerotic government agencies and putting it in the hands of individuals and communities. The rediversification of American culture is making local freedom attractive to liberals as well as conservatives. People across the political spectrum are increasingly alienated from a regulatory state that nakedly serves its own interests rather than those of ordinary Americans.

The even better news is that federal government has a fatal weakness: It can get away with its thousands of laws and regulations only if the overwhelming majority of Americans voluntarily comply with them. Murray describes how civil disobedience backstopped by legal defense funds can make large portions of the 180,000-page Federal Code of Regulations unenforceable, through a targeted program that identifies regulations that arbitrarily and capriciously tell us what to do. Americans have it within their power to make the federal government an insurable hazard like hurricanes and floods, leaving us once again free to live our lives as we see fit.

By the People’s hopeful message is that rebuilding our traditional freedoms does not require electing a right-thinking Congress or president, nor does it require five right-thinking justices on the Supreme Court. It can be done by we the people, using America’s unique civil society to put government back in its proper box.

Wichita economic development policies questioned

One of the themes of the recent Wichita mayoral campaign was the need to restore trust in city hall. Following, from April 2013, an example of how city hall has created the trust deficit. Although this story was covered nowhere but here, it it exemplary of how Wichita city hall operates. Since then the city’s economic development director has retired, but we have the same city manager and nearly all the same council members, with one having moved up to mayor. For an update on this story, see Wichita: No such document.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, I was prepared to ask the council to not approve issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds. My reason, explained here, was that the cost-benefit analysis did not meet the standard the city has established in its economic development incentives policy.

At the meeting, though, Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton both explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here.)

I thought I should have known about that policy. I felt bad — embarrassed, even — for not being aware of it.

There’s a certain logic to their arguments. The parking garage is available to the public — at least some parking stalls. But the garage was not built until the Ambassador Hotel project was finalized. And the number of parking spots actually available to the public is difficult to determine. One analysis shows that the number of spots available to the public is zero, although the city says otherwise.

So the next day I sought to inform myself of this policy regarding the cost-benefit ratio for the city’s debt service fund for downtown projects.

I found a document titled “City of Wichita Downtown Development Incentives Policy” as approved by the Wichita City Council on May 17, 2011. It doesn’t address cost-benefit ratios for any funds, at least by my reading.

(By the way, that document, which was available on the city’s website at wichita.gov, wasn’t available after the city recently transitioned to a new website.)

There is also the evaluation matrix for downtown projects. It includes as a criterion “Extent City’s ROI exceeds benefit/cost ratio of 1.3:1 on CEDBR Model.”

I don’t see either of these documents supporting what was stated by two top city officials at Tuesday’s meeting, that the cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one requirement does not apply to the debt service fund for downtown projects.

I’ve asked the city to provide such a policy document. So far, city officials have searched, but no such document has been provided. You’d think that if there is a document containing this policy, it would be readily accessible.

Whether the “new” policy explained Tuesday by Messrs. Bell and Layton is sound public policy is something that should be discussed. It might be a desirable policy.

But this entire episode smacks of molding public policy in order to fit the situation at hand.

The city relies on cost-benefit analysis produced by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. The positive result produced for the general fund — the 2.62 that Bell referred to — was used to justify the public investments the city asked taxpayers to make in September 2011.

We didn’t know about the unfavorable result for the city’s debt service at that time. City officials, however, knew, as it’s contained in the analysis provided to the city from CEDBR.

City officials could have — if they had wanted to — explained this special debt service policy for downtown projects at that time. City officials or the mayor could have explained that part of the Ambassador Hotel project doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policies, but here’s why the project is a good idea nonetheless.

City officials and the mayor could have used that opportunity to inform Wichitans of the special policy for downtown projects regarding the debt service fund, if such a policy actually existed at that time.

But they didn’t do that. And if the policy actually existed at that time, it was a well-kept secret, and was until Tuesday.

I’m sure some will say that we should just shrug this off as an innocent oversight. But this project is steeped in cronyism. It is the poster child for why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws so that city council members are prohibited from voting to send millions to their significant campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Soon the city will probably ask Wichitans to trust it with more tax revenue so the city can do more for its citizens. The city commissioned a survey to justify this. Also, the mayor wants a dedicated stream of funding so that the city can spend more on economic development.

