Category Archives: Kansas state government

The Kansas economy and agriculture

There’s no need for Kansas state government to exaggerate the value of agriculture to the Kansas economy.

A recent press release from the office of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback quoted the governor thusly: “Agriculture is our largest economic driver, bringing more than $63 billion into the Kansas economy.” (Governor Sam Brownback visits will reinforce the importance of Kansas agriculture, August 17, 2015.)

$63 billion is a lot of output. It’s about 43 percent of the Kansas economy. A document supplied by the Kansas Department of Agriculture provides more detail: “As shown in the above table, agriculture, food, and food processing supports 229,934.1 jobs, or 12% of the entire workforce in the county [sic]. These industries provide a total economic contribution of approximately $62.8 billion, roughly 43% of Gross Region Product (GRP).” (Estimated Economic Impact of Agriculture, Food, and Food Processing Sectors, May 7, 2015.)

The document explains how such a large number is obtained. It includes three components, explained here: “Direct, indirect, and induced effects sum together to estimate the total economic contribution in the state. Direct effects capture the contribution from agricultural and food products. Indirect effects capture the economic benefit from farms and agricultural businesses purchasing inputs from supporting industries within the state. Induced effects capture the benefits created when employees of farms, agricultural businesses, and the supporting industries spend their wages on goods and services within the state.”

This method of reckoning economic impact is from a model called IMPLAN. It is a proprietary system with methodology and assumptions not open to inspection. It often used by those who are asking government for money or tax breaks. IMPLAN comes up with some real whoppers as to how important an industry is to the economy. When shown these figures, government officials are usually swayed to grant incentives.

There’s a problem, however. Agriculture cannot possibly be responsible for 43 percent of Kansas GDP. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has figures for each state showing the contribution to GDP for industry categories. I’ve gathered the data and calculated percentages for each industry. As you can see, the category “Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting” accounts for $8,136 million or 5.5 percent of Kansas GDP. There are seven other industry categories that rank above agriculture.

Gross Domestic Product for Kansas by Industry.
Gross Domestic Product for Kansas by Industry.

5.5 percent is a long way from the governor’s claim of 43 percent. It is true that the title of the paper is “Estimated Economic Impact of Agriculture, Food, and Food Processing Sectors.” So consider these industry subsectors:

Food and beverage and tobacco products manufacturing of $3,463 million (2013 value; 2104 not available)
Food services and drinking places $2,776 million (Also 2013 value)

If we add these to agriculture, we have production worth 9.8 percent of Kansas GDP. This is being overly generous to agriculture. It counts all bars and restaurants as part of the agriculture industry, something that makes no sense.

So how do we take these numbers and pump them up to 43 percent? IMPLAN, that’s how. It’s true that when an industry causes economic activity to occur, it spawns other economic activity. These are the indirect and induced effects that IMPLAN produces. But these numbers are hugely inflated. And when we take all industries, economic activity is counted more than once.

Recall there are seven industry categories ranking above agriculture. When it suits its needs, each of these uses IMPLAN to boost its importance to the state. Consider manufacturing, which at 13.1 percent of GDP is the third-largest industry in Kansas. When manufacturing companies appeal to state or local government for subsidies, they use IMPLAN or related mechanisms to inflate their importance. Almost everyone does this. It’s standard procedure.

Except: When everyone claims the same indirect and induced economic activity, such analysis becomes meaningless. If we added up the IMPLAN-calculated value of each industry to the Kansas economy, we’d end up with a value several times larger than the actual value.

This is what the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Governor Sam Brownback have done. We expect this behavior from companies or local economic development agencies when they appeal for economic development incentives. They need to inflate their importance to gullible government bureaucrats and elected officials. But Governor Brownback doesn’t need to do this, and neither does the Kansas Department of Agriculture. From them, all we want is the truth, and nothing more.

Kansas needs low taxes

Two research papers illustrate the need to maintain low taxes in Kansas, finding that high taxes are associated with reduced income and low economic growth.

As Kansas legislators seek to balance the state’s budget, most Kansas opinionmakers are urging higher taxes instead of spending restraint. Many claim that government taxation and spending are the driving forces behind growing the Kansas economy. An example is the motto of the Kansas Economic Progress Council, which is “… because a tax cut never filled a pothole, put out a fire or taught a child to read.”

Two research papers illustrate the need to maintain low taxes in Kansas, finding that high taxes are associated with reduced income and low economic growth. Research such as this rebuts the presumption of government spending advocates that low taxes have killed jobs in Kansas.

One paper is The Robust Relationship between Taxes and U.S. State Income Growth by W. Robert Reed, published in the National Tax Journal in March 2008. The abstract to this paper states:

I estimate the relationship between taxes and income growth using data from 1970 – 1999 and the forty-eight continental U.S. states. I find that taxes used to fund general expenditures are associated with significant, negative effects on income growth. This finding is generally robust across alternative variable specifications, alternative estimation procedures, alternative ways of dividing the data into “five-year” periods, and across different time periods and Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) regions, though state-specific estimates vary widely. I also provide an explanation for why previous research has had difficulty identifying this “robust” relationship. (emphasis added)

In his introduction, Reed writes that previous studies had found: “To the extent a consensus exists, it is that taxes used to fund transfer payments have small, negative effects on economic activity.” His paper found a stronger relationship.

Reed issues a caution on the use of his conclusions: “It needs to be emphasized that my claim for robustness should be understood as applying only within the context of U.S. state income growth. It should not be interpreted as being more widely applicable to other contexts, such as employment growth, manufacturing activity, plant locations, etc., or to the relationship between taxes and income growth outside the U.S.”

This illustrates one of the ways we focus on the wrong measure of growth. Politicians focus on jobs. But to business, jobs are a cost. One of the better goals to seek, as Art Hall specifies in his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, is income growth, along with population density and population migration, productivity growth, capital investment, gross business starts and expansions, and customer service and throughput measures of state economic development agencies. Hall writes: “If Kansas performs well in the measures provided, it will also perform well in terms of job count.”

Another example of research finding a negative impact of taxation is State Taxes and Economic Growth by Barry W. Poulson and Jules Gordon Kaplan, published in the Winter 2008 Cato Journal. In the introduction to the paper, the authors write: “The analysis reveals a significant negative impact of higher marginal tax rates on economic growth. The analysis underscores the importance of controlling for regressivity, convergence, and regional influences in isolating the effect of taxes on economic growth in the states.” (emphasis added)

In its conclusion, the paper states:

The analysis reveals that higher marginal tax rates had a negative impact on economic growth in the states. The analysis also shows that greater regressivity had a positive impact on economic growth. States that held the rate of growth in revenue below the rate of growth in income achieved higher rates of economic growth.

The analysis underscores the negative impact of income taxes on economic growth in the states. Most states introduced an income tax and came to rely on the income tax as the primary source of revenue. Jurisdictions that imposed an income tax to generate a given level of revenue experienced lower rates of economic growth relative to jurisdictions that relied on alternative taxes to generate the same revenue. (emphasis added)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kansas conservatives call for repeal of death penalty

From Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Kansas Conservatives Call for Repeal of Death Penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas slips in Tax Foundation business tax climate index

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

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

In 2014 Kansas ranked at position 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kansas, resolving school district spending variances could yield savings

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Resolving school district spending variances could yield hundreds of millions in savings

By Dave Trabert

School districts spent an average $12,960 per student during the 2014 school year but the range of spending across districts varied quite significantly. Total spending went from a low of $9,245 per-pupil (USD 218 Elkhart, with 1,137 students) to a high of $23,861 (USD 490 El Dorado, 1,872 students); El Dorado also hosted a Special Ed Co-Op and must record the cost of serving students in other districts per KSDE. USD 359 Argonia had the highest spending per-pupil among districts that did not host Special Ed Co-Ops, spending $22,847 with 162 students enrolled.

Instruction spending variances can be somewhat driven by the school funding formula and student body compositions (extra money is given to districts for special education, low income students and bi-lingual students) but districts have a great deal of latitude in resource allocation. Some districts, for example, divert money from Instruction as a result of other spending decisions. Variances in spending on Administration and other cost centers, however, are primarily driven by district operating decisions.

Many Kansas school districts have low enrollment, and while it would be expected that very small districts would spend more per-pupil because of economies of scale, some small districts are able to operate at lower prices per student than many larger districts. There are also wide variances even among districts of similar size.

A complete analysis of all operating cost centers (including Operations/Maintenance, Transportation, Food Service and Community Service can be found here.

To put these variances in perspective, KPI staff calculated the potential savings of getting each district spending above median within their enrollment category down to the median for each cost center. The total comes to a staggering $516 million. There may be some circumstances that preclude some of that savings being realized but there could also be additional savings realized among those districts spending below median.

