Tag Archives: Community Improvement Districts

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita City Hall.

The city of Wichita wants hotel guests to make a “marketing investment” in Wichita by paying a “City Tourism Fee.”

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing regarding the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent tax to most hotel rooms sold in the City of Wichita. The funds would go to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to be used to enhance that agency’s marketing efforts. The tax is estimated to raise $2.5 million per year.

What is the motivation of the city’s hotel operators to assent to this added tax on their product? City documents state: “Go Wichita estimates that the new marketing investment could result in a 6% rise in hotel occupancy and a growth of $12 million in hotel revenue.”

What the city calls a “marketing investment” will appear on hotel bills as the “City Tourism Fee,” according to city documents.

How to succeed in business by having others pay for your advertising

When most business firms want to increase their business through advertising, they pay for it themselves. They don’t tack on an additional “advertising fee” to customer’s bills.

But not so with Wichita hotels. Unlike most businesses, Wichita hotels propose to have someone else pay for their advertising.

On top of that, the city and the hotels don’t have the integrity to label the added tax to let customers know its true purpose. Instead, the tax will appear on customer bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” If hotel customers are angry at the fee, well, who is to blame? The hotel, which is merely collecting what city code says it must? Visitors to Wichita likely won’t know the real reason for the tax, which is to shift expenses to someone else through the mechanism of government.

Clever. I wonder if other industries will try something like this? Also: Will the Wichita hotels that currently engage in advertising reduce their spending on advertising, now that a government agency is in charge and taxpayers are footing the bill?

Who pays this tax

City leaders argue that taxes like hotel taxes are largely paid for by people from out of town. Whether that is a wise strategy is debatable. People and business firms notice these taxes. Wichita hotel owner Jim Korroch is an advocate of the new Wichita tax. But he told the Wichita Eagle recently “You know, I used to like to take my girls shopping at the Legends in Kansas City. I thought that was a great deal with the outlet malls, but for the first time I’ve looked at my receipts, and it isn’t. They charge almost 20 percent at the Legends with that district.” So he noticed — eventually — the high taxes charged.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

If the tourism fee is implemented, some hotels in Wichita that are located in community improvement districts (including one Korroch owns) will have taxes totaling 17.9 percent added to customer bills.

Here’s something else regarding the myth of shifting hotel taxes to people from out of town. Are there are any Wichita business firms that have employees who live in other cities, and those employees travel to Wichita on business and stay in hotels? Often these hotel bills are paid by the employee and then reimbursed by the Wichita company they work for. So as far as a hotel knows, and as far as any marketing analysis might show, someone from Fresno spends a few days in a Wichita hotel. This person might work for Cargill Beef’s Fresno facility and have traveled to Wichita to visit the headquarters of Cargill Meat Solutions. In the end, the hotel bill and taxes are paid by Cargill Meat Solutions, a Wichita company.

Do any Wichita business firms employ consultants who travel to Wichita and stay in hotels, and those hotels bills are part of the consultants’ billable expense? In the end, who pays those taxes? A Wichita business firm does.

So at the public hearing, I hope someone asks the question: How often are these taxes actually paid by Wichita companies? Does the city know the answer to this?

Further: Isn’t it a sham to call this tax a “City Tourism Fee” when hometown companies are paying hotel bills for their employees and consultants to come to Wichita for business?

More secret spending

It is the position of Go Wichita that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act. The City of Wichita backs this interpretation of the law. Thus, we will have more taxpayer funds spent in secret.

The bureaucrats profit

Writing in Public Choice — A Primer Eamonn Butler explains the motivations of bureaucrats:

In terms of what bureaucrats actually do pursue, Niskanen suggested that budget maximisation provided a fair measure. It is an approximation to the objective of profit in the market context. And it provides a simple proxy for all the other things that go with a large and growing budget — such as job security, promotion prospects, salary increases and so on.

In their pursuit of these benefits, bureaucrats are just as much players in the political process as any other interest group — and they have no free-rider problem because their group is so well defined that they can easily keep the benefits of their lobbying to themselves. …

Bureaucrats can also rely on the political support of the interest groups that depend on the grants and programmes that they administer, and which would almost certainly like to see those budgets increased; and they can rely on the support of the commercial businesses that supply goods and services to the programmes that the agencies administer.

We see these characteristics revealing themselves: A government agency seeking to expand its budget and power, at the expense of taxpayers.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-small

This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-small

This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 11, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks asks if shoppers have ever paid extra sales tax in Wichita’s Community Improvement Districts, and describes efforts by the city to avoid disclosure of this tax. Then, are there similarities between Wichita and Detroit? Finally, a Sedgwick County Commissioner is worried about agriculture being driven out of the county, but Bob thinks he doesn’t need to worry. Episode 8, broadcast August 11, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Warning signs still missing

Two weeks after the City of Wichita learned that two prominent downtown hotels are not in compliance with city policy regarding signage, the hotels are still in violation.

Broadview Hotel 2013-07-09 004
Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview

The hotels are located in Community Improvement Districts and are able to collect an extra sales tax that is routed back to the two hotels. Merchants located within a CID are supposed to display a sign. These two hotels — Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview and Fairfield Inn at Waterwalk — aren’t displaying the signage.

For background and photographs, see CID signs missing at some Wichita merchants.

CID signs missing at some Wichita merchants

Not all merchants located in Wichita’s Community Improvement District program are displaying the required signage.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. At the time CIDs started forming, I and others suggested that the city require signage notifying shoppers that they would be paying an additional sales tax, and at what rate.

Not everyone thought that would be wise, according to discussion at a Wichita city council meeting. Informing shoppers as to the actual rate of extra tax would be, according to Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) confusing.

Council Member Sue Schlapp said that transparency is vital for government, but evidently not always, she argued: “This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion.”

A representative of a group wanting to establish a CID told the council that developers do not “have any interest in hiding something from the public, or keeping citizens from having full knowledge about these community improvement districts.”

But he added that the retailers they are trying to bring to Wichita would be discouraged by full disclosure of the extra sales tax that citizens would pay in their stores. “We want to make sure that anything that we do, or anything that we implement within a policy is appropriate and will not counteract the very tool we’re creating here.”

The compromise that emerged is a small sign that states “THIS PROJECT MADE POSSIBLE BY COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT FINANCING” along with a reference to the city’s website to learn more, as explained in the city CID policy document.

That website, www.wichita.gov/CID/?, has information and maps of CIDs, but there’s no way to learn the names of stores in the CID, except for a few cases where the district is named after a merchant. (The city’s site also has broken links, dating from the redesign of the city’s website.)

Broadview Hotel 2013-07-09 004
Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview

Examination of merchants in Wichita’s CIDs found two examples of merchants not displaying the signs. Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview and Fairfield Inn at Waterwalk display no signs. Cabela’s displays the signs and is in compliance, but the design of these signs makes them difficult to see.

The city’s policy document regarding these signs doesn’t specify penalties for non-compliance, but that continued failure to comply would result in nonpayment. When asked about the missing signs, city staff said they will investigate and take corrective action.

Curiously, the new CVS drugstore in east Wichita displays the CID signage, but based on purchases made, the store isn’t collecting the CID tax it is entitled to collect.

Slideshow: Wichita CID signs.

Developer welfare expanded in Kansas

Money Grabber

This week the Kansas House of Representatives considered a bill that would expand the application of tax increment financing (TIF) and community improvement district taxes. The bill, HB 2086, is not a major expansion, but is still harmful.

On Monday the bill failed to pass, with 61 members voting in favor, and 60 against. (63 votes are needed to pass a bill.)

On the following day, Rep. Scott Schwab made a motion to reconsider. If agreed to, Schwab’s motion would force another vote on the passage of the bill. The motion passed, and when the vote on the bill was tallied, it had passed with 81 votes.

Democrats who changed their votes from No to Yes are Barbara Ballard, Brandon Whipple, Ed Trimmer, Jerry Henry, Julie Menghini, Nancy Lusk, Patricia Sloop, Paul Davis, Stan Frownfelter, Tom Burroughs and Valdenia Winn.