In other words, the city wants its citizens to trust their government. But in order to gain that trust, the city needs to avoid episodes like this.

Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum

Citizens in Wichita have been busy exercising their rights of initiative and referendum at the municipal level. The Kansas Legislature should grant the same rights to citizens at the state level.

What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. Citizens in Wichita have exercised these rights, but Kansans are not able to do this at the state level.

Initiative is when citizens propose a new law, and then gather signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is filed, the matter is (generally) placed on a ballot for the electorate to decide whether the proposed law will become actual law. Examples are the initiative to add fluoride to Wichita water (which voters rejected) and reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana (which passed, but has not taken effect pending legal action by the Kansas Supreme Court.)

Referendum is when citizens petition to overturn an act passed by a governing body. An example is the 2012 repeal of a charter ordinance passed by the Wichita city council.

So at the municipal level in Kansas, citizens have the right of initiative, although in practice the right is limited. The right of referendum is more narrowly limited. But at the state level, there is no possibility for citizens to exercise initiative or referendum. The law simply does not allow for this.

Policies, not politicians

Initiative and referendum allow citizens to vote on specific laws or policies. This is contrasted with elections for office, where voters must choose candidate A or candidate B. Voters have to take the entire package of positions associated with a candidate. It isn’t possible to select some positions from candidate A, and others from candidate B. So when a candidate wins an election, can we say why? Which of the candidate’s positions did voters like, and which did voters not like? Results of regular elections rarely provide a clear answer.

Initiative and referendum, however, let citizens vote on a specific law or proposal. There is little doubt as to the will of the voters.

There’s a difference between voting for politicians and voting for policies. When given a chance, Wichitans have often voted different from what the council wanted. An example is the 2012 overturn of a charter ordinance the council passed. Another is the failure of the sales tax in November 2014. That was on the ballot not because of citizen initiative, but it is an example of voting directly for an issue rather than a candidate. Citizens rejected the sales tax by a wide margin, contrary to the wishes of the city council, city hall bureaucrats, and the rest of Wichita’s political class.

It’s different voting for policies than politicians. For one thing, the laws passed by initiative don’t change, at least for some period of time. But politicians and their campaign promises have a short shelf life, and are easily discarded or modified to fit the current situation.

Politicians don’t want it, which is its best argument

Generally, politicians and bureaucrats don’t want citizens to be empowered with initiative and referendum. When the city council was forced to set an election due to the successful petition regarding the Ambassador Hotel issue, reactions by council members showed just how much politicians hate initiative and referendum. Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.”

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer advocated having the election as soon as possible. He told the city “By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest.”

As you can see by these remarks, politicians don’t like citizens second-guessing their actions. Initiative and referendum gives citizens this power. John Fund said it best: “Without initiatives and referendums, elites would barely bother at all to take note of public opinion on issues they disdained — from supermajority requirements to raise taxes to term limits. They serve as a reminder that the experts sometimes have to pay attention to good old common sense.”

Petitioning is not easy

A criticism often leveled against initiative and referendum is that ballots will be crowded with questions submitted by citizens. But as anyone who has been involved in a petitioning effort knows, filing a successful petition is not a simple matter. The first petition effort to relax Wichita marijuana laws failed, with the election commissioner ruling that an insufficient number of valid signatures were submitted. (Generally, petition signers must meet certain requirements such as being a registered voter and living within a certain jurisdiction.) Now the Kansas Attorney General contends that the second petition by the same group is defective because it lacks the proper legal language. It is common for the validity of petitions to be contested, either by government or by special interest groups that believe they will be adversely affected.

How to get it

It will take an amendment to the constitution for the people of Kansas to have initiative and referendum rights at the state level. That requires passage in both chambers of the legislature by a two-thirds margin, and then passage by a majority of voters.

Although the governor does not play a direct role in constitutional amendments — as they do not require the governor’s signature — a governor can still have a role. In 1991 Joan Finney supported initiative and referendum. An amendment passed the Kansas Senate, but did not advance through the House of Representatives.