To be clear, the purpose of this analysis is not to say that a specific dollar amount of savings could be had if districts operate more efficiently. However, variances of this magnitude certainly indicate that efficiency efforts driven by the Legislature could easily yield nine-figure savings.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Sin taxes, and what the Kansas Legislature doesn’t want you to know

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Sin taxes, and what the Kansas Legislature doesn’t want you to know. Originally broadcast February 8, 2015. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. For more on these issues, see:

Sin-tax or vice-tax?
This is how much the Kansas Legislature wants Kansans to know
Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature

STAR bonds in Kansas

The Kansas STAR bonds program provides a mechanism for spending by autopilot, without specific appropriation by the legislature.

Under the State of Kansas STAR bonds program, cities sell bonds and turn over the proceeds to a developer of a project. As bond payments become due, incremental sales tax revenue make the payments.

STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
It’s only the increment in sales tax that is eligible to be diverted to bond payments. This increment is calculated by first determining a base level of sales for the district. Then, as new development comes online — or as sales rise at existing merchants — the increased sales tax over the base is diverted to pay the STAR bonds.

Often the STAR bonds district, before formation, is vacant land, and therefore has produced no sales tax revenue. Further, the district often has the same boundaries as the proposed development. Thus, advocates often argue that the bonds pay for themselves. Advocates often make the additional case that without the STAR bonds, there would be no development, and therefore no sales tax revenue. Diverting sales tax revenue back to the development really has no cost, they say, as nothing was going to happen but for the bonds.

This is not always the case, For a STAR bonds district in northeast Wichita, the time period used to determine the base level of sales tax was February 2011 through January 2012. A new Cabela’s store opened in March 2012, and it’s located in the boundaries of STAR bonds district, even though it is not part of the new development. Since Cabela’s sales during the period used to calculate the base period was $0, the store’s entire sales tax collections will be used to benefit the STAR bonds developer.

(There are a few minor exceptions, such as the special CID tax Cabela’s collects for its own benefit.)

Which begs the question: Why is the Cabela’s store included in the boundaries of the STAR bonds district?

With sales estimated at $35 million per year at this Cabela’s store, the state has been receiving around $2 million per year in sales tax from it. But after the STAR bonds are sold, that money won’t be flowing to the state. Instead, it will be used to pay off bonds that benefit the STAR bond project’s developer — the project across the street.

Taxation for public or private benefit?
STAR bonds should be opposed as they turn over taxation to the private sector. We should look at taxation as a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way.

But STAR bonds turn tax policy over to the private sector for personal benefit. The money is collected under the pretense of government authority, but it is collected for the exclusive benefit of the owners of property in the STAR bonds district.

Citizens should be asking this: Why do we need taxation, if we excuse some from participating in the system?

Another question: In the words of the Kansas Department of Commerce, the STAR bonds program offers “municipalities the opportunity to issue bonds to finance the development of major commercial, entertainment and tourism areas and use the sales tax revenue generated by the development to pay off the bonds.” This description, while generally true, is not accurate. The northeast Wichita STAR bonds district includes much area beyond the borders of the proposed development, including a Super Target store, a new Cabela’s store, and much vacant ground that will probably be developed as retail. The increment in sales taxes from these stores — present and future — goes to the STAR bond developer. As we’ve seen, since the Cabela’s store did not exist during the time the base level of sales was determined, all of its sales count towards the increment.

STAR bonds versus capitalism
In economic impact and effect, the STAR bonds program is a government spending program. Except: Like many spending programs implemented through the tax system, legislative appropriations are not required. No one has to vote to spend on a specific project. Can you imagine the legislature voting to grant $5 million per year to a proposed development in northeast Wichita? That doesn’t seem likely. Few members would want to withstand the scrutiny of having voted in favor of such blatant cronyism.

But under tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds, that’s exactly what happens — except for the legislative voting part, and the accountability that (sometimes) follows.

Government spending programs like STAR bonds are sold to legislators and city council members as jobs programs. Development and jobs, it is said, will not appear unless project developers receive incentives through these spending programs. Since no politician wants to be seen voting against jobs, many are susceptible to the seductive promise of jobs.

But often these same legislators are in favor of tax cuts to create jobs. This is the case in the Kansas House, where most Republican members voted to reducing the state’s income tax as a way of creating economic growth and jobs. On this issue, these members are correct.

But many of the same members voted in favor of tax expenditure programs like the STAR bonds program. These two positions cannot be reconciled. If government taxing and spending is bad, it is especially bad when part of tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds. And there’s plenty of evidence that government spending and taxation is a drag on the economy.

It’s not just legislators that are holding these incongruous views. Secretary of Commerce Pat George promoted the STAR bonds program to legislators. Governor Sam Brownback supported the program.

When Brownback and a new, purportedly more conservative Kansas House took office, I wondered whether Kansas would pursue a business-friendly or capitalism-friendly path: “Plans for the Kansas Republican Party to make Kansas government more friendly to business run the risk of creating false, or crony capitalism instead of an environment of genuine growth opportunity for all business.” I quoted John Stossel:

The word “capitalism” is used in two contradictory ways. Sometimes it’s used to mean the free market, or laissez faire. Other times it’s used to mean today’s government-guided economy. Logically, “capitalism” can’t be both things. Either markets are free or government controls them. We can’t have it both ways.

The truth is that we don’t have a free market — government regulation and management are pervasive — so it’s misleading to say that “capitalism” caused today’s problems. The free market is innocent.

But it’s fair to say that crony capitalism created the economic mess.

But wait, you may say: Isn’t business and free-market capitalism the same thing? Not at all. Here’s what Milton Friedman had to say: “There’s a widespread belief and common conception that somehow or other business and economics are the same, that those people who are in favor of a free market are also in favor of everything that big business does. And those of us who have defended a free market have, over a long period of time, become accustomed to being called apologists for big business. But nothing could be farther from the truth. There’s a real distinction between being in favor of free markets and being in favor of whatever business does.” (emphasis added.)

Friedman also knew very well of the discipline of free markets and how business will try to avoid it: “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system. Naturally, existing businesses generally prefer to keep out competitors in other ways. That is why the business community, despite its rhetoric, has so often been a major enemy of truly free enterprise.”

The danger of Kansas government having a friendly relationship with Kansas business is that the state will circumvent free markets and promote crony, or false, capitalism in Kansas. It’s something that we need to be on the watch for. The existence of the STAR bonds program lets us know that a majority of Kansas legislators — including many purported fiscal conservatives — prefer crony capitalism over free enterprise and genuine capitalism.

The problem

Government bureaucrats and politicians promote programs like STAR bonds as targeted investment in our economic future. They believe that they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Kansas economy.

Arnold King has written about the ability of government experts to decide what investments should be made with public funds. There’s a problem with knowledge and power:

As Hayek pointed out, knowledge that is important in the economy is dispersed. Consumers understand their own wants and business managers understand their technological opportunities and constraints to a greater degree than they can articulate and to a far greater degree than experts can understand and absorb.

When knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, I call this the knowledge-power discrepancy. Such discrepancies can arise in large firms, where CEOs can fail to appreciate the significance of what is known by some of their subordinates. … With government experts, the knowledge-power discrepancy is particularly acute.

Despite this knowledge problem, Kansas legislators are willing to give power to bureaucrats in the Department of Commerce and politicians on city councils who feel they have the necessary knowledge to direct the investment of public funds. One thing is for sure: the state and its bureaucrats and politicians have the power to make these investments. They just don’t have — they can’t have — the knowledge as to whether these are wise.

What to do
The STAR bonds program is an “active investor” approach to economic development. Its government spending on business leads to 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 critical 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 Kansas and many of its cities employ: “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. Government spending on specific companies through programs like STAR bonds 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 all levels of government 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.

Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas

Industrial Revenue Bonds are a confusing economic development program. We see evidence that citizens are concerned that the city or county is in the business of lending money to companies, when that is not the case. You see this misunderstanding revealed in comments left to newspaper articles reporting the issuance of IRBs, where comment writers complain that the city shouldn’t be in the business of lending companies money.

IRBs are not a loan by government
A recent Wichita city council agenda packet regarding an IRB issue explains that the city is not lending the applicant money. In fact, no one is lending, in the net: “Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. intends to purchase the bonds itself, through direct placement, and the bonds will not be reoffered for sale to the public.” If a company wants to lend itself money, this is a private transaction that should be of no public interest or concern.

Industrial Revenue Bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
Industrial Revenue Bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
In 2010 when movie theater owner Bill Warren and partners sought IRBs, city documents held this: “American Luxury Cinemas, Inc. proposes to privately place the $16,000,000 taxable industrial revenue bond with Intrust Bank, with whom there is a long-standing banking relationship.” Again, if a bank wants to lend someone money, this a private transaction that should be of no public interest or concern.

The reason for IRBs
The reason why IRB transactions take place is simple: tax avoidance. That’s the real story of Industrial Revenue Bonds: Companies escape paying the property and sales taxes that you and I — as well as most business firms — must pay.

It’s not uncommon for the issuing company to buy the bonds, as in the case of Spirit. So why issue the bonds? The agenda packet has the answer: “The bond financed property will be eligible for sales tax exemption and property tax exemption for a term of ten years, subject to fulfillment of the conditions of the City’s public incentives policy.”