Republicans who changed their votes from No to Yes are Dennis Hedke, James Todd, Kelly Meigs, Kevin Jones, Marty Read, Ramon Gonzalez, Scott Schwab, and Vern Swanson.

One Republican, Marc Rhoades, changed his vote from Yes to No.

The original coalition of votes that defeated the bill on Monday was a mix of free-market Republicans and Democrats. The free-market members vote against this bill because it is contrary to the principals of capitalism. Many Democrats vote against bills like this because they see it as welfare for greedy developers or other business interests. An example of the latter is Rep. Ed Trimmer, who on the Kansas Economic Freedom Index for last year scored very near the bottom in terms of voting for economic freedom.

But somehow, he and the other Democrats listed above were persuaded to change their votes.

(Click here to open spreadsheet in new window.)

Economic development incentives questioned

When the New York Times is concerned about the cost of government spending programs, it’s a safe bet that things are really out of control. Its recent feature As Companies Seek Tax Deals, Governments Pay High Price reports on economic development incentive programs that are costly and produce questionable benefits.

Do we know the cost of economic development incentives? No, reports the Times: “A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.”

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback appears in a video that accompanies the story.

A concern of the newspaper is that the money spent on incentives could be spent on other government programs, primarily schools. My concern is that government spending on incentives is harmful to the economy. It redirects capital from productive to unproductive uses. Charles Koch recently explained:

Today, many governments give special treatment to a favored few businesses that eagerly accept those favors. This is the essence of cronyism.

Many businesses with unpopular products or inefficient production find it much easier to curry the favor of a few influential politicians or a government agency than to compete in the open market.

After all, the government can literally guarantee customers and profitability by mandating the use of certain products, subsidizing production or providing protection from more efficient competitors.

Cronyism enables favored companies to reap huge financial rewards, leaving the rest of us — customers and competitors alike — worse off.

In another article Koch wrote: “Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

We must distinguish between business and capitalism and hold business groups accountable when they fail to promote economic freedom and capitalism. An example is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Its legislative platform reads “The Wichita Metro Chamber believes the State should practice fiscal discipline.”

But the Chamber recommends retaining several business welfare programs that are harmful to capitalism and economic freedom.

Next week the agenda for the meeting of the Wichita City Council contains six items that dish out business welfare and promote cronyism. Another item recommends approval of the city’s legislative agenda, which contains this:

ISSUE: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

RECOMMEND: The Wichita City Council supports continuation of its 2012 legislative agenda item, calling for protection of existing economic development tools for local public-private partnerships. Among those are Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) and Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bonds.

The premise is false twice: These economic development tools are not “essential,” and Wichita is not growing and prospering, compared to other cities: “The inflation-adjusted gross domestic product for the Wichita metro area declined 0.4 percent in 2010, according to initial estimates from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The decline slowed from the year before, when this measure of economic growth plummeted by 7.7 percent. … Wichita’s decline came even as GDP grew by 2.5 percent nationwide in 2010. GDP increased in 304 of 366 metro areas nationwide.” (Wichita Business Journal, Wichita’s real GDP declined in 2010 amid national recovery, database shows.)

Cabela’s opening a reminder of failure in Wichita

Yesterday’s opening of a Cabela’s store in Wichita was celebrated as a great success, but the circumstances of the store’s birth should remind us of the failure of Wichita’s economic development strategies and efforts.

We have to ask why Wichita is not able to attract retailers like Cabela’s without offering some sort of subsidy. In the current example, we are allowing Cabela’s to add 1.2 cents per dollar extra sales tax. Cabela’s keeps one cent, and 0.2 cents will be used to build a new highway exit ramp — one not seriously contemplated until Cabela’s wanted it.

This turnover of public taxation to private interests through the community improvement district (CID) program is contrary to good public policy. The power to tax is one of the most important — and harmful — functions of government. It ought to be used to pay for public goods, instead of being turned over to private benefit, as it has for Cabela’s.

At the opening ceremony, I spoke with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and reminded him that just two weeks ago Wichita voters spoke out against special tax deals similar to the deal Cabela’s received. What is the future of these special tax deals? “I think the better approach is broad tax reduction,” he said.

While the governor was referring primarily to income taxes, there is strong evidence that Kansas needs to reduce all forms of business tax costs. The release of a report from the Tax Foundation ranking the states in business tax costs brought that into sharp focus two weeks ago. The news for Kansas is worse than merely bad, as our state couldn’t have performed much worse: Kansas ranks 47th among the states for tax costs for mature business firms, and 48th for new firms.

This raises the question: Was the CID tax giveaway truly necessary for Cabela’s to open, or is Cabela’s business model so flimsy that it requires corporate welfare to survive, or is Cabela’s simply an opportunistic company, willing to feed off taxpayers as another source of profit?

Community Improvement Districts

CIDs allow merchants to apply a higher sales tax rate to sales. The money from shoppers is collected under the pretense of government authority, but it is earmarked for the exclusive benefit of the owners of property in the CID. This is perhaps the worst aspect of CIDs. Landlord and merchants already have a way to generate revenue from their customers under free exchange: through the prices posted or advertised for their products, plus consumers’ awareness of the sales tax rates that prevail in a state, county, and city.

But most consumers may never be aware that they paid an extra tax for the exclusive benefit of the CID. If they happen to calculate the sales tax they paid, they may conclude that the high CID rate is charged all across Wichita — thereby staining our reputation.

The Wichita city council had a chance to provide transparency to shoppers by requiring merchants in CIDs to post signs informing shoppers of the amount of extra tax to be changed in the store. But CID advocates got the city council to back down from that requirement. CID advocates know how powerful information is, and they along with their allies on the city council realized that signage with disclosure would harm CID merchants. Council Member Sue Schlapp succinctly summarized the subterfuge that must accompany the CID tax when she said: “This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion.” She voted against the signage requirement.

Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in explaining his vote against the signage requirement with the tax rate displayed, said he thought this information would be confusing to shoppers.

Are incentives necessary?

The age-old question is whether economic activity will occur without economic development incentives. Governor Brownback said it is a “legitimate question” as to whether Cabela’s would be here anyway.

In the case of Cabela’s, the store might not be in Wichita without incentives, as the company has shown itself to be especially eager and adept at gathering corporate welfare paid for by taxpayers. One writer concluded “For its part, Cabela’s is unabashed about its dependence on corporate socialism, even declaring in its annual report that grabbing public money is key to its business plan.”

We see elected officials and economic development bureaucracies eager to create jobs, so much so that they offer incentives that are not necessary. This leads to a cycle of dependency on city hall for economic development. That’s good for politicians and bureaucrats, but bad for everyone else.

It would be one thing if our economic development activities were working. But there’s evidence that they’re not. Recently we learned that the job-creating activities of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition last year resulted in a number of jobs barely more than one-half of one percent of the labor force.

That’s not a very good job. But keeping a website up to date ought to be easy. The GWEDC site, however, is terribly out of date. On a page titled Recent Relocations Highlights, the most recent item is from 2009. Have we not had any relocations since then, or does GWEDC simply not care to update and maintain its website?

A recent Wichita Eagle article, (Why isn’t Wichita winning projects?, January 22, 2012 Wichita Eagle), after listing four items economic development professionals say Wichita needs but lacks, reported “The missing pieces have been obvious for years, but haven’t materialized for one reason or another.”

If these pieces are truly needed and have been obviously missing for years: Isn’t that a startling assessment of failure of Wichita’s economic development regime?

Wichita’s high tax hotels

One of the strategies that two downtown Wichita hotels have pursued is to form a Community Improvement District (CID) to benefit their hotel.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID. In the case of the two hotels in downtown Wichita — Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown and Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview — both elected to go for the full two cents of taxpayer welfare.

Now Douglas Place, a proposed hotel in Wichita, wants the same deal for itself.

To stay in these hotels, guests must now pay 15.3 percent in taxes. That’s 7.3 percent regular sales tax, 6 percent regular guest tax, and now 2 percent in CID tax. That places these hotels in a pretty high tax bracket. By way of comparison, guests staying in New Orleans hotels pay just 13.5 percent in tax. New York City hotels charge 15.4 percent, almost exactly the same as these Wichita hotels. In Las Vegas it’s 12 percent, and Overland Park tops the chart of the cities I looked at with tax of 17.6 percent added to hotel bills.