Today it seems unlikely that the present Kansas Legislature would support an amendment implementing initiative and referendum. Politicians just don’t want to give up the power. (The laws giving some initiative and referendum rights at the municipal level is a state law. State legislators were imposing a hardship on other elected officials, not themselves.)

But initiative and referendum are popular with voters. In 2013 Gallup polled voters regarding petitioning at the national level. 68 percent favored this, while 23 percent opposed. One of the few issues that poll higher than this is term limits for office holders.

By the way, do you know what citizens in states often do after gaining the right of initiative? Impose term limits on their legislatures. Lawmakers don’t want you to do that.

Recent history in Wichita

In 2011, Wichitans petitioned to overturn a charter ordinance passed by the city council. In February 2012 the ordinance was overturned by a vote of 16,454 to 10,268 (62 percent to 38 percent). This was a special election with only question on the ballot.

In 2012 a group petitioned to add fluoride to Wichita water. The measure appeared on the November 2012 general election ballot, and voters said no by a vote of 76,906 to 52,293, or 60 percent to 40 percent.

On the November 2014 general election ballot, Wichita voters were asked about a one cent per dollar sales tax. This was not the result of a petition, but it provides an example of a vote for a policy rather than a person. Voters said no to the sales tax, 64,487 to 38,803 (62 percent to 38 percent.)

In 2015 a group petitioned to reduce the penalties for possession of small amount of marijuana. The measure appeared on the April 2015 city general election ballot, where Wichita voters approved the proposed law 20,327 to 17,183 (54 percent to 46 percent).

Wichita tourism plan should include spending disclosure

As part of a plan for spending a dedicated tax revenue stream, the Wichita city council should include disclosure of spending. It would fulfill a campaign promise.

When the City of Wichita collects money through taxation, citizens have the right to know how it is spent. For the city, it is possible to view every check that is written, although the city is not able to supply this information in machine-readable form. But it is available.

But when the city establishes non-profit corporations that are funded totally, or nearly totally, with taxes, different rules apply, says the city: Spending does not have to be disclosed.

This is contrary to the spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act, which opens with the preamble “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

For some time citizens have asked that the spending records of Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau (now known as Visit Wichita) be made available. But it is the position of each of these agencies that despite being funded almost totally by taxes, they do not need to reveal their spending records. The City of Wichita has backed this position.

This week the city council will consider a scope of services and budget agreement with its convention and visitors bureau. This year that agency is receiving the proceeds of a new 2.75 percent tax on hotel bills. City documents indicate this tax is expected to raise $2.7 million annually. When added to other tax funds the convention and visitors bureau receives, its budget is some $5 million per year.

But none of this money is subject to the same disclosure as regular city spending.

During the recent mayoral campaign, candidate Jeff Longwell wrote this in response to a question for the Wichita Eagle voter guide: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

Now Wichita mayor, Longwell has an opportunity to implement a campaign promise. It would be simple to do. All the council needs to do is insist that the convention and visitors bureau agree that it is what the law says it is: An agency funded nearly totally by taxes, which means it is a public agency that falls under the scope of the Kansas Open Records Act.

Intrust Bank Arena loss for 2014 is $5 million

The depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But no one wants to talk about this.

The true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.

In February the Wichita Eagle reported: “The arena’s net income for 2014 came in at $122,853, all of which will go to SMG, the company that operates the facility under contract with the county, Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said Wednesday.” A reading of the minutes for the February 11 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission finds Holt mentioning depreciation expense not a single time. Strike one.

Last December, in a look at the first five years of the arena, its manager told the Wichita Eagle this: “‘We know from a financial standpoint, the building has been successful. Every year, it’s always been in the black, and there are a lot of buildings that don’t have that, so it’s a great achievement,’ said A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager.” Strike two.

I didn’t notice the Eagle opinion page editorializing this year on the release of the arena’s profitability figures. So here’s an example of incomplete editorializing from Rhonda Holman, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.” (Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle in 2013 did not mention depreciation expense, either.) Strike three in the search for truthful accounting of the arena’s finances.