City documents didn’t give the amount of tax Spirit will avoid paying, so we’re left to surmise. Bonds could be issued up to $59.5 million. Taxable business property of that value would generate an annual tax bill of around $1.8 million per year, and Spirit would not pay that for up to ten years. For sales taxes, if all the purchased property was subject to sales tax, that one-time tax exemption would be $4.3 million. These are the upper bounds of the tax savings Spirit Aerosystems may receive. Its actual savings will probably be lower, but still substantial.

In the case of the Warren theater, the IRBs provided sales and property tax exemptions, although the property tax exemption was partially offset by a payment in lieu of taxes agreement.

IRBs are a confusing economic development program. It sounds like a loan from the city or state, but it’s not. The purpose is to convey tax avoidance.

Here’s language from the Wichita ordinance that was passed to implement the Spirit bonds: “The Bonds, together with the interest thereon, are not general obligations of the City, but are special obligations payable (except to the extent paid out of moneys attributable to the proceeds derived from the sale of the Bonds or to the income from the temporary investment thereof) solely from the lease payments under the Lease, and the Bond Fund and other moneys held by the Trustee, as provided in the Indenture. Neither the credit nor the taxing power of the State of Kansas or of any political subdivision of such State is pledged to the payment of the principal of the Bonds and premium, if any, and interest thereon or other costs incident thereto.”

So no governmental body has any obligation to pay the bondholders in case of default. But this language hints at another complicating factor of IRBs: The city actually owns the property purchased with the bond proceeds, and leases it to Spirit. Here’s the preamble of the ordinance: “An ordinance approving and authorizing the execution of a lease agreement between Spirit Aerosystems, Inc. and the City of Wichita, Kansas.”

Other language in the ordinance is “WHEREAS, the Company will acquire a leasehold interest in the Project from the City pursuant to said Lease Agreement.” There’s other language detailing the lease.

We create this “imaginary” lease agreement — and that’s what it is, as it doesn’t have the same purpose and economic meaning as most leases — for what purpose? Just so that certain companies can avoid paying taxes.

The City of Wichita does have another program that allows it to exempt these taxes under some circumstances without having to issue bonds. In this case the goal of the program is laid clear: tax avoidance.

The actual economic transaction
IRBs are a confusing program that obfuscates the actual economic transaction. That’s not good public policy, whether or not you agree with the concept of selective tax abatements as economic development.

Similarly, a principle of good tax policy is that those in similar situations should face the same laws. IRBs are contrary to this.

Also, IRBs are generally available only to large companies. There is massive red tape to overcome, as well as fees, such as an annual fee of $2,500 to the city.

Often when IRBs are presented to city councils for approval, there is explanation of what the bond proceeds will be used for. This is curious. It is as though city council members are wise enough to ascertain whether the plans a company has are economically feasible and desirable, and that the council would not grant approval for the IRBS if not.

While we can understand that citizens — with their busy lives — may not be informed or concerned about the complex workings of IRBs, we should expect more from our elected (and paid) officials. But we find often they are not informed.

As an example, in 2004 the Wichita Eagle reported: “In July, the council approved industrial revenue bond financing and a $1.7 million property tax abatement for Genesis Health Clubs. Council members later said they didn’t realize they had also approved a sales-tax break.” (Kolb goal : Full facts in future city deals, September 26, 2004)

Here we see Wichita City Council members not aware of the basic mechanism of a major city program that is frequently used. This is in spite of an informative city web page devoted to IRBs which prominently states: “Generally, property and services acquired with the proceeds of IRBs are eligible for sales tax exemption.”

Community improvement districts in Kansas

Community Improvement Districts are a relatively recent creation of the Kansas Legislature. In a CID, merchants charge additional sales tax, up to an extra two cents per dollar.

Community improvement district using bonds. Click for larger version.
Community improvement district using bonds. Click for larger version.
There are two forms of CID. Both start with the drawing of the boundaries of a geographical district. In the original form, a city borrows money by selling bonds. The bond proceeds are given to the owners of the district. The bonds are repaid by the extra sales tax collected, known as the CID tax.

In the second form of CID, the extra sales tax is simply given to the owners of property in district as it is collected, after deduction of a small amount to reimburse government for its expenses. This is known as a “pay-as-you-go” CID.

The “pay-as-you-go” CID holds less risk for cities, as the extra sales tax — the CID tax — is remitted to the property owner as it is collected. If sales run below projections, or of the project never materializes, the property owners receive less funds, or no funds. With CID bonds, the city must pay back the bonds even if the CID tax does not raise enough funds to make the bond payments.

Community improvement district using pay-as-you-go. Click for larger version.
Community improvement district using pay-as-you-go. Click for larger version.
Of note is that CID proceeds benefit the owners of the property, not the merchants. Kansas law requires that 55 percent of the property owners in the proposed CID agree to its formation. The City of Wichita uses a more restrictive policy, requiring all owners to consent.

Issues regarding CID

Perhaps the most important public policy issue regarding CIDs is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? But the premise of this question is not accurate, as it is not the merchants who receive CID funds. The more accurate question is why don’t landlords raise their rents? That puts them at a competitive disadvantage with property owners that are not within CIDs. Better for us, they rationalize, that unwitting customers pay higher sales taxes for our benefit.

Consumer protection
Customers of merchants in CIDS ought to know in advance that an extra CID tax is charged. Some have recommended warning signage that protects customers from unknowingly shopping in stores, restaurants, and hotels that will be adding extra sales tax to purchases. Developers who want to benefit from CID money say that merchants object to signage, fearing it will drive away customers.

State law is silent on this. The City of Wichita requires a sign indicating that CID financing made the project possible, with no hint that customers will pay additional tax. The city also maintains a website showing CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless.

Eligible costs
One of the follies in government economic development policy is the categorization of costs into eligible and non-eligible costs. The proceeds from programs like CIDs and tax increment financing may be used only for costs in the “eligible” category. I suggest that we stop arbitrarily distinguishing between “eligible costs” and other costs. When city bureaucrats and politicians use a term like “eligible costs” it makes this process seem benign. It makes it seem as though we’re not really supplying corporate welfare and subsidy.

As long as the developer has to spend money on what we call “eligible costs,” the fact that the city subsidy is restricted to these costs has no economic meaning. Suppose I gave you $10 with the stipulation that you could spend it only on next Monday. Would you deny that I had enriched you by $10? Of course not. As long as you were planning to spend $10 next Monday, or could shift your spending from some other day to Monday, this restriction has no economic meaning.

Notification and withdrawal
If a merchant moves into an existing CID, how might they know beforehand that they will have to charge the extra sales tax? It’s a simple matter to learn the property taxes a piece of property must pay. But if a retail store moves into a vacant storefront in a CID, how would this store know that it will have to charge the extra CID sales tax? This is an important matter, as the extra tax could place the store at a competitive disadvantage, and the prospective retailer needs to know of the district’s existence and its terms.

Then, if a business tires of being in a CID — perhaps because it realizes it has put itself at a competitive disadvantage — how can the district be dissolved?

The nature of taxation
CIDs allow property owners to establish their own private taxing district for their exclusive benefit. This goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually thought of. Generally, we use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from participating in — benefiting from — police protection.

But CIDs allow taxes to be collected for the benefit of one specific entity. This goes against the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. But in this case, the people who benefit from the CID are quite easy to identify: the property owners in the district.

Kansas must get serious about spending

As Kansas struggles to balance the budget for this year and the next, the state needs to prepare for future budgets by resolving the problem of spending.

Click to open this visualization in a new window.
Click to open this visualization in a new window.
Why is controlling spending important? The slow rate of growth of the Kansas economy has been a problem for years. This interactive visualization lets you compare gross domestic product growth of Kansas with other states. Kansas has reduced income taxes, but Kansas has not reduced spending to match. There is pressure to balance future budgets with tax increases instead of spending cuts. Because of the lagging performance of the Kansas economy, it’s important to reduce the footprint of state government to make room for the private sector economy to grow.

Kansas Policy Institute has provided a plan for balancing the Kansas budget. It relies on structural changes and small improvements in efficiency.

Kansas can balance its budget by improving the operations of, and reducing the cost of, state government. 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 again missing from government.

As lawmakers, Kansas judges should be selected democratically

Kansas Judicial Center in snowWhile many believe that judges should not “legislate from the bench,” that is, make law themselves, the reality is that lawmaking is a judicial function. In a democracy, lawmakers should be elected under the principle of “one person, one vote.” But Kansas, which uses the Missouri Plan for judicial selection to its two highest courts, violates this principle.

A recent paper by Kansas University School of Law Professor Stephen J. Ware explains the problem with the process used in Kansas. The paper is titled Originalism, Balanced Legal Realism and Judicial Selection: A Case Study and may be downloaded at no charge. The Kansas courts that use the judicial selection described in the paper are the Kansas Court of Appeals and the Kansas Supreme Court.

