The discussion at yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting provided an opportunity for citizens to discover the difference in the thinking of the political class and those who value limited government and capitalism.
At issue was Mid-Continent Instruments, Inc., which asked the city for a forgivable loan of $10,000. It received the same last week from Sedgwick County. According to city documents, the State of Kansas through its Department of Commerce is also contributing $503,055 in forgivable loans, sales tax exemptions, training grants, and tax credits.
In response to Coen, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked if we should ignore companies that want to do business here, or should we allow them to leave? Implicit in the question is that the threat dangled by Mid-Continent is real: that unless the city gives them $10,000, they will expand somewhere else. How citizens and council members feel about this issue largely depends on their perceived genuineness of this threat.
When Coen recommended that the city cut spending, Clendenin said “I can guarantee you, from what I have seen, this city government has cut a tremendous amount of spending.” When pressed by Coen for examples of cuts, he demurred. Clendenin also said that the $10,000 is needed to show the city’s commitment to the company.
Perhaps coming to the rescue of her younger and less experienced colleague, Council Member Janet Miller asked City Manager Bob Layton how much has been cut from the budget, and he replied “we’ve cut over $20 million in the general fund over three years.”
In saying that, Layton is using the language and mind-set of bureaucrats and politicians. In this world, it’s a cut if spending does not rise as fast as planned or hoped for. As you can see from the accompanying chart, Wichita general fund spending has not been cut in recent years. It has risen in each of the last three years, and plans are for it to keep rising.
This illustrates a divide between the thinking of the political class and regular people. Blurring the distinction between plans and reality lets politicians and bureaucrats present a fiscally responsible image — they cut the budget, after all — and increase spending at the same time. It’s a message that misinforms citizens about the important facts.
Miller also praised the return on investment the city receives for its spending on economic development, citing Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research and the cost-benefit calculations it performs. These calculations take the cost of providing the incentives and compare it to the returns the city and other governmental entities receive.
What is rarely mentioned, and what I think most people would be surprised to learn, is that the “returns” used in these calculations is manifested in the form of increased tax revenue. It’s not like in the private sector, where business firms attempt to increase their sales and profits by providing a product or service that people willingly buy. No, the city increases its revenue (we can’t call it profit) by collecting more taxes.
It’s another difference between the political class and everyone else: The political class craves tax revenue.
Aside from this, the cost-benefit calculations for the city don’t include the entire cost. The cost doesn’t include the county’s contribution, the majority of which comes from residents of its largest city, which is Wichita. Then, there’s the half-million in subsidy from the state, with a large portion of that paid for by the people of Wichita.
But even if you believe these calculations, there’s the problem of right-sizing the investment. If an investment of $10,000 has such glowing returns — last week Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton called the decision a “no-brainer” — why can’t we invest more? If we really believe this investment is good, we should wonder why the city council and county commission are so timid.
Since the applicant company is located in his district, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), praised the company and the state’s incentives, and made a motion to approve the forgivable loan. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted yes.
While the political class praises these subsidies and the companies that apply for them, not many are willing to confront the reality of the system we’re creating. Some, like O’Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, have recognized that when government is seen as eager to grant these subsidies, it prompts other companies to apply. The lure of a subsidy may cause them to arrange their business affairs so as to conform — or appear to conform — to the guidelines government has for its various subsidy programs. Companies may do this without regard to underlying economic wisdom.
We also need to recognize that besides simple greed for public money, businesses have another reason to apply for these subsidies: If a publicly-traded company doesn’t seek them, its shareholders would wonder why the company didn’t exercise its fiduciary duty to do so. But this just perpetuates the system, and so increasing amounts of economic development fall under the direction of government programs.
While most people see this rise in corporate welfare as harmful — I call it a moral hazard — the political class is pleased with this arrangement. As Meitzner said in making his motion, he was proud that Wichita “won out” over the other city Mid-Continent Instruments considered moving to.
Another harmful effect of these actions is to create a reputation for having an uncompetitive business environment. Not only must businesses of all types pay for the cost of these subsidies, some face direct competition by a government-subsidized competitor. This is the situation Wichita-area hotels face as a result of the city granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.
Even those not in direct competition face increased costs as they attempt to hire labor, buy supplies, and seek access to capital in competition with government-subsidized firms. Could this uneven competitive landscape be a factor that business firms consider in deciding where to locate and invest?
We can expect to see more government intervention in economic development and more corporate welfare. Former council member Sue Schlapp in April took a job with the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job title is “senior constituent liaison,” which I think can be better described as “customer service agent for the corporate welfare state.” Her office is in Wichita city hall.
Increasingly we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions based on incorrect and misleading information, such as claiming that the city’s general fund budget has been cut when spending has increased. Sometimes they are fed incorrect information, as in the case of a presentation at Sedgwick County Commission that bordered on fraudulent.
Sometimes, I think, officeholders just don’t care. It’s easiest to go along with the flow and not raise ripples. They participate in groundbreakings and get their photograph in the newspaper and on television that way. Which brings up an important question: why do none of our city’s mainstream media outlets report on these matters?