The problem with the reporting of Intrust Bank Arena profits

There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2103, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $705,678, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share, as Holman touted in her Eagle op-ed, was $255,678. (Presumably that’s after deducting the cost of producing an oversize check for the television cameras.)

For 2014, the arena’s profit was $122,853. All that goes to SMG, based on the revenue-sharing agreement.

The Operations of Intrust Bank ArenaWhile described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County. This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially last year. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”

Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:

The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any, and naming rights fees. The Arena had an operating loss of $5.0 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.2 million in depreciation expense.

Financial statements in the same document show that $5,157,424 was charged for depreciation in 2014, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $26,347,705.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $5,157,424 to pay depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

But not many of our public leaders recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

Earlier in this article we saw examples of the Sedgwick County Assistant Manager, the Intrust Bank Arena manager, and several Wichita Eagle writers making the same mistake.

Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
The contention — witting or not — of all these people is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) in the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to this view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds. Since Kansas is one of the few states that adds sales tax to food, low-income households paid extra sales tax on their groceries to pay for the arena — an arena where they may not be able to afford tickets.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently. The Wichita Eagleaids in promoting this deception.

We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.

Political perspective masquerades as ‘documentary’

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Political perspective masquerades as ‘documentary’

By Dave Trabert

“Where the Buffaloed Roam — An Ode to the Kansas Budget,” a film by Louisburg High School student Carson Tappan, is being featured at the Kansas City Film Festival.  It is billed as a “documentary” but in reality, it merely presents a political viewpoint that doesn’t let facts get in the way of the story it wants to tell.

Mr. Tappan is to be commended for tackling the project and it is heartening to see a high school student take an interest in state budget issues. He deserves an “A” for initiative and creativity but he fails in his goal to “make the problem clean and simple.” I agreed to be interviewed for the film and provided Mr. Tappan with a great deal of data, some of which contradicts claims made by other participants but he chose not to use it.

I recently asked Mr. Tappan why he excluded pertinent facts I provided and he wrote back saying, “I did not exclude any facts that you provided, the interview was too long to keep it in its entirety.” But as explained later in this piece, he did indeed exclude facts that contradict one of his own contentions.

Mr. Tappan and other participants in the film are certainly entitled to their opinion, and healthy discussions of alternate views are productive. Different opinions can be evenly presented in a documentary format but “Where the Buffaloed Roam” goes out of its way to ridicule those who don’t agree with its premise that reducing taxes is a bad idea.

The film takes the position that states like Texas and Florida can manage without an income tax because they have oil and tourism revenue, but that is not the reason. Texas, for example, could have all of the oil revenue in the nation and still have a high tax burden if it spent more. Every state provides the same basket of basic services (education, social service, etc.) but some states do so at a much lower cost and pass the savings on in the form of lower taxes.

In 2012, the states that tax income spent 49 percent more per-resident providing services than the states without an income tax, and they don’t do it by pushing spending to local government; the ten states with the highest combined state and local tax burden spent 43 percent more per resident than the ten states with the lowest burdens. Kansas, by the way, spent 37 percent more per resident than the states without an income tax.

While Kansas spent $3,409 per resident, Texas only spent $2,293 and Florida spent just $1,862 per resident. Small states also spent less; New Hampshire (which doesn’t have an income tax or a state sales tax) spent just $2,455 per resident. States that spend less, tax less.

The “oil and tourism” objection is common so I gave this information to Mr. Tappan and discussed it in the interview. He didn’t just ignore those facts .. he actually made the “oil and tourism” argument.

The “clean and simple” explanation of the Kansas budget is that spending wasn’t adjusted when taxes were reduced. Regardless of whether legislators agreed with tax reform, they and Governor Brownback should have reduced the cost of government. Instead, they succumbed to pressure from the bureaucracy and special interests and continue to increase spending. General Fund spending will set a new record this year and is proposed to rise even higher over the next two years.

Let’s put that in perspective. Kansas’ 2012 spending of $6.098 billion was 37 percent higher than the per-resident spending of states without an income tax. This year Kansas is expected to spend $191.5 million more than in 2012 and the budgets under consideration in the Legislature will add another $210.1 million in the next two years.