At issue is whether judges are simply arbitrators of the law, or do they actually participate in the lawmaking process. Ware explains: “This realist view that statutory interpretation often involves ‘substantial judicial discretion’ and therefore constitutes ‘judicial lawmaking, not lawfinding,’ had by the 1950s, ‘become deeply rooted.'”

A “‘balanced realism,’ to use Brian Tamanaha’s appealing label, recognizes both that judges’ policy preferences have little or no influence on many judicial decisions and that judges’ policy preferences have a significant influence on other judicial decisions. Empirical studies tend to support this balanced view.” In other words, there is some role for ideology in making judicial decisions. Politics, therefore, is involved. Ware quotes Charles Gardner Geyh: “In a post-realist age, the ideological orientation of judicial aspirants matters.” And the higher the court, the more this matters.

Since judges function as lawmakers, they ought to be selected by a democratic process. In the Kansas version of the Missouri Plan, a nominating commission dominated by lawyers selects three candidates to fill an opening on the Kansas Court of Appeals or Kansas Supreme Court. The governor then selects one of the three, and the process is over. A new judge is selected. This process gives members of the state’s bar tremendous power in selecting judges.

Ware presents eleven examples of judges on the two highest Kansas courts engaging in lawmaking. In one, a workers’ compensation case, the employee would lose his appeal if the “clear” precedent was followed. Justice Carol A. Beier wrote the opinion. Ware explains:

But this is not, in fact, what Justice Beier and her colleagues on the Kansas Supreme Court did. Rather they did what Kansas Judges Greene and Russell say never happens. Justice Beier and her colleagues engaged in lawmaking. They changed the legal rule from one contrary to their ideologies to one consistent with their ideologies.

Justice Beier’s opinion doing this started by criticizing the old rule, while acknowledging that it was, in fact, the rule prior to her opinion by which the Supreme Court made new law. Here again is the above quote from Coleman, but now with the formerly omitted words restored and italicized: “The rule is clear, if a bit decrepit and unpopular: An injury from horseplay does not arise out of employment and is not compensable unless the employer was aware of the activity or it had become a habit at the workplace.”

Who decided that this rule is “decrepit and unpopular” and so should be changed? Was it the Kansas Legislature? No, it was the Kansas Supreme Court. It was judges, not legislators, who decided that this legal rule was bad policy. It was judges, not legislators, who changed the law to bring it in line with what the lawmaking judges thought was good policy.

Beier wrote in her opinion: “We are clearly convinced here that our old rule should be abandoned. Although appropriate for the time in which it arose, we are persuaded by the overwhelming weight of contrary authority in our sister states and current legal commentary.”

The result: New Kansas law, made by people selected through an undemocratic process.

In conclusion, Ware writes:

Non-lawyers who believe in the principle that lawmakers should be selected democratically need to know that judicial selection is lawmaker selection to be troubled by the Missouri Plan’s violation of this principle. Non-lawyers who do not know that judges inevitably make law may believe that the role of a judge consists only of its professional/technical side and, therefore, believe that judges should be selected entirely on their professional competence and ethics and that assessments of these factors are best left to lawyers. In short, a lawyer who omits lawmaking from a published statement about the judicial role is furthering a misimpression that helps empower lawyers at the expense of non-lawyers, in violation of basic democratic equality, the principle of one-person, one-vote.

Prospects for Kansas

In Kansas, the process for selecting judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals is governed by statute, and can be changed by the legislature and governor. Last year the House of Representatives passed a bill to reform the process, but it was blocked by Senate Judiciary Chair Tim Owens. He said “I think this is the first time I did not hear a bill because I thought it was so bad. This is a terrible, terrible bill that’s hated by the courts; it’s an attempt to take over control of the courts.”

Owens, who ranked as the least friendly senator to economic freedom in the 2012 edition of the Kansas Economic Freedom Index, lost his bid for re-election in the August primary election. Many of the other moderate Republicans who voted against reform also lost their primary election contest.

Owens, it should be noted, is an attorney, and is therefore a member of the privileged class that has outsize power in selecting judges.

Sometimes legislators are simply uninformed or misinformed on judicial selection. An example is Jean Schodorf, who lost a re-election bid in August. In an interview, she was quoted as saying “We thwarted changes to judicial selection that would have allowed the governor to have the final say in all judicial selections.”

The bill that the senate voted on, and the one that Owens killed the year before, called for Court of Appeals judges to be appointed by the governor, with the consent of the senate. It’s actually the senate that has the final say.

Newspaper editorial writers across Kansas are mostly opposed to judicial selection reform. An example is Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle, who in 2010 wrote: “Some critics may have a beef with past court decisions, perhaps even a legitimate one — which is no surprise, given that judicial decisions pick winners and losers. But they also may be motivated by politics — which is a problem, given that the judiciary is supposed to be fair, impartial and independent. In the absence of a strong case for change, Kansas should stick with what works.”

With the change in composition of the Kansas Senate, the climate is more favorable for reform for the way judges are selected for the Kansas Court of Appeals. The law governing how judges for the Kansas Supreme Court are selected is in the Kansas Constitution, and would require an amendment to alter the process. Such an amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature, and then a simple majority vote of the people.

By the way: For those who criticize the support for judicial selection reform as pure power politics, since Kansas has a conservative governor, remember this: When Professor Ware sounded the need for reform and convinced me of the need, our governor was the liberal Kathleen Sebelius. There was also a liberal senate at that time, one which would undoubtedly have rubberstamped any nominee Sebelius might have sent for confirmation.

Originalism, Balanced Legal Realism and Judicial Selection: A Case Study
By Stephen J. Ware

Abstract: The “balanced realist” view that judging inevitably involves lawmaking is widely accepted, even among originalists, such as Justice Scalia, Randy Barnett and Steven Calabresi. Yet many lawyers are still reluctant to acknowledge publicly the inevitability of judicial lawmaking. This reluctance is especially common in debates over the Missouri Plan, a method of judicial selection that divides the power to appoint judges between the governor and the bar.

The Missouri Plan is one of three widely-used methods of selecting state court judges. The other two are: (1) direct election of judges by the citizenry, and (2) appointment of judges by democratically elected officials, typically the governor and legislature, with little or no role for the bar. Each of these two methods of judicial selection respects a democratic society’s basic equality among citizens — the principle of one-person, one-vote. In contrast, the Missouri Plan violates this principle by making a lawyer’s vote worth more than another citizen’s vote.

This Article provides a case study of the clash between the inevitability of judicial lawmaking and the reluctance of lawyers to acknowledge this inevitability while defending their disproportionate power under the Missouri Plan. The Article documents efforts by lawyers in one state, Kansas, to defend their version of the Missouri Plan by attempting to conceal from the public the fact that Kansas judges, like judges in the other 49 states, inevitably make law. The case study then shows examples of Kansas judges making law. The Article concludes that honesty requires lawyers participating in the debate over judicial selection in the United States to forthrightly acknowledge that judges make law. Lawyers who seek to defend the power advantage the Missouri Plan gives them over other citizens can honestly acknowledge that this is a power advantage in the selection of lawmakers and then explain why they believe a departure from the principle of one-person, one-vote is justified in the selection of these particular lawmakers.

The complete paper may be downloaded at no charge here.

Kansas spring elections should be moved

Moving spring elections to fall of even-numbered years would produce more votes on local offices like city council and school board.

Before each election, observers such as newspaper editorialists and others urge citizens to get registered and to vote. After the election — especially spring elections in Kansas — the same parties lament the usually low voter turnout.

There is a pattern that could be used if we want more voters in city and school elections. That pattern is that in Sedgwick County, on average, people vote in fall elections at nearly 2.5 times the rate of voting in spring elections.

Summary of Sedgwick County Elections since 2000, 2015-02-09I’ve gathered statistics for elections in Sedgwick County, and these numbers show that voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. (For these statistics I count the August primary as part of the fall election cycle.) Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent. There were two special elections during this period, one in spring, and one in the fall cycle. I did not include them in these statistics.

Remarkably, a special Wichita citywide election in February 2012 with just one question on the ballot had voter turnout of 13.7 percent. One year earlier, in April 2011, the spring general election had four of six city council districts contested and a citywide mayoral election. Turnout was 12.8 percent, less than for a single-question election.

The problem of low voter participation in off-cycle elections is not limited to Sedgwick County or Kansas. In her paper “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups,” Sarah F. Anzia writes “A well developed literature has shown that the timing of elections matters a great deal for voter turnout. … When cities and school districts hold elections at times other than state and national elections, voter turnout is far lower than when those elections are held at the same time as presidential or gubernatorial elections.”

Since this paper, Anzia has written, and University of Chicago Press published, a book on this topic: Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups.

In the paper, Anzia explains that when voter participation is low, it opens the door for special interest groups to dominate the election: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” (Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups, Sarah F. Anzia, Stanford University, Journal of Politics, April 2011, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p 412-427, version online here.)

Kansas legislative resources

Citizens who want to be informed of the happenings of the Kansas Legislature have these resources available.