The rise of CIDs is an example of the city working at cross-purposes with itself, as many of the CIDs are for the benefit of hotels and other tourist attractions. Now we have the situation where we spend millions every year subsidizing airlines so that airfares to Wichita are low. Then we turn around and add extra tax to visitors’ hotel bills and perhaps the shops and restaurants they visit. Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell and others approve this as a wise strategy.

Defenders of the CID tax say it is a voluntary tax that the hotels or merchants place upon themselves. That’s true, although in some cases, such as retail stores, customers will probably not be aware of the tax until after they make their purchases, because the city decided against notifying customers of the extra CID tax in a meaningful way. Lawrence, however, has decided to require strong warning signage to inform customers about the special CID taxes they’ll pay.

Hotel guests are likely to be better informed than retail store customers about the taxes they’ll pay, as for both Wichita hotels, their reservation systems accurately reported the 15.3 percent tax as part of the total cost of staying at the hotel.

The problem is that the extra tax that CIDs collect risks giving Wichita a reputation as a high tax place to live or conduct business. We don’t have mountains, oceans, or even casinos to attract visitors and business. We do have a relatively low cost of living, which could translate into a low cost place to hold a convention or business meeting.

But the CID tax — a tax that is often targeted at visitors under the Longwell strategy — works against this advantage.

Job creation at young firms declines

A new report by the Kauffman Foundation holds unsettling information for the future of job growth in the United States. Kauffman has been at the forefront of research regarding entrepreneurship and job formation.

Previous Kauffman research has emphasized the importance of young firms in productivity growth. Research by Art Hall found that for the period 2000 to 2005, young firms created nearly all the net job growth in Kansas.

So young firms — these are new firms, and while usually small, the category is not the same as small businesses in general — are important drivers of productivity and job growth. That’s why the recent conclusion from Kauffman in its report Starting Smaller; Staying Smaller: America’s Slow Leak in Job Creation is troubling: “The United States appears to be suffering from a long-term leak in job creation that pre-dates the recession and has the potential to persist for an unknown time. The heart of the problem is a pullback by newly created businesses, the economy’s most critical source of job creation, which are generating substantially fewer jobs than one would expect based on past experience. … This trend has only worsened since the onset of the most recent recession. The cohort of firms started in 2009, for example, is on track to contribute close to a million jobs less in its first five to ten years than historical averages.”

The report mentions two assumptions that are commonly made regarding employment that the authors believe are incorrect:

First, policymakers’ focus on big changes in employment because of events such as a new manufacturing plant or the recruitment of a business to a community ignore the more important fact that our jobs outlook will be driven more by the collective decisions of the millions of young and small businesses whose changing employment patterns are not as easy to see or influence. Second, it is just as easy to be deluded into thinking that the jobs problem will be solved by growth in the number of the self-employed.

The importance of young firms is vital to formulating Kansas economic development policy. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has incorporated some of the ideas of economic dynamism in his economic plan released in February. The idea of dynamism, as developed by Dr. Art Hall, is that economic development is best pursued by creating a level playing field where as much business experimentation as possible can take place. The marketplace will sort out the best firms. The idea that government economic development agencies can select which firms should receive special treatment is sure to fail. It is failing.

While the governor’s plan promotes the idea of economic dynamism, some of his actual policies, such as retaining a multi-million dollar slush fund for economic development, are contrary to the free marketplace of business experimentation and letting markets pick winning firms.

At the City of Wichita, economic development policy is tracking on an even worse direction. Among city hall bureaucrats and city council members, there is not a single person who appears to understand the importance of free markets and capitalism except for one: council member Michael O’Donnell, who represents district 4 (south and southwest Wichita).

The policy of Wichita is that of explicit crony capitalism, with city leaders believing they have the wisdom to develop policies that recognize which firms are worthy of taxpayer support. And if they want to grant subsidies to firms that don’t meet policies, they find exceptions or write new policies. Elected officials like Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and city council member Jeff Longwell lust for more tools in the economic development toolbox.

At the Sedgwick County Commission, two of the five members — Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau understand the importance of free markets for economic development. But the city has a much larger role in targeted incentives for economic development, as it is the source of tax increment financing districts, industrial revenue bonds, economic development exemptions, community improvement districts, and other harmful forms on economic interventionism.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday July 11, 2011

TIF in Louisiana. Randal O’Toole recently examined the use of tax increment financing in Louisiana. He finds this: “Property tax TIFs are limited to that portion of property taxes that are not already obligated to some specific purpose — and most property taxes are so obligated, so most if not all Louisiana TIFs rely on sales and hotel taxes instead.” This is different from Kansas, where all the property tax, except for the usually small base, benefits the TIF district exclusively. … He describes sales-tax TIFs, which we in Kansas call community improvement districts or CID. While describing them as the least objectionable form of TIF, he notes problems: Why don’t stores just raise their prices? Stores that charge extra sales tax don’t have warning signage. And: “In the end, TIF is still just a way for elected officials to hand out favors to selected developers and other special interests. There is no reason to think that cities in Louisiana that use TIF grow any faster than ones that do not. Instead, all the TIFs do is shuffle new developments around, favoring certain property owners in the TIF districts over owners outside of the TIF districts. TIF may even reduce growth as developers who don’t get TIF subsidies may decide to build elsewhere where they won’t have to compete against subsidized developments.” … All these warnings have been raised before the Wichita City Council. … California has new legislation designed to kill redevelopment districts there, which are like TID districts in Kansas. … The full article is A Different Kind of TIF.

Overland Park may see tax hike. Ben Hodge reports that Overland Park, the second largest city in Kansas and the largest in Johnson County, may increase its property tax rates. Hodge quotes a Kansas City Star editorial: “One plan from [Overland Park City Manager Bill] Ebel would boost the city’s mill levy by 46 percent and bring in more than $10 million a year in new revenue. The other option, a 41 percent increase, would create an extra $9 million annually.” To which Hodge replies: “So, those are the innovative ideas of today’s Overland Park Council: either a 41% increase, or else a 46% tax increase.” … The Overland Park Chamber of Commerce supports the proposal, which is simply more evidence of the decline of local chambers of commerce. … Hodge’s article is Between a Rock and a Tax Hike.

Medicinal cannibis to be topic. This Friday’s (July 15th) meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Dr. Jon Hauxwell, a physician from Hays, speaking on “Medicinal Cannabis.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. Upcoming speakers: On July 22, Steve Anderson, Director of the Budget for Kansas. On July 29, Dennis Taylor, Secretary, Kansas Department of Administration and “The Repealer” on “An Overview of the Office of the Repealer.”

Employment on a long slow, slide. Wichita’s Malcolm Harris takes a look at the dismal employment numbers from last week. But, there is some better news for Wichita regarding airplane orders.

We already know it’s hot in Wichita. But now here’s proof. The Weather Channel ranks Wichita as fourth hottest city in the nation — and that’s based on weather, not economic growth or something really desirable. Wichita is also ranked as “Midwest” hottest city.

Pursuing happiness, not politics. That’s the title of the prologue to the recently-published book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, both of Reason, the libertarian magazine of “Free Minds and Free Markets.” So far, the prologue is all I’ve read, but I can tell — okay, I already knew — that these guys get it. Here’s what I mean: “In 2011, we do not equate happiness with politics; the mere juxtaposition of the words feels obscene. And for good reason: Politics, John Adams’s great-grandson Henry famously observed, ‘has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.’ Every election cycle — and we are always in an election cycle — we are urged to remember that deep down inside we really despise the opposing gang of crooks. We hate their elite (or Podunk) ways, their socialist (or fascist) economics, their reliance on shadowy billionaires with suspect agendas. In a world where mutual gains from trade have lifted a half billion people out of poverty in just the past half decade, politics is one of the last remaining zero-sum games of I win, you lose, where the victor gets to spend everyone else’s money in ways that appall the vanquished, until they switch places again after the next election. We instinctively know that our tax dollars aren’t being spent efficiently; the proof is in the post office, or the permitting offices at city hall, or the neighborhood school. We roll our eyes when President Barack Obama announces a new national competitiveness initiative in his State of the Union address just five years after George W. Bush announced a new American Competitiveness Initiative in his, or when each and every president since Richard Milhous Nixon swears chat this time we’re gonna kick that foreign-oil habit once and for all. And yet, the political status quo keeps steering the Winnebago of state further and further into the ditch.”