Kansas doesn’t need to be as efficient as states with low taxes to balance the budget…the state just needs to operate a few percentage points better. Ask legislators or Governor Brownback if government operates efficiently and they will say, “of course not.”  Then ask what they are going to do about it. This year, as in the past, the majority would rather raise taxes unnecessarily than stand up to the bureaucracy and special interests that profit from excess government spending. That is the clean and simple explanation of what is wrong with the Kansas budget.

Former state budget director Duane Goossen tells a different story (but still won’t debate us in public where he can be called out). He said revenue dropped three straight years during the recent recession and it appeared that revenue would decline for a fourth year, which prompted a sales tax increase that he attributes for the revenue turnaround. But that’s not exactly true. Mr. Goossen talked about tax revenue declines before carefully shifting to a discussion of revenue declines. Most people, and probably Mr. Tappan, wouldn’t catch that nuance but Mr. Goossen knows exactly what he was doing.

As shown in the above table, tax revenue only declined two years during the recession, in 2009 and 2010. Total revenue did decline a third year and was projected down a fourth year but that was because of conscious decisions made by legislators to transfer tax money out of the General Fund. The November 2009 Consensus Revenue Estimate predicted that tax revenues would increase for 2011, from $5.192 billion to $5.324 billion, and that estimate did not consider any sales tax increase. Mr. Gossen is simply pushing a notion that tax increases are necessary. Or, maybe tax increases are Mr. Gossen’s preference but he would rather distract his interlocutor with obfuscation than simply state his true goal.

This tax revenue chart that appears in the film clearly attributes tax revenue growth between 2010 and 2012 to the 1 cent sales tax that began July 1, 2010 (it’s unknown whether Mr. Goossen or Mr. Tappan prepared it because there is no sourcing). But this chart is yet another misrepresentation of the facts.

Data readily available from the Kansas Legislative Research Department shows that income taxes and other tax sources also increased in 2011 and 2012. Income tax revenue increased by $560 million over the two years while retail sales taxes grew by $490 million and all other General Fund taxes increased by $125 million. 

Kansas certainly has a spending problem but tax revenue is actually running well ahead of inflation…even after income taxes were reduced. General Fund tax revenue increased 28 percent between 2004 and 2014 while inflation was only 24 percent. The November 2014 Consensus Revenue Estimate shows that tax revenue will continue to stay well ahead of inflation (assuming inflation continues at its current pace. Tax revenue in 2017 would be 39 percent higher than 2004 but inflation would be 29 percent higher (again, assuming inflation maintains its current pace.)

The film also contains a number of false claims about school funding. Heather Ousley, who is a member of an organization that actively campaigns for the defeat of legislative candidates who do not subscribe to the “just spend more” philosophy of school funding, repeatedly claimed that schools are being defunded. She also repeats the mantra that schools are being defunded so that public education can be privatized; she may believe that but having spent a lot of time working with legislators, I know that to be a false assumption. Defenders of the status quo are fond of repeating the mantra, but it is nothing more than a scare tactic.

Schools are not being defunded and Mr. Tappan was provided with data from the Kansas Department of Revenue that contradicts claims made in the film. Again, he chose not to use that information. In reality, school funding will set a fourth consecutive record this year at $6.145 billion. On a per-pupil basis, it’s $13,343 and will be the third consecutive record. The facts are explained in greater detail in another blog post, which also shows that state funding is increasing this year under the new block grants.

There are other examples of factual inaccuracy in the film, but hopefully those set forth here sufficiently demonstrate that “Where the Buffaloed Roam” is not the documentary it purports to be but an artfully designed political statement.

Those who agree with the film’s position are certainly entitled to their view. They should just be honest and say that they prefer higher taxes and the high spending that goes with it.

Note: KPI staff members Patrick Parkes and David Dorsey deserve credit for much of the research in this blog post.

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

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

Kansas school test scores, two interactive visualizations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Jeff Longwell dodge a tough city council vote?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter and Facebook transcripts, April 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, on Facebook:

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

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

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

Economic indicators for Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Eagle fails readers, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Williams profile, the article started with this:

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

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

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

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

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