Legislative documents
The Legislature’s site at kslegislature.org has rosters of members, lists of committees, lists of bills, journals (the daily record of proceedings in each chamber), calendars (the plan for the day, along with topics for upcoming committee meetings).

A useful feature is the “Current Happenings” link for both the House and Senate. This has a link to the bills that have seen movement in some way each day. The page for each bill is generally useful, too, with the steps in the bill’s history, along with links to the bill text, fiscal and supplemental notes, and other material. Fiscal notes — prepared by the Division of Budget — estimate the financial impact of a bill, while the supplemental notes — prepared by Kansas Legislative Research Department — contain background and explanatory information. When attempting to understand legislation, the fiscal and supplemental notes are very useful.

Audio and video
Both the House and Senate broadcast audio of their proceedings. But you must listen live, as the broadcasts are not made available to the public in any other way. It would be exceedingly simple to make these past broadcasts available to the public, as explained here. But the legislature does not retain audio recordings of sessions.

The Kansas Legislature does not make available video of its proceedings.

Documents
Kansas Legislative Research Department (KLRD) has many documents that are useful in understanding state government and the legislature. This agency’s home page is www.kslegresearch.org/klrd.html. Of particular interest:

Kansas Legislative Briefing Book. This book’s audience is legislators, but anyone can benefit. The book has a chapter for major areas of state policy and legislation, giving history, background, and explanations of law. In some years the entire collection of material has been made available as a single pdf file, but not so this year. Contact information for the legislative analysts is made available in each chapter. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page. The version for 2015 is available here.

Kansas Fiscal Facts. This book, in 118 pages, provides “basic budgetary facts” to those without budgetary experience. It provides an overview of the budget, and then more information for each of the six branches of Kansas state government. There is a glossary and contact information for the fiscal analysts responsible for different areas of the budget. This document is updated each year. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page.

Legislative Procedure in Kansas. This book of 236 pages holds the rules and explanations of how the Kansas Legislature works. It was last revised in November 2006, but the subject that is the content of this book changes slowly over the years. The direct link is Legislative Procedure in Kansas, November 2006.

How a Bill Becomes Law. This is a one-page diagram of the legislative steps involved in passing laws. The direct link is How a Bill Becomes Law.

Summary of Legislation. This document is created each year, and is invaluable in remembering what laws were passed each year. From its introduction: “This publication includes summaries of the legislation enacted by the 2014 Legislature. Not summarized are bills of a limited, local, technical, clarifying, or repealing nature, and bills that were vetoed (sustained).” 189 pages for 2014. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page.

Legislative Highlights. This is a more compact version of the Summary of Legislation, providing the essentials of the legislative session in 12 pages for 2014. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page.

Kansas Tax Facts. This book provides information on state and local taxes in Kansas. The most recent version can be found on the Revenue and Tax page.

Kansas Statutes. The laws of our state. The current statutes can be found at the Revisor of Statutes page.

Kansas Register. From the Kansas Secretary of State: “The Kansas Register is the official state newspaper. This publication provides a wide range of information such as proposed and adopted administrative regulations, new state laws, bond sales and redemptions, notice of open meetings, state contracts offered for bid, attorney general opinions, and many other public notices.” The Register is published each week, and may be found at Kansas Register.

Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature

Despite having a website with the capability, only about one-third of standing committees in the Kansas Legislature are providing written testimony online.

On the Kansas Legislature website, each committee has its own page. On these committee pages there are links for “Committee Agenda,” “Committee Minutes,” and “Testimony.” But in most cases there is no data behind these links.

In particular, the written testimony and informational presentations provided to committees would be of interest and value to citizens. Most committees — perhaps all — require conferees to supply a pdf or Microsoft Word version of their testimony in advance of the hearing. These electronic documents could be placed online before the committee hearing. Then, anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone could have these documents available to them.

Having committee testimony online would be extremely useful for those who attend hearings. Often there is only a limited number of printed copies of testimony available, so not everyone gets a copy.
This would not be difficult to accomplish. It would cost very little, perhaps nothing.

Plus, citizens could access these documents. Of note, many organizations that regularly testify before the legislature make their testimony available on their own websites. Examples include Kansas Association of School Boards and Kansas Policy Institute.

Publishing testimony online would be an easy matter to accomplish and would be a great help to those following the legislature. It would cost very little or nothing.

Following is a list of all standing committees of the legislature and whether they have any testimony online for the 2015 session. A notation of “Yes” does not imply that all testimony is available online. It means that I found some testimony. Some committees are not listed as they do not meet for the purpose of receiving testimony. (Calendar and Printing in the House is an example.)

Of the 40 standing committees that I examined, 26 do not provide any testimony online.

Download (PDF, 30KB)

Transparency in the Kansas House of Representatives: Some success

Last week the Kansas House of Representatives took votes on several amendments to its rules regarding transparency and understandability of the legislative process. Of the three most important amendments, two passed. The amendment that failed, however, was much more important than the other two.

The important amendment — the record all votes amendment — failed 51 to 67. This would have required that every non-trivial vote be recorded. Currently many important votes are by voice only, and no recording is made of who voted which way.

The limiting hours amendment passed 69 to 49. This would prevent the late-night sessions, where procrastination by the legislature has resulted in important business being conducted in the early morning hours.

The bundling amendment passed 82 to 35. This would prevent many unrelated bills being presented together for a single vote.

I’ve prepared a list of legislators and their votes on these amendments. I’ve also assigned weights to these votes, as one — the recording all votes amendment — is much more important than the others. So each member has a computed score, with higher numbers meaning the legislator is more concerned about operating transparently as opposed to the current ways. 42 Members voted in favor of transparency on all three amendments. But 34 voted against all three. The latter group includes the Speaker of the House, the Speaker Pro Tem, and the Majority Leader.

Looking forward: Will the Kansas Senate consider any of these reforms?

Download (PDF, 45KB)

This is how much the Kansas Legislature wants Kansans to know

Not much.

Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own. It’s possible, but beyond what most people are willing to do. Given the unpredictable schedule of the legislature, you can’t simply set a timer to start at a certain time each day.

Video of the proceedings would be great. Even better is archived video, where a person doesn’t have to watch live. But these options are expensive. The expenditure would be worthwhile, but there doesn’t seem to be much desire to spend on this.

Based on this tweet, we know the attitude of Rep. Dan Hawkins of Wichita is disrespectful to Kansans who want to follow the Legislature.
Based on this tweet, we know the attitude of Rep. Dan Hawkins of Wichita is disrespectful to Kansans who want to follow the Legislature.
But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time.

For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That’s just what is needed. Since the audio of the proceedings is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure. If not being recorded, any number of open source (free) applications like Audacity can do the recording.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House.

This is so simple. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

Interns can do this.

But the Kansas Legislature doesn’t do this.

This is how much your legislative leaders want you to know.

Ray Merrick on the gotcha factor

The Kansas House of Representatives, led by its Speaker, decides to retain the ability to cast votes in secret.

On the Joseph Ashby Show Kansas House of Representatives Speaker Ray Merrick appeared to discuss several issues, one being an issue regarding legislative procedure in Kansas. In particular, there is a movement to have all votes by members recorded, including those in committee. Ashby asked “Can we record all those committee votes and have that available online?”

In a response that held a chuckle by Merrick — you can tell he isn’t comfortable with this topic — the Speaker said that his chairs run their committees, and they have the ability to record the votes in their committees, if they desire. But he said there are a lot of “gotchas.”

The speaker also said that every vote on the House floor is recorded. He clarified that as “final action” votes that are all recorded. It’s good that he made that clarification, as there are many voice votes on the floor of the House that are not recorded, and no one knows who voted each way. Most are inconsequential, but many are not.

The move to have all votes recorded is popularly known as the “Rubin Rule,” promoted by Representative John Rubin.

What is troubling is the admission by Merrick that if all votes are recorded there could be “gotchas.” As Speaker of the House, he is the one person who can lead reform of the legislative process. And it needs reform.

The gotchas referred to are votes that may be taken for reasons other than genuine legislative intent. There may be votes that are for show only. There may be votes that are simply preening for advertisements, either positive or negative ads. Legislators may vote in a way other than what they really believe. None of this is good.

The gotcha votes are a symptom of a larger problem. When legislative proceedings are complicated, when votes don’t really mean what they seem to mean, when citizens can’t easily understand the proceedings, we lose confidence in government. The understanding of legislative process remains in the hands of politicians, staff, and lobbyists, plus a few journalists who try to explain it.

We see the “omnibus” bills, which cover many topics. A vote for or against such a bill means very little, because there may some things legislators agree with, and some they don’t. But the entire package is forced upon them. Maneuvers like this allow Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, on the campaign trail, to say that his opponent Paul Davis voted against increasing school funding. This is true, but only because the bill contained other subjects. Everyone knows that Paul Davis wanted more school spending. But he couldn’t — at least he didn’t — vote in favor of that because the spending legislation was mixed with other legislation that he didn’t support.

We are left with the realization that we don’t conduct politics in a straightforward manner, where what politicians do and say actually reflects their values, and that anyone can see these values. Today the tradition continues. The Kansas House of Representatives failed to pass an amendment offered by Rubin to require recorded votes on all but trivial matters. As a result, it will be easy to know how your representative voted on the state fish of Kansas, but on important matters like school choice, you may never know.

On roll call, the vote was: Yeas 51; Nays 67; Present but not voting: 0; Absent or not voting: 7. Those with leadership positions are in boldface.

Yeas: Anthimides, Becker, Bollier, Bradford, Bridges, Bruchman, Couture-Lovelady, Campbell, Carmichael, B. Carpenter, Clark, Clayton, DeGraaf, Dierks, Doll, Esau, Ewy, Finch, Finney, Gallagher, Garber, Grosserode, Hedke, Hibbard, Highberger, Hildabrand, Hill, Hineman, Houser, Houston, Jennings, K. Jones, Kiegerl, Lusk, Macheers, O’Brien, L. Osterman, Ousley, Peck, Read, Rhoades, Rooker, Rubin, Scapa, Sloan, Sutton, Swanson, Trimmer, Ward, Whipple, Whitmer.

Nays: Alcala, Alford, Ballard, Barker, Barton, Billinger, Boldra, Brunk, Burroughs, Carlin, W. Carpenter, Claeys, Concannon, Corbet, Curtis, Dannebohm, Davis, Estes, Francis, Frownfelter, Gonzalez, Hawkins, Hemsley, Henderson, Henry, Highland, Hoffman, Huebert, Hutchins, Hutton, Johnson, D. Jones, Kahrs, Kelly, Kleeb, Kuether, Lane, Lunn, Lusker, Mason, Mast, McPherson, Merrick, Patton, Pauls, Phillips, Powell, Proehl, Ruiz, Ryckman, Ryckman Sr., Schroeder, Schwab, Schwartz, Seiwert, Smith, Suellentrop, Thimesch, Thompson, Tietze, Todd, Vickrey, Victors, Waymaster, Williams, Wilson, Wolfe Moore.

Present but not voting: None.

Absent or not voting: Dove, Edmonds, Goico, Kelley, Moxley, Sawyer, Winn.

On Kansas tax experiment, we do know what doesn’t work: High taxes

Those who criticize lower Kansas tax rates tax rates as an experiment that may not work should be aware that we know with certainty what hasn’t worked in Kansas.

There are a number of ways to measure the performance of an economy. Often the growth of jobs is used. That’s fine. Here I present an alternative: the gross domestic product for a state. As with job growth, it is not the only measure of a state’s economy. GDP is a comprehensive measure, encompassing changes in population, employment, and productivity. The nearby static illustration from an interactive visualization shows Kansas (highlighted in blue) compared to some neighboring states.

Real GDP by state, Kansas highlighted, through 2013.
Real GDP by state, Kansas highlighted, through 2013. Click for larger version.
The top chart shows the change in GDP from the previous year. Kansas, highlighted in dark blue, is often near the bottom of a selection of neighboring states. The bottom chart shows growth in GDP since 1997. Again, Kansas is near the bottom of neighboring states.

Neither of these trends is recent. The Kansas economy has been underperforming for many years. We need no experiment to tell us this. It is in our data, and is part of the legacy of decades of moderate Kansas leadership.

real-gdp-state-2014-05-19-instructionsThe visualization holds data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. You may click on a state’s name to highlight it. You may choose different industry sectors, such as government or private industry.

Click here to open the visualization in a new window. Visualization created using Tableau Public.

Kansas Democratic Party income tax reckoning

A story told to generate sympathy for working mothers at the expense of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is based on arithmetic that is not plausible.

In the response to the State of the State Address, Senator Anthony Hensley told a tale of woe.

He said, according to the printed remarks “Take for example the single mother who works full time and lives within her means, but still struggles to provide for her family.”

That’s someone we can empathize with. And, someone who is a key Democratic Party constituent. Here’s the burden she faced under Brownback’s tax plan, according to Hensley:

“She paid $4,000 more in income taxes due to the Governor’s plan,”

When I heard him say that on television, I thought surely he had misread or misspoke. $4,000 in state income taxes is a lot of taxes. You have to have a pretty good income to have to pay $4,000 in Kansas state income taxes, much less to pay $4,000 more, as Hensely said. But $4,000 is in the prepared remarks as made available by the Kansas Democratic Party. You’d have to think that someone proofread and checked the senator’s arithmetic, wouldn’t you?

Here’s the arithmetic. According to the Kansas income tax tables for 2013, in order to owe $4,000 in tax, a person filing as single or head of household would have to have “Kansas taxable income” of $87,451. That number is after subtracting $2,250 for each exemption. Let’s say there are three exemptions, allowing for the mother and two children. That means that the person’s “Federal adjusted gross income” would be $94,201. When computing this figure, there are some “above the line” deductions from total income on the federal form 1040, but the most common deductions are after this.

So we can be quite sure that Hensley’s “single mother who works full time and lives within her means, but still struggles,” and who owes $4,000 in Kansas income tax, earns at least $94,201. In all likelihood she earned much more than that, because Hensley said she paid “$4,000 more” this year. If this fictional person saw her Kansas income tax bill rise to $6,000 from $2,000 — that’s an increase of $4,000 that Hensely used — her income would need to be $128,265. That’s before we increase it even more to account for deductions.

Of note, a justice on the Kansas Supreme Court earns $135,905. The U.S. Census Bureau has a statistic named “Median household income, 2009-2013.” For Kansas, the value is $51,332.

I’m not an income tax expert. I could be off by a little. But I’m pretty sure Anthony Hensley and the Kansas Democrats are way wrong on this.

In Kansas, straight-ticket voting could leave some issues unvoted

There are several issues involved with straight-party voting. Kansas shouldn’t adopt this practice. But on the other hand, why not?

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is proposing to add an option for straight party ticket voting in Kansas elections. If enacted, voters would be able to take one action — one pull of the lever, so to speak — and cast a vote for all candidates of a party for all offices.

I see a few issues.

1. What if a party does not field a candidate for an office? A notable and prominent example is the recent election in which the Kansas Democratic Party did not field a candidate for a major office, that of United States Senator. What if a person pulls the “Straight Democratic Party” lever (or checks the box)? Who will get their vote for senator? Will the voting machine present an exception to the voter and ask them to make a selection for senator? Conceivably this could be done with voting machines, which are, after all, computers. But what about those who vote using paper ballots, like all the advance voters who vote by mail?

Other parties such as the Libertarian Party may also contribute to this problem, as the party may not have candidates for all offices.

2. The ballot items for judges on the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court are of the form “Shall justice so-and-so be retained? Yes or No.” If a voter votes a straight party ballot for the sake of time and convenience — so important to the Secretary of State — will the voter take the time to vote on these judicial retention matters? Or does anyone really know anything about these judges?

3. Initiatives are not associated with a party. An example is the recent Wichita sales tax question, where voters selected either yes or no. This matter was way down the ballot, below the judicial retention elections.

4. Like initiatives, referenda are not associated with a party.

5. Questions regarding the adoption of constitutional amendments are not associated with a party. They appear near the end of ballots.

6. Undervoting, that is, not casting a vote for any candidate for an office, is a perfectly acceptable choice. There have been many times where I thought that none of the candidates for an office were worthy of my vote. Therefore, I voted for no one. A related consideration: I don’t think Kansas needs an insurance commissioner. Therefore, I voted for none of the candidates.

The Wichita Eagle quoted Kobach: “I think it will improve participation in races down the ballot and it’s a matter of voter convenience too.”

But given the above considerations, do you think one-touch straight-ticket voting will improve participation in down-ballot issues? Move votes may be cast, but are they informed votes? No? Well, this isn’t the first time reason conflicts with what Kris Kobach wants to do.

On the other hand, if voters are informed of the considerations listed above and still want the option to cast a straight-party ballot with one touch, well, why not?

Unemployment insurance for school bus drivers

Should a Kansas state insurance program be expanded to cover entirely predictable events?

A bill introduced in the Kansas Senate would allow school bus drivers working for private bus companies to collect unemployment insurance during the summer months when school is not in session. Currently these employees are specifically excluded from eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits.

Is it a good idea to extend unemployment insurance benefits to seasonal workers like these bus drivers? Part of the answer depends on what we want the meaning of the word “insurance” to be. Usually, insurance refers to something that mitigates harm from unforeseen circumstances, like a fire, tornado, or automobile accident. These are unpredictable events, although their probabilities can be forecast with accuracy considering a large population. But for jobs and employment, most job losses are unanticipated. Companies don’t wish for a loss of business that leads to layoffs.

But it is certain that school bus drivers will not have a job driving a school bus in the summer. So should this predictable event be covered by insurance? It would be like having routine auto maintenance and a set of new tires every four years paid for by auto insurance. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it transforms insurance — something that protects against accidents — into something that pays for the routine and predictable.

The Unemployment Insurance Employer Handbook, published by the Kansas Department of Labor, explains how the rates that employers are charged for unemployment insurance premiums are determined. The rate is based on loss experience: “Experience rating helps ensure an equitable distribution of costs of the unemployment compensation program among employers. It is a procedure for varying employer rates and allocating costs of the Unemployment Insurance program in relation to the employer’s actual and potential risk with unemployment.” This is congruous with how many forms of insurance are priced. For example, drivers with bad driving records pay higher rates than those with good records, as their likelihood of future claims is greater, based on past experience.

So if the bill passes and bus drivers become eligible for unemployment benefits, we would expect the bus companies to have fairly high unemployment insurance rates. After all, they have many employees that would apply for and receive benefits on a regular basis. This higher insurance cost would be paid for by a private bus company. So is there an issue of public policy here?

First, I don’t know if the higher unemployment insurance rates the bus companies would pay would be sufficient to cover the cost of the unemployment insurance benefits the drivers receive. If not, then someone else — taxpayers — have to pay.

Second, who will really pay the bus companies’ higher unemployment insurance premiums? It’s likely the bus companies will try to pass along these higher costs to their customers. Those are primarily public schools, which, of course, are funded by taxpayers.

So yes, there is an issue of public policy. Costs will rise, and it appears that taxpayers will bear all, or nearly all, of the increase. There is the further consideration that an insurance program is converted into another entitlement program, again at taxpayer cost.

A possible solution is this: Schools may offer teachers an option to receive their pay during school months only, or spread across the entire twelve months of the year. Bus companies could do the same.

Property tax for state universities proposed to increase four-fold

A bill introduced in the Kansas Legislature would hike the property tax going to state universities by a factor of four.

Currently the State of Kansas collects a property tax levy of one mill that goes to state universities. A bill introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives would increase that to four mills starting next year.

The bill provides for a number of uses of the money: First for buildings, then for broadband, computing capabilities for human genome data, research on plant genomes, research on aircraft and composite manufacturing, and if there’s anything left over, “other research priorities.”

What does this bill mean to property owners? For homeowners, the calculations are these. (Remember, this bill does not affect the property taxes levied by your city, county, school district, fire district, cemetery district, etc.)

For a home valued at $150,000, the tax currently going to universities is:

($150,000 – $20,000 homestead exemption) times .115 assessment ratio times 1 mill divided by 1000 = $14.95 tax per year.

If the bill passes, the calculation is

($150,000 – $20,000 homestead exemption) times .115 assessment ratio times 4 mills divided by 1000 = $59.80 tax per year.

The tax is now 300 percent higher, or a four-fold increase.

In Kansas, PEAK has a leak

A Kansas economic development incentive program is pitched as being self-funded, but is probably a drain on the state treasure nonetheless.

An economic development incentive program in Kansas is PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees.

Flow of tax dollars under normal circumstances, and under PEAK.
Flow of tax dollars under normal circumstances, and under PEAK.
PEAK incentive payments can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions who earns $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week (for weekly payroll), or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children earning the same salary, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

Legislators and public officials like programs like PEAK partly because they can promote these programs as self-financing. That is, the state isn’t subsidizing a company. Instead, the company is paying its own way with its own taxes. The state is not sending money to the company, it’s just holding on to 95 percent of its employees’ withholding taxes instead of sending the funds to the state. Something like that.

Illustration of a shortfall under PEAK
Illustration of a shortfall under PEAK
But here’s a consideration. The amount of money withheld from a worker’s paycheck is not the same as the amount of tax the worker actually owes the state. Withholding is only an approximation, and one that is biased in favor of the state. Many Kansas workers receive an income tax refund from the state. This is in recognition that the sum of the withholding taxes paid by a worker is larger than the actual tax liability. Therefore, the state is returning money that the state was not entitled to.

Now, what about workers who are employed at a company that is in the PEAK program and who receive a state income tax refund? Their withholding taxes — 95 percent, anyway — have already been given back to their employer.

So: What is the source of the money used to pay these refunds? How much money is paid in refunds to employees working at PEAK-participating companies?

We should note that the funds don’t come from the PEAK company’s employees, as the employees receive credit for all their withholding taxes, even though 95 percent never contributed to the state treasury.

Inquiry to the Department of Revenue revealed that there are no statistics on actual income tax liability of PEAK employees vs. the amount of withholding tax credited to that employee that was retained or refunded to the PEAK employer. The Department of Commerce referred inquiries to the Department of Revenue.

If we wanted to know how much money was paid in refunds to PEAK-company employees, I believe we would need to examine the account of each affected employee. I’m sure it’s not possible to come up with an answer by making assumptions, because the circumstances of each taxpayer vary widely.

Whatever the amount, it represents state tax revenue being used to fund an economic development incentive program that is pitched as being self-funded.

Kansas minimum wage hike would harm the most vulnerable workers

A bill to raise the minimum wage in Kansas will harm the most vulnerable workers, and make it more difficult for low-skill workers to get started in the labor market.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jim Ward of Wichita would raise the minimum wage in Kansas by one dollar per hour each year until it reaches $10.25 per hour in 2018. The bill is HB 2012, captioned “enacting the Kansas working families pay raise act.”

The caption of the bill, referencing “working families,” hints at the problem, as seen by progressives. The minimum wage does not generate enough income to raise a family. While the bill calls for raising the minimum wage, it makes no reference of whether workers are raising a family, or working part-time for pin money while in high school.

But aside from that, there is the important question to consider: Will raising the minimum wage help or harm low-wage earners? And are the policy goals — taken in their entirety — of the groups pressing for a higher minimum wage in the best interest of workers? The answer to these questions is that higher minimum wages harm low-wage workers and low-skilled people who would like to work.

The great appeal of a higher minimum wage mandated by an act of the legislature is that it seems like a wonderfully magical way to increase the wellbeing of low-wage workers. Those who were earning less than the new lawful wage and who keep their jobs after the increase are happy. They are grateful to the lawmakers, labor leaders, newspaper editorialists, and others who pleaded for the higher minimum wage. News stories will report their good fortune.

That’s the visible effect of raising the minimum wage. But to understand the entire issue, we must look for the unseen effects.

The not-so-visible effect of the higher wage law is that demand for labor will be reduced. Those workers whose productivity, as measured by the give and take of supply and demand, lies below the new lawful wage rate are in danger of losing their jobs. The minimum wage law says if you hire someone you must pay them a certain amount. The law can’t compel you to hire someone, nor can it compel employers to keep workers on the payroll.

The difficulty is that people with lose their jobs in dribs and drabs. A few workers here; a few there. They may not know who is to blame. Newspaper and television reporters will not seek these people, as they are largely invisible, especially so in the case of the people who are not hired because of the higher wage law.

In the real world, business owners have many things they can do when labor becomes more expensive. Some things employers do to compensate for higher labor costs include these:

  • Reduce non-wage benefits such as health insurance.
  • Eliminate overtime hours that many employees rely on.
  • Substitute machines for labor. We might see more self-service checkout lanes at supermarkets, more automated ordering systems at fast food restaurants, and more use of automated telephone response systems, for example.
  • Use illegal labor. Examples include paying employees under the table, or requiring work off-the-clock.
  • Some employers may be more willing to bear the risks of using undocumented workers who can’t complain that they aren’t being paid the minimum wage.
  • Some employers may decide that the risks and hassles of being in business aren’t worth it anymore, and will close shop. Others simply can’t afford the higher wages and close. The Wall Street Journal reported on a nonprofit restaurant that couldn’t survive under Michigan’s higher minimum wage, reporting “These unintended consequences of a minimum wage hike aren’t unique to small towns in south-central Michigan. Tragically, they repeat themselves in locales small and large each time legislators heed the populist call to ‘raise the wage.'”

If we are truly concerned about the plight of low-wage workers we can face some harsh realities and deal with them openly. The simple fact is that some people are not able to produce output that our economy values very much. They are not very productive. Passing a law that requires employers to pay them more doesn’t change the fact that their productivity is low. But there are ways to increase productivity.

One way to increase workers’ productivity is through education. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that our public education system is failing badly.

Capital — another way to increase wages — may be a dirty word to some. But as the economist Walter E. Williams says, ask yourself this question: who earns the higher wage: a man digging a ditch with a shovel, or a man digging a ditch using a power backhoe? The difference between the two is that the man with the backhoe is more productive. That productivity is provided by capital — the savings that someone accumulated (instead of spending on immediate consumption or taxes) and invested in a piece of equipment that increased the output of workers and our economy.

Education and capital accumulation are the two best ways to increase the productivity and the wages of workers. Ironically, the people who are most vocal about raising wages through legislative fiat are also usually opposed to meaningful education reform and school choice, insisting on more resources being poured into the present system. They also usually support higher taxes on both individuals and business, which makes it harder to accumulate capital. These organizations should examine the effects of the policies they promote, as they are not in alignment with their stated goals.

If it were possible to increase the prosperity of everyone by simply passing a law, we should do it. But that’s not the way the world works regarding minimum wage laws.

Who is harmed?

Walter Williams explains who is most harmed by minimum wage laws, and also the politics:

How about the politics of the minimum wage? In the political arena, one dumps on people who can’t dump back on him. Minimum wages have their greatest unemployment impact on the least skilled worker. After all, who’s going to pay a worker an hourly wage of $10 if that worker is so unfortunate as to have skills that enable him to produce only $5 worth of value per hour? Who are these workers? For the most part, they are low-skilled teens or young adults, most of whom are poorly educated blacks and Latinos. The unemployment statistics in our urban areas confirm this prediction, with teen unemployment rates as high as 50 percent.

The politics of the minimum wage are simple. No congressman or president owes his office to the poorly educated black and Latino youth vote. Moreover, the victims of the minimum wage do not know why they suffer high unemployment, and neither do most of their “benefactors.” Minimum wage beneficiaries are highly organized, and they do have the necessary political clout to get Congress to price their low-skilled competition out of the market so they can demand higher wages. (Politics and Minimum Wage)

The role of labor unions

Labor unions favor higher minimum wages laws. Why? Here’s what one union said in making its argument: “However, not only is $9/hour a step in the right direction, it is also good for union members, who stand to seek even greater wage increases in their contracts, if they make more than the current minimum wage of $7.25.” ( United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).)

For more on this, see Why Unions Want a Higher Minimum Wage: Labor contracts are often tied to the law — and it reduces the competition for lower-paying jobs.

Minimum wage as competitive weapon

We also need to examine the motivations of business firms that support a higher minimum wage. Sometimes they see a way gain a competitive advantage.

In 2005 Walmart came out in favor of raising the national minimum wage. Providing an example of how regulation is pitched as needed for the common good, Walmart’s CEO said that he was concerned for the plight of working families, and that he thought the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour was too low. (“Working families.” That’s in the caption of the proposed Kansas law. It’s no coincidence.) If Walmart — a company progressives love to hate as much as any other — can be in favor of increased regulation of the workplace, can regulation be a good thing? Had Walmart discovered the joys of big government?

The answer is yes. Walmart discovered a way of using government regulation as a competitive weapon. This is often the motivation for business support of regulation. In the case of Walmart, it was already paying its employees well over the current minimum wage. At the time, some sources thought that the minimum wage could be raised as much as 50 percent and not cause Walmart any additional cost — its employees already made that much.

But its competitors didn’t pay wages that high. If the minimum wage rose very much, these competitors to Walmart would be forced to increase their wages. Their costs would rise. Their ability to compete with Walmart would be harmed.

In short, Walmart supported government regulation in the form of a higher minimum wage as a way to impose higher costs on its competitors. It found a way to compete outside the marketplace. And it did it while appearing noble.

Hate crimes should not be enhanced in Kansas

A bill in Kansas proposes to toughen penalties for hate crimes, thereby judging people on their thoughts and beliefs rather on their actions.

When a person commits a crime against another, the crime itself ought to be enough to earn the criminal a trip to prison. What the criminal was thinking, or even saying, at the moment ought not to be relevant in determining the severity of punishment or whether a crime was committed. That’s because in America we have the right to free speech, even hateful speech. We do not have, of course, the right to harm others, but speech shouldn’t count in reckoning harm.

Kansas has hate crime laws that allow the motivation of the criminal to be considered as an aggravating factor in determining sentences. But proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1, seeks to mandatorily double sentences if hateful motives are suspected. The relevant part of the bill follows:

(w) If the trier of fact makes a finding that an offender’s crime was motivated entirely or in part by the race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation of the victim or the crime was motivated by the offender’s belief or perception, entirely or in part, of the race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation of the victim, whether or not the offender’s belief or perception was correct, the sentence for such offender shall be as follows:
(1) If the underlying crime of conviction carries a presumptive term of imprisonment, the sentence shall be double the maximum duration of the presumptive imprisonment term;

If this bill becomes law, courts and juries will be asked to look into the heart of criminals, and if persuaded that even a sliver of motivation was due to something mentioned in the law, the criminal could face a sentence of double length.

We ought not to punish people for their thoughts and opinions. Punish them for actual criminal violence. That should be enough.

Even though hate crime laws seem to be of noble intent, the serve to perpetuate unequal protection before the law, and make bigotry an institution. In 1992 Jacob Sullum explained in Reason Magazine:

But the promise of a liberal democracy is that members of minority groups will be protected from aggression, just like everyone else. If someone wrongs a Jew, or a black, he will be punished just as severely as if he had wronged a Christian or a white-and his motivation, whether bigotry, greed, or simple viciousness, won’t matter in either case. You correct unequal protection by making it equal, not by reversing it.

By punishing opinions, hate-crime laws institutionalize the very bigotry they seek to prevent: They treat some individuals as second-class citizens simply because of the ideas they hold. And they treat some targets, such as Catholic churches, as more important than others, such as abortion clinics (leading, of course, to the charge that vandalizing an abortion clinic is a hate crime against women). Like affirmative action, hate-crime laws enforce a double standard in the name of treating individuals equally.

Kansas is not an entrepreneurial state

The performance of Kansas in entrepreneurial activity is not high, compared to other states.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation prepares the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. According to the Foundation, “The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity is a leading indicator of new business creation in the United States. Capturing new business owners in their first month of significant business activity, this measure provides the earliest documentation of new business development across the country.”

Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, showing Kansas highlighted against neighboring states. Click for larger version.
Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, showing Kansas highlighted against neighboring states. Click for larger version.
As shown by the data, Kansas ranks low in entrepreneurial activity. This is true when Kansas is compared to the nation, and also when compared to a group of nearby states.

I’ve prepared two visualizations that present this data. One holds data for all states. Click here to open it in a new window.

Instructions for using the visualization of Kauffman data. Click for larger version.
Instructions for using the visualization of Kauffman data. Click for larger version.
A second visualization presents the data for Kansas and some nearby states. Click here to open it in a new window.

Visualization created using Tableau Public.

Balancing the Kansas budget

Dave Trabert, President of the Kansas Policy Institute, spoke at the December 12, 2014 Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting. His program was titled “Debunking False Claims about Kansas Budget and Economy and Kansas Policy Institute Budget Plan for Kansas — How to balance the state budget without service reductions or tax increases.”

View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

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

Government employment and payroll in Kansas

The United States Census Bureau collects employment data from governmental units. Here I present the Census data for government employment and payroll in Kansas. This data is for 2012.

To open the visualization in a new window, click here. The major interactivity in this visualization is selecting one or more counties to display, along with statewide values.

Kansas government employment example.
Kansas government employment example.

Kansas cities should not unilaterally grant tax breaks

When Kansas cities grant economic development incentives, they may also unilaterally take action that affects overlapping jurisdictions such as counties, school districts, and the state itself. The legislature should end this.

When Kansas cities create tax increment financing (TIF) districts, the overlapping county and school district(s) have an opportunity to veto its creation. These other jurisdictions do not formally have to give their consent to its formation; if they do nothing, it is assumed they concur.

But for some other forms of incentives, such as tax increment financing district redevelopment plans, property tax abatements, and sales tax abatements, overlapping jurisdictions have no ability to object. There seems to be no rational basis for not giving these jurisdictions a chance to object to the erosion of their tax base.

This is especially important for school districts, as they are often the largest tax consumer. As an example, when the City of Wichita offered tax abatements to a company in June, 47 percent of the abated taxes would have gone to the Wichita school district. But the school district did not participate in this decision. State law gave it no voice.

Supporters of economic development incentives may say that the school district benefits from the incentives. Even though the district gives up some tax revenue now, it will get more in the future. This is the basis for the benefit-cost ratios the city uses to justify incentives. For itself, the City of Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better, although there are many loopholes the city can use to grant incentives when this threshold is not met. For the June project, city documents reported these benefit-cost ratios for two overlapping jurisdictions:

Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one

In this case, the city forced a benefit-cost ratio on the county that the city would not accept for itself, unless it uses a loophole. For the school district, the net benefit is zero.

The legislature should look at ways to make sure that overlapping jurisdictions are not harmed when economic development incentives are granted by cities. The best way would be to require formal approval of the incentives by counties and school districts.

Two examples

In June the City of Wichita granted tax abatements for a new warehouse. City documents gave the benefit-cost ratios for the city and overlapping jurisdictions:

City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to one
Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one
State of Kansas 12.11 to one

It is not known whether these ratios include the sales tax forgiveness.

While the City of Wichita insists that projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better (although there are many exceptions), it doesn’t apply that standard for overlapping jurisdictions. Here, Sedgwick County experiences a benefit-cost ratio of 1.18 to one, and the Wichita school district (USD 259) 1.00 to one. These two governmental bodies have no input on the decision the city is making on their behalf. The school district’s share of the forgiven taxes is 47.4 percent.

In November a project had these dollar amounts of property tax abatement shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts, according to city documents:

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

The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:

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

Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses a loophole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas property tax data, the interactive visualization

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

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

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

Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

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

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

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

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

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