More ‘Economics in One Lesson.’ Tonight (Monday July 11th) Americans For Prosperity Foundation is sponsoring a continuation of the DVD presentation of videos based on Henry Hazlitt’s classic work Economics in One Lesson. The event is Monday from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. The event’s sponsor is Americans for Prosperity, Kansas. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday June 20, 2011

CIDs to start collecting tax. Soon two community improvement districts in Wichita will start collecting their additional sales tax, and so a Wichita city webpage is now available to warn consumers of the extra taxes they’ll pay at these merchants. There were some — like me — who wanted the city to have a policy of stronger consumer protection, such as a sign at the entry to a merchant, but city council members recognized, as did developers, that this full disclosure would be bad for business. The website disclosure allows the city to say it’s doing its job warning consumers, but the website is such a weak form of disclosure that it is nearly meaningless. Still, it satisfies council members like Jeff Longwell, who expressed concern that Wichitans would be “confused” by signs at merchants. You see, some CIDs may charge different amounts of extra tax, and Longwell thought informing shoppers of these different rates would confuse them. It seems that Longwell doesn’t have a very high opinion of the cognitive processing abilities of the people of Wichita, and it’s not the first time he’s expressed this sentiment. A few years ago when citizens complained that documents were not made available until just hours before a city council meeting, Longwell said he doubted citizens would read them anyway. See Wichita Council Member Jeff Longwell: We Can, and Do, Read. … For more on the CID disclosure issue, see In Wichita, two large community improvement districts proposed.

Wichita City Council. This week the Wichita City Council considers these items: A facade improvement program loan is requested for a building at 1525 E. Douglas to house GLMV Architecture. This action will loan $500,000 for the purposes of sprucing up the outside of the building, with that amount, plus interest, to be paid back in the form of special assessments collected with the regular property tax. It’s similar to the special assessment financing used in new housing developments, but here applied to existing structures. Interestingly, the city documents proclaim a “gap,” meaning that “applicants show a financial need for public assistance in order to complete the project, based on the owner’s ability to finance the project and assuming a market-based return on investment.” In other words, private financing was not available, so the city steps in, and we have another example of the city investing in money-losing projects. Although it is likely the city will be paid back, the program also includes a $30,000 grant for this project. That, of course, is a gift from Wichita taxpayers made by the city council, and will not be paid back. … The council will be asked to decide whether to proceed with a new airport terminal costing $160 million and parking facilities costing $40 million. It’s said by city leaders that this will not cost Wichita taxpayers a thing. That is, unless you use the airport or paid any taxes to the federal government. Federal grants are a source of some funds for the airport, and are thought by city leaders to be free money, without cost. … On a consent agenda item, we learn that the bridge over the Big Ditch is going to cost more, as a supplemental agreement for $521,369 in additional funds for the planning of the bridge is requested. The reason, according to the city is “additional work is needed to comply with Federal requirements.” This is just the planning, not the actual construction of the bridge. So far the budget for planning and design is $5,219,145. … Also on the consent agenda is something that’s become not unusual: the need to repeal an ordinance and replace it with a corrected ordinance. … As always, the agenda packet is available at Wichita city council agendas.

Rich States, Poor States event this week. Kansas Policy Institute and the Wichita Independent Business Association are hosting a breakfast event this Friday (June 24th) featuring Jonathan Williams, one of the authors of Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index. There’s still time to RSVP. For more information, see Rich States, Poor States author to be in Wichita.

Wichita’s riverside parks to be topic. This Friday (June 24th), Jim Mason, Naturalist at the Great Plains Nature Center will have a presentation and book signing at the Wichita Pachyderm Club. Mason is author of Wichita’s Riverside Parks, published in April 2011. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. Upcoming speakers: On July 1 there will be no meeting due to the Independence Day holiday. On July 8, Dave Trabert, President, Kansas Policy Institute, on “Stabilizing the Kansas Budget.”

Pompeo noted for opposition to opposition to energy spending. Tax credits — mysterious to the general public, therefore increasingly used as a way to disguise government spending — come under attack from Chris Chocola in the Washington Examiner: “Last fall, voters sent a clear message to cut spending and get the country’s fiscal house in order. These same voters should take heed because some of the candidates they elected are suffering from temporary insanity when it comes to a classic Washington giveaway: the tax credit. Nearly 80 Republicans, many of whom ran on restoring fiscal sanity to Washington, have joined 100 liberal Democrats in sponsoring HR 1380, the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act, known colloquially as the NAT GAS Act.” … The bill is a pet project of energy investor T. Boone Pickens in an effort to obtain billions in subsidy for his project to use natural gas as a transportation fuel. But, writes Chocola: “The goal should be creating a sustainable market, not a false one. It is not the role of Congress or the federal government to pick winners or losers in the broad field of energy alternatives. Backing any one industry over another distorts the market and destroys our system of free enterprise.” He criticizes those who campaigned on fiscal responsibility and support this bill. Chocola also calls out Wichita Republican U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo for his opposition to these energy tax and spending programs.

Even quicker. Open Letter to Paul Krugman: The New York Times columnist taken to task by Donald J. Boudreaux. … House GOP retreats from borrowing freeze, more Republicans drift from pledge to deny debt-limit increase without conditions. … Rasmussen poll: 70% say default is bad for economy, 56% say failure to cut spending is worse. … The Metaphysics of Contemporary Theft: “The remedy to address theft would be not more government help — public assistance, social welfare, counseling — but far less, given that human nature rises to the occasion when forced to work and sinks when leisured and exempt.” … Investor’s Business Daily: Times’ Bias Shows In Palin Email Affair. … Michael Barone: Government Looks to Past, Free Enterprise to Future: “Republicans want less government spending and more leeway for entrepreneurs to create new businesses and jobs. No one knows what innovative products and services will emerge. That’s the beauty of free enterprise, but it also makes it a hard sell politically.”

For Wichita, Save-A-Lot teaches a lesson

The announcement that a Save-A-Lot grocery store will proceed — contrary to the claims of developers and city staff who rely on their information — should provide a lesson that yes, economic development in Wichita can and will happen without public assistance. Additionally, examination of the public hearing for this matter before the Wichita City Council last September should teach us to be very cautious in relying on the claims of people who have a huge economic stake in obtaining public assistance.

At a city council public hearing on both the Community Improvement District and Tax Increment financing district last September, developer Rob Snyder sought public assistance in the form of a tax increment financing district (TIF) and a Community Improvement District (CID). Over a period of years, the two forms of subsidy were estimated to be worth $900,000 to the developer. The project’s total cost was presented as slightly over $2 million.

(By the way, in its recent coverage of this matter, the Wichita Eagle has an incorrect recording of events. The Eagle reported, referring to the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission: “The boards ultimately rejected the financing, despite support from some officials.” Actually, the city council unanimously approved both the CID and TIF. Then, the county commission exercised its statutory prerogative to veto the formation of a TIF district. The commission has no authority to intervene in the formation of CIDs.)

As part of his presentation to the council Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development explained that to be eligible for TIF, developers must demonstrate a “gap,” that is, an analytical finding that conventional financing is not sufficient for the project, and public assistance is required: “We’ve done that. We know, for example, from the developer’s perspective in terms of how much they will make in lease payments from the Save-A-Lot operator, how much that is, and how much debt that will support, and how much funds the developer can raise personally for this project. That has, in fact, left a gap, and these numbers that you’ve seen today reflect what that gap is.”

Snyder told the council that without the public assistance, there will be no grocery store: “We have researched every possible way, how do we make this project work with the existing funding that’s available to us. … We might as well say if for some reason we can’t figure out how to get this funding to go through, there won’t be a shopping center over there.”

Greg Ferris, a former city council member who lobbies local government on behalf of clients, was adamant in his insistence that the grocery store could not be built without public financing: “There will not be a building on that corner if this is not passed today. … That new building would not be built. I absolutely can tell you that because we have spent months … trying to figure out a way to finance a project in that area. A grocery store is not going to move into the Planeview area to service those people just like they didn’t move into the area at 13th and Grove until the city subsidized that with several hundred thousand dollars of city money. … What you’ve heard is misinformation. … This project just won’t happen and the people of Planeview will suffer.”

Now, we see that the financing gap has been closed, and without government assistance. The claims that a grocery store can’t be built in that neighborhood without welfare for developers have been demonstrated to be false.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer has referred to those who oppose government intervention like TIF and CID as “naysayers.” Here’s an example where free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom have overcome Wichita’s true naysayers: those who say it can’t happen without government intervention.

A message from John Todd: “This Wednesday (June 8th) at 2:00 pm there will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store located on the southeast corner of George Washington Boulevard and Pawnee. This project was initially proposed with $900,000 in CID and TIF public subsidies for the developer that were approved by the Wichita City Council last fall. When the Sedgwick County Commission rejected giving the county’s portion of the TIF generated real estate taxes to the developer and away from the public treasury, the project appeared to be dead. The Wichita Eagle recently reported that the Save-A-Lot grocery store owner has now decided to develop the project on his own with his own financing. Perhaps it is appropriate for those citizens who appreciate businesses who develop market-driven projects in Wichita and Sedgwick County on their own nickel to show their appreciation to the grocery store owner/developer by attending the groundbreaking ceremony and personally thanking him.”

In Wichita, corporate welfare not needed, after all

Last fall the City of Wichita awarded two forms of economic development subsidy to a proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store to be built in the Planeview neighborhood. The developer of the store was able to persuade Wichita economic development officials and city council members that the store could not be built without public assistance. But now a different developer is going ahead with the project — without any of the subsidies Wichita approved, raising questions as to whether the city’s original offer of public assistance was genuine economic development, or just another instance of corporate welfare.

The subsidies approved were in the form of a tax increment financing district (TIF) and a Community Improvement District (CID). Over a period of years, the two forms of subsidy were estimated to be worth $900,000 to the developer.

Kansas law allows affected counties and school districts to veto the formation of a TIF district. The Sedgwick County Commission did just that, and the developer said he would not proceed with the project.

But now, according to Wichita Eagle reporting, a different developer is proceeding with the project, and without subsidy, according to the article. While TIF is not available, it seems the authorizing ordinance for the CID is still in effect, and could be used by the new developer, if desired.

Economic development, or corporate welfare?

That the Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store is able to proceed, and in a larger and more expensive form than originally proposed, tells us that the arguments of its supporters — that economic development assistance was absolutely required — were not true. Actually, these arguments might have been true in the mind of Rob Snyder, the original developer. Developers who seek public subsidy have a powerful incentive to make the case to local governments that their projects need financial assistance. In this case, Snyder was able to convince Wichita city staff that there was indeed a “gap,” according to city documents, of “approximately $950,000 on a total project cost of over $2,000,000.” In other words, the purported “gap” was nearly half the total project cost.

But in the hands of a different developer, that gap has evaporated, and the project is able to stand on its own without public assistance.

We need to realize that the “gap” analysis performed by the City of Wichita is not thorough. There’s an imbalance of power in the relationship between city officials and developers. As mentioned above, developers have powerful financial motives to present their projects in a way that makes them eligible for public assistance. Government officials want these projects to happen. Economic activity is good for everyone, after all. So the motives of local economic development officials and elected representatives to turn over a lot of rocks — examining deals too closely — is weak. As a result, we’ve seen examples where outsiders brought information to the City of Wichita that would not have been considered otherwise.

In one instance a former Wichita City Council member was unhappy that the Wichita Eagle uncovered negative information about a potential recipient of Wichita public assistance.

Wichita officials and council members need to take a look at their economic development programs and decide whether the city is willing to — and wants to — distinguish between real and valid economic development programs and corporate welfare. In the case of Wichita’s public assistance offer to Rob Snyder’s Save-A-Lot grocery store, recent developments confirm what a few people suspected at the time — it was corporate welfare, plain and simple.

Eastgate CID should not be approved in Wichita

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will decide whether to grant the owners of Eastgate shopping center a Community Improvement District (CID). Granting the CID would force the merchants in the district to collect tax of an additional one cent per dollar sales from customers. These proceeds, less a small handling fee, would then be given to the center’s owners.

There are many reasons why the council should not form the CID. Perhaps the primary reason is that it lets property owners establish their own private taxing policy 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.

So when we pay property tax or sales tax, many are comforted knowing that much of it goes towards things like police and fire protection. (Of course, some is wasted, and government is not the only way these services, especially education, could be provided.)

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.

CID advocates and council members make the case that CID taxes are good for the economy. It’s just another tool. But it’s a tool that has to be tapped with a velvet hammer. When people are armed beforehand with knowledge of taxes, they may alter their behavior and not shop at merchants located with CIDs. The council’s refusal to require signage that lets shoppers easily know, in advance, of taxes they’ll be paying recognizes that fact.

The council members should also be aware that when Wichitans have to spend more when shopping at certain merchants, it leaves less money to spend at other merchants.

There one was a time when if landlords wanted to make improvements to their property, they would pay for it themselves. Or they might raise their rents. These days of private enterprise are coming to an end as government is used to accomplish what private transactions and agreements once did.

As CIDs start to spread across Wichita, it’s likely the pace of requests for more will accelerate. After Eastgate spruces up, what are the owners of Towne East Square, located catty-corner, to do? Why wouldn’t they want their own CID too? And so it goes, on and on, until most of our major shopping districts are located within CIDs.

In this way the city will have experienced a sales tax increase, except that the usual recipient of tax revenue won’t be receiving it. And the usual recipient — government — will still be hungry.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday February 27, 2011

Boeing tanker contract. While almost everyone in Kansas is celebrating the award of the air fueling tanker replacement contract to Boeing, there are a few reasons we shouldn’t over-celebrate. First, we bought an expensive war weapon. This is guns, not butter. President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the creation of a permanent armaments industry. Now our leaders celebrate defense spending as a jobs creation program, forgetting the opportunity costs of this spending. … In 2008, when the contract was awarded to the foreign company European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. (EADS) and Boeing successfully protested the award, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal correctly analyzed the politics: “What’s really going on is a familiar scrum for federal cash, with politicians from Washington and Kansas using nationalism as cover for their pork-barreling.” The article correctly stated the goal of the contract: “The Pentagon’s job is to defend the country, which means letting contracts that best serve American soldiers and taxpayers, not certain companies.” Noting the aging fleet of tankers the contract would replace, and that the protest by Boeing would delay receiving them, the Journal concluded “Protectionists in Congress want to make America’s soldiers wait even longer for this new equipment, all to score political points at home. There’s a word for that, but it’s not patriotism.” … Of the contract awarded this week, the Journal wrote: “The military and Capitol Hill proved so good at fouling up this decade-long contest through political meddling, fake patriotism and sheer incompetence that a clean resolution may be near impossible.” Noting the international nature of manufacturing, the article wrote: “Boeing and Airbus each would have employed about 50,000 Americans to build up to 179 aerial refueling tankers.” Concluding: “The law tells the Defense Department to buy the best hardware at the best price on the global marketplace, regardless of any impact on domestic job creation. The fuel tanker debacle has undermined a competitive and open market for defense purchases free of political pressure. The losers are American taxpayers and soldiers.”

Kansas Economic Freedom Index. This week I produced the first version of the Kansas Economic Freedom Index: Who votes for and against economic freedom in Kansas? for the 2011 legislative session. Currently I have a version only for the House of Representatives, as the Senate hasn’t made many votes that affect economic freedom. The index now has its own site, kansaseconomicfreedom.com.

Elections this week. On Tuesday voters across Kansas will vote in city and school board primary elections. Well, at least a few will vote, as it is thought that only nine percent of eligible voters will actually vote. Many of those may have already voted by now, as advance voting is popular. For those who haven’t yet decided, here’s the Wichita Eagle voter guide.

Civility is lost on the Wisconsin protesters. Lost not only in Wisconsin, but across the country, writes Michelle Malkin in Washington Examiner. “President Obama’s new era of civility was over before it began. You wouldn’t know it from reading The New York Times, watching Katie Couric or listening to the Democratic manners police. But America has been overrun by foul-mouthed, fist-clenching wildebeests. Yes, the Tea Party Movement is responsible — for sending these liberal goons into an insane rage, that is. After enduring two years of false smears as sexist, racist, homophobic barbarians, it is grassroots conservatives and taxpayer advocates who have been ceaselessly subjected to rhetorical projectile vomit. It is Obama’s rank-and-file “community organizers” on the streets fomenting the hate against their political enemies. Not the other way around.” … Malkin details the viciousness of some of the political activity across the country, some of which is especially demeaning to minorities — and women, as we’ve seen in Kansas this week.

Help Wisconsin Governor Walker. Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity explains what’s happening in Wisconsin: “Governor Walker is simply repairing the Wisconsin budget by reining in the overly generous pension and benefits packages that are far beyond what people in the private sector receive. He’s also ending the government union collective bargaining that has been the chief reason why union benefits and pensions have gotten so out of control.” … Phillips recommends supporting Walker by signing a petition stating: “Union dues should be voluntary, and the state should not be in the business of collecting them. Union certification should require a secret ballot. Collective bargaining should not be used to force extravagant pension and health benefits that cripple state budgets. These common-sense reforms have made the union bosses desperate to disrupt Wisconsin government and overturn an election. They must not be allowed to succeed. In fact, every state should adopt Governor Scott Walker’s common sense reforms.” Click on Stand With Walker to express your support.

Wichita city council. On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will take up these matters: First, the council will decide on a policy regarding soliciting charitable contributions at street intersections. Then, the council will decided whether to create a Community Improvement District for the Eastgate Shopping Center. While the council has enthusiastically granted other applicants this privilege of setting their own sales tax policy for their own benefit — and has voted against meaningful disclosure of this to potential shoppers — this CID may not pass. The Wichita Eagle has editorialized against this CID in particular — twice. Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell voted against accepting the petitions for this CID, although he did not explain his lone dissenting vote. … Then Chrome Plus, a manufacturer, seeks forgiveness from paying property taxes under the city’s Economic Development Exemption (EDX) Program. … In the consent agenda, the council will be asked to approve a payment of $235,000 to settle a lawsuit over “damages incurred in an accident between a Wichita Transit bus and a pedestrian in December 2008.”

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday February 10, 2011

Politicians’ Top 10 Promises Gone Wrong. This Monday (February 14) Americans for Prosperity will show the 2010 John Stossel documentary “Politicians’ Top 10 Promises Gone Wrong.” For a preview and interview with Stossel, click here. For my reporting and review of the show, click on Stossel on politicians’ promises. … This event, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, will be held on Monday, February 14 from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Cabela’s to seek community improvement district tax. It should come as no surprise that when a major retailer comes to Wichita, they will take advantage of the state’s community improvement district law. If approved, formation of the CID would allow Cabela’s to charge an extra tax on its sales. In this case, according to Wichita Eagle reporting, the tax will be 1.2 cents per dollar. … Sources tell me that this is likely not the only special tax treatment Cabela’s will seek. Look for an application for tax abatements through IRBs or the EDX program. This would fit right in with Cabela’s notoriety for squeezing all it can from government. … As these CIDs spread across Wichita, we are, in effect, experiencing a sales tax increase, drip by drip.

Kansas legislature website. The Kansas legislature’s website is improving. A huge irritation remains, however: when pdf documents are presented, they’re in a “fancy” non-standard window that reduces the usability of the site. On an Iphone, the documents can’t be read, as the fancy window wants to do its own scrolling. … Sometimes clicking on a link produces the wrong document, as just now on the house of Representatives page, I clicked on “Session 20 – Wed Feb 09 2011 PDF” and was presented with the Senate’s journal for January 31. … Judging by the log of completed features added each day and by the list of things promised, it’s clear that this site is still in development. Doing this during the session was a terrible lapse of judgment. … Listed are “Special reports for members” such as “House and Senate Subject Index with bill status.” Why, I wonder, should this be available only for members?

Wichita again to bet on corporate welfare as economic development

This week the Wichita City Council will consider three measures that, if adopted, will further establish corporate welfare and rent-seeking as Wichita’s economic development strategy.

When people are living on welfare, we usually see that as a sad state of affairs. We view it as a failure, both for the individual and for the country. We seek ways to help people get off welfare so that they become self-sufficient. We want to help them contribute to society rather than being a drain on its resources.

But Wichita’s leaders don’t see corporate welfare as a bad thing. Instead, as these three measures — all of which will likely pass unanimously — illustrate, welfare is good when you’re a business in Wichita. Especially if you can raise speculation that your company might move out of Wichita.

The term rent, or more precisely, economic rent is somewhat unfortunate, as the common usage of the term — paying someone money for the use of an asset for a period of time — contains no sinister connotation. But economic rent does carry baggage.

What is rent seeking? Wikipedia defines it like this: “In economics, rent seeking occurs when an individual, organization or firm seeks to earn income by capturing economic rent through manipulation or exploitation of the economic environment, rather than by earning profits through economic transactions and the production of added wealth.”

This explanation doesn’t do full justice to the term, because it doesn’t mention the role that government and politics usually play. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics adds this: “The idea is simple but powerful. People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena. They typically do so by getting a subsidy for a good they produce or for being in a particular class of people, by getting a tariff on a good they produce, or by getting a special regulation that hampers their competitors.”

The three deals the Wichita City Council will consider tomorrow are both corporate welfare and rent-seeking. All three are harmful to our city.

The three deals

The first item to be considered Tuesday concerns MoJack Distributors, LLC, a company that makes an accessory for riding lawn mowers. It is proposed that the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County each make a forgivable loan of $35,000 to this company. If the company maintains a certain level of employment, the loans do not need to be repaid.

But this is not the only welfare being given to this company. The city also proposes a 100% Economic Development Exemption (EDX) property tax exemption. The term would be five years, with renewal for another five years if conditions are met. The city’s material on this matter may be read at Approval of Forgivable Loan Agreement, MoJack.

The company will also receive tax credits and grants under programs offered by the State of Kansas.

Another company, Apex Engineering International LLC, is proposed to receive forgivable loans of $220,000 each from Wichita and Sedgwick County. The company will also receive grants and tax credits totaling $1,272,000 from the state. Surprisingly, no property tax exemption is mentioned for this company. The city’s material on this matter may be read at Approval of Forgivable Loan Agreement (Apex Engineering International).

For both companies, there was the threat of moving operations elsewhere, and the incentives offered made the difference.

The final action of corporate welfare to be considered is a community improvement district (CID) for the Eastgate shopping center at Kellogg and Rock Road. The CID, if approved, would require merchants to add an additional tax of one cent per dollar on all sales. That money, less a five percent fee, would then be given to the shopping center’s owners for their exclusive use. This could be worth as much as $18,528,596 over 22 years, according to city documents.

The Eastgate item is on the agenda for a second time after being withdrawn in January. At the time, Rhonda Holman of The Wichita Eagle wrote: “As it was, insufficient time had been allowed for staff vetting of the proposals and thorough consideration by the council and public.”

The action the council is asked to take at tomorrow’s meeting is to accept petitions asking for formation of the CID, and to set March 1st as the date of a public hearing.

Targeted investment, or welfare

Government bureaucrats and politicians promote programs like these as targeted investment in our region’s 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 city hall that shapes the future direction of Wichita’s 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.

I emphasized the last sentence to highlight the problem of the dispersed nature of knowledge.

Yet this week, our Wichita city bureaucrats feel they have the necessary knowledge to recommend to the city council that the citizens of Wichita make investments of public funds in these three instances. Our city council members are gullible enough to believe it.

One thing is for sure: the city has the power to make these investments. They just don’t have — they can’t have — the knowledge as to whether these are wise.

We need a dynamic job creation engine

Furthermore, we have to question the wisdom of investing in these established companies, especially a company involved in aviation, as Wichita always is seeking to diversify its economy away from dependence on aviation.

Through research conducted by Dr. Art Hall and others, we now know that it is dynamic young companies that are the main drivers of job creation in Kansas. Hall wrote: “Embracing dynamism starts with a change in vision. Simply stated, the state government of Kansas should abandon its prevailing policy vision of the State as an active investor in businesses or industries and instead adopt the policy vision of the State as a caretaker of a competitive “platform” — a platform that seeks to induce as much commercial experimentation as possible.” (While Hall wrote about the State of Kansas, the City of Wichita is playing the same role at a local level.)

The “active investor” role that the city of Wichita is about to take with regard to these three companies is precisely the wrong role to take. These actions increase the cost of government for the dynamic small companies we need to nurture. Instead these efforts concentrate and focus our economic development efforts in an unproductive way.

Sales tax increase spreading across Wichita

These proposed Eastgate shopping center CID, and one still likely to be proposed for Westway shopping center, break new ground in that these shopping centers are not tourist destinations or trendy shops. They’re run-of-the mill shopping centers that have stores that Wichitans visit every day. Some council members like Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell have justified past CIDs on the basis that since they are tourist destinations, much of the tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. This is not a wise policy, but even it it was, it does not apply to these two shopping centers.

Instead, these two applications are more indications that soon Wichita — its major retail centers and destinations, at least — is likely to be blanketed with community improvement districts charging up to an extra two cents per dollar sales tax. Currently, merchants in a CID are running the very real risk that once their customers become aware of the extra sales tax, they will shop somewhere else. But as CIDs become more prevalent in Wichita, this competitive disadvantage will disappear.

Step by step, a sales tax increase is engulfing Wichita, and our city council and mayor are fine with that happening. This is on top of the statewide sales tax increase from last year, which, despite claims of its supporters and opposition by conservatives, is likely a permanent fixture.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday January 16, 2011

Wichita swoons over Boston attention. The self-congratulatory back-patting by a group of Wichitans over attention paid by a Boston Globe travel writer is starting to be embarrassing for us. The Wichita Eagle article on this topic mentions chicken-fried steak and biscuits and gravy in its opening sentence, a sure sign that the article will attempt to draw a contrast between our image and our purported reality. Which is, if I understand, mostly street statues, the Old Mill Tasty Shop, and Exploration Place. … As it turns out, Geoff Edgers, the writer, has a financial motive in his praise of Wichita. On his initial visit: “Festival directors put up Edgers, his wife and two small children at the Hotel at Old Town.” Now Wichitans are raising money to help the writer, who is also a filmmaker, get his movie on television, and “the Wichita groups offered to raise money to help Edgers’ get his film shortened and syndicated for public broadcasting. … If he raises $2,500 while in Wichita next month, Edgers intends to include a ‘thank-you’ to Wichita in the credits of his syndicated film.”

Harm of expanding government explained. Introducing his new book Back on the Road to Serfdom: The Resurgence of Statism, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. writes: “The economic consequences of an expanded government presence in American life are of course not the only outcomes to be feared, and this volume considers a variety of them. For one thing, as the state expands, it fosters the most antisocial aspects of man’s nature, particularly his urge to attain his goals with the least possible exertion. And it is much easier to acquire wealth by means of forcible redistribution by the state than by exerting oneself in the service of one’s fellow man. The character of the people thus begins to change; they expect as a matter of entitlement what they once hesitated to ask for as charity. That is the fallacy in the usual statement that ‘it would cost only $X billion to give every American who needs it’ this or that benefit. Once people realize the government is giving out a benefit for ‘free,’ more and more people will place themselves in the condition that entitles them to the benefit, thereby making the program ever more expensive. A smaller and smaller productive base will have to strain to provide for an ever-larger supply of recipients, until the system begins to buckle and collapse.” … Phrases like “smaller and smaller productive base” apply in Wichita, where our economic development policies like tax increment financing, community improvement districts, and tax abatement through industrial revenue bonds excuse groups of taxpayers from their burdens, leaving a smaller group of people to pay the costs of government.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday January 11, 2011

Legislature website still down. Last week visitors to the Kansas Legislature website were greeted with a message indicating that an upgrade would be forthcoming. As of this moment, that message is replace with a generic error message and the site is not working. In a phone call yesterday, a clerk said the site would — hopefully — be available yesterday afternoon. The legislature’s site needed an update, as parts of it were frustrating to work with. But with it not working at all, Kansans are missing out on vital information. For example, it is not possible to remotely retrieve the Legislature’s calendars and journals.

Treasurer to ask for more information. In an effort to return more unclaimed property, new Kansas state treasurer Ron Estes will ask the legislature to allow him to obtain contact information from other state agencies. See Treasurer wants more data so office can return property.

Wichita CID proposals delayed. Proposals for two Community Improvement Districts in Wichita have been delayed from consideration at today’s Wichita City Council meeting. More information about these two proposals is at In Wichita, two large community improvement districts proposed. Today’s action would have simply accepted the petitions, setting a public hearing and approval — or not — for a future date. … In editorializing against these CIDs, the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman wrote: “As it was, insufficient time had been allowed for staff vetting of the proposals and thorough consideration by the council and public.” Time and time again, city staff assures the public that they have thoroughly vetted developers and projects, but here is another example of why citizens need to be wary of city hall bureaucrats. … In summary, Holman writes: “The council needs to treat the CID designations as the hidden tax hikes that they are — and use them only where and when they are mission critical, such as to implementing the Goody Clancy downtown master plan.. … By that standard, these two proposals don’t even come close.”

Longwell on citizen knowledge. My reporting on Wichita City Council member Jeff Longwell and his attitude towards citizen knowledge reminded me of a similar incident from the past. Recently, Longwell spoke in favor of signs telling shoppers that they’re about to enter a store that relies on Community Improvement District financing. But the signs would not tell shoppers how much extra tax they would be paying. Longwell said “So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.” In other words, giving citizens too much information will confuse them. … In 2008, when a matter was rushed through the council with little time to study the issue, Longwell was quoted in The Wichita Eagle as saying: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” … It doesn’t take many residents to read it. Just a few will usually be enough. … Not surprisingly, the matter Longwell wanted to rush through concerned taxpayer-funded welfare for Wichita theater owner Bill Warren. This is another example of how Longwell has been captured by special interests.

State of the State tomorrow. On Wednesday, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will deliver the State of the State Address. It will be carried in Wichita on KPTS channel 8 at 6:30 pm.

This week at Sedgwick County Commission. Tomorrow’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission has a light agenda. It will be the first meeting for commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Skelton. At the end of the meeting, commissioners will elect a new chairman and chairman pro tem. Karl Peterjohn has been the chair for the last year. The chairman conducts the meetings and signs official documents. Speculation is that Dave Unruh, who is just starting his third term, has the inside track for election.

Changes to Kansas campaign law recommended. Washburn University’s Bob Beatty writes about two “common sense bills” bills that the Kansas Legislature will consider this year, and which he recommends be passed “in order to help clarify for voters what they’re seeing when the political ad season begins anew.’ … The first measure would ban state officeholders from appearing in public service advertisements for a 60-day period before elections. The second would require candidates to state their approval of an advertisement. More at Fine-tuning political ads.

In Wichita, two large community improvement districts proposed

On Tuesday (January 11) the Wichita City Council will decide whether to accept petitions calling for the formation of two Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) in Wichita. In both cases, city staff recommends that the council accept the petitions and set February first as the date for the public hearing. It is on that date that the council will accept public input and vote whether to form each of the CIDs.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

The districts proposed are two well-established Wichita shopping centers. Westway Shopping Center is at the southwest corner of West Pawnee Avenue and South Seneca Street. Eastgate Center is at the southeast corner of Kellogg and Rock Road.

In the case of Westway, city documents indicate that the funds from the CID proceeds are to be used for “public and private improvements and the payment of certain ongoing operating costs.” At Eastgate, funds will be used for “renovation and modernization.”

Both projects ask for one cent per dollar to be added to shoppers’ sales tax. Both ask to be implemented using the “pay-as-you-go” method, meaning that the city will not issue bonds. Instead, the city will send to the applicants the proceeds from the extra sales tax as it is collected.

Both applicants are represented by Polsinelli Shughart, an Overland Park law firm that has represented other clients that have received approval for community improvement districts from the Wichita City Council.

Signage discussion at city council

At the December 7, 2010 meeting of the Wichita City Council, the council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, feel that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

At the meeting Korb Maxwell, a representative of Polsinelli Shughart, spoke to the city council in support of the CID legislation. While Maxwell spoke as though he was advocating for the public interest, he in fact works for a law firm that is representing the narrow interests of its clients.

Speaking to the council, Maxwell denied that developers “have any interest in hiding something from the public, or keeping citizens from having full knowledge about these community improvement districts.”

But he said — rather obliquely — that the retailers they are trying to bring to Wichita would be discouraged by full disclosure of the extra sales tax that citizens would pay in their stores. “We want to make sure that anything that we do, or anything that we implement within a policy is appropriate and will not counteract the very tool we’re creating here.”

He provided a suggested sign design that states that community improvement district financing was used, but not that customers will pay a higher sales tax in CID stores. Retailers would accept this, he said.

In discussion from the bench, Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he made a case that posting a sign with a specific sales tax would be confusing to citizens:

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

I think this means that Longwell’s okay with telling people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re being asked to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Council Member Sue Schlapp said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Schlapp understands and said what everyone knows: that if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else.

Mayor Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

This episode is a startling example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests.

Sales tax increase spreading across Wichita

These two CIDs break new ground in that these shopping centers are not tourist destinations or trendy shops. Some council members like Longwell have justified past CIDs on the basis that since they are tourist destinations, much of the tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. This is not a wise policy, but even it it was, it does not apply to these two shopping centers.

Instead, these two applications are more indications that soon Wichita — its major retail centers and destinations, at least — is likely to be blanketed with community improvement districts charging up to an extra two cents per dollar sales tax. Currently, merchants in a CID are running the very real risk that once their customers become aware of the extra sales tax, they will shop somewhere else. But as CIDs become more prevalent in Wichita, this competitive disadvantage will disappear.

Step by step, a sales tax increase is engulfing Wichita, and our city council and mayor are fine with that happening. This is on top of the statewide sales tax increase from last year, which, despite claims of its supporters and opposition by conservatives, is likely a permanent fixture.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday December 10, 2010

This Week in Kansas. On This Week in Kansas guests Rebecca Zepick of State of the State KS, Joe Aistrup of Kansas State University, and myself discuss Kansas House of Representatives leadership, Governor-elect Brownback’s appointments, and voter ID. Tim Brown is the host. This Week in Kansas airs on KAKE TV channel 10, Sunday morning at 9:00 am.

Cato scholar to speak on economic freedom. Today’s meeting (December 10) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features noted Cato Institute scholar, Principal Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, and author Timothy Sandefur. He will discuss his recent book The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law. A description of the book at Amazon.com reads: “America’s founders thought the right to earn a living was so basic and obvious that it didn’t need to be mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Yet today that right is burdened by a wide array of government rules and regulations that play favorites, rewrite contracts, encourage frivolous lawsuits, seize private property, and manipulate economic choices to achieve outcomes that bureaucrats favor. The Right to Earn a Living charts the history of this fundamental human right, from the constitutional system that was designed to protect it by limiting government’s powers, to the Civil War Amendments that expanded protection to all Americans, regardless of race. It then focuses on the Progressive-era judges who began to erode those protections, and concludes with today’s controversies over abusive occupational licensing laws, freedom of speech in advertising, regulatory takings, and much more.” … Of the book, Dick Armey said: “Government today puts so many burdens and restrictions on entrepreneurs and business owners that we’re squandering our most precious resource: the entrepreneurial spirit and drive of our people. Sandefur’s book explains how this problem began, and what steps we can take to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to pursue the American Dream.” … The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Tea party regional blogs compiled. Phillip Donovan has compiled a list of top tea party-related blogs by region, and Voice for Liberty in Wichita is on the list. Of my blog, Donovan wrote “Bob Weeks has been blogging the perspective of free markets, personal liberty, and limited government since 2004, long before the ‘tea party movement’ was born.”

Tax rates still a secret. Rhonda Holman’s Wichita Eagle editorial asks the central question about signage requirements warning customers of Community Improvement Districts that they will be paying higher sales tax: “But if transparency about CIDs is bad for business, how can CIDs be good for citizens and the community?”

Federal spending oversight. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the actual spending of money happens in the Appropriations Committee, and this committee is a large source of the problems we have with federal spending. The Wall Street Journal column Oversight for the Spenders explains why: “The Members who join the Appropriations subcommittee on, say, agriculture do so precisely because they are advocates of farm spending. They have no interest in subjecting their own programs to greater public scrutiny.” What is the outlook going forward for this committee? Incoming Speaker John Boehner appointed Kentucky’s Hal Rogers as chair. The Journal column says his “spending record rivals that of any free-wheeling Democrat.” A bright spot: reformer Jeff Flake of Arizona is appointed to the committee, but his request to run an investigations subcommittee was not granted. The Journal is not impressed, concluding “Mr. Boehner’s selection of Mr. Rogers is a major disappointment and makes his promises to control spending suspect. If he really wants to change the spending culture, he should unleash Mr. Flake.”

Slow death for high-speed rail. From Randal O’Toole: “New transportation technologies are successful when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and at least five times more expensive than either one. It is only feasible with heavy taxpayer subsidies and even then it will only serve a tiny portion of the nation’s population.”

Does the New York Times have a double standard? John LaPlante in LaPlante: NY Times leaky double-standard: “Many newspapers in America reprint articles from the New York Times on a regular basis. So their editorial slant is of importance beyond the (direct) readership of the Gray Lady. Compare and contrast how the Times treated two recent leaks: ‘The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here. — New York Times, on the Climategate emails, Nov. 20, 2009. … ‘The articles published today and in coming days are based on thousands of United States embassy cables, the daily reports from the field intended for the eyes of senior policy makers in Washington. … The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.. — New York Times, on the WikiLeaks documents, Nov. 29, 2010.” I’ll let you make the call.

Wichita Eagle Opinion Line. “The party of the wealthy triumphs again. Congratulations, Republican voters. By extending the handout to the wealthy, you just increased the national debt.” I would say to this writer that action to prevent an increase in income tax from occurring is not a handout. The only way that extending the present tax rates qualifies as a handout is if you believe that the income people earn belongs first to government. This is entirely backwards and violates self-ownership. Further, the national debt — actually the deficit — has two moving parts: the government’s income, and its spending. We choose as a nation to spend more than the government takes in. That is the cause of the deficit.

Wichita Community Improvement District policy to be decided

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council is scheduled to decided the city’s policy on Community Improvement Districts (CID).

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

One of the main issues to be decided is the issue of warning signage. Some have recommended that consumers be protected 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. Imagine that: people don’t want to pay any more tax than necessary!

City staff has recommended that a website be used to notify customers of CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless.

One of the follies in Wichita 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.

The rise of CIDs is an example of the city working at cross-purposes with itself, as many of the CIDs are for the benefit of hotels and other tourist attractions. Now we have the situation where we spend millions every year subsidizing airlines so that airfares to Wichita are low. Then we turn around and add extra tax to visitors’ hotel bills and perhaps the shops and restaurants they visit. Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell approves this as a wise strategy.

Developers say that Wichita will lose deals if businesses don’t have the ability to charge extra sales tax without the prior knowledge of customers. I would suggest we lose deals because of another reason: our high business property taxes. According to the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, commercial property in Wichita is taxed an an effective rate of 2.801 percent per year. The national average is about 1.9 percent, meaning the rate in Wichita is 47 percent greater.

These high commercial property taxes have driven developers such as Colby Sandlian and others out of Wichita. They continue to develop properties outside of Wichita and Kansas — in Sandlian’s case, over $100 million in commercial development outside of Kansas since 1989.

These high business taxes mean that the state and cities must concoct schemes like CIDs and other economic development giveaways in order to attract business to Wichita. This places governmental bodies like the Wichita City Council in the position of selecting which business firms it will invest in, when there’s no way the Council has the knowledge and incentive structure needed to make these decisions.

If we will lose deals because a special class of merchants can’t charge extra sales tax, then we have a big problem.

If we will lose deals because we’re afraid to notify consumers — in advance — