The government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next few years.
This week the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot how to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Then once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.
An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.
Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”
To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”
That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.
Who will plan?
The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”
But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.
Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.
Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.
In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.
The special interest groups that benefit 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.
The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.
And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”
We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.
By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is a board member of REAP, and may become the next chairman? Special interest groups know how to play the political game, that’s for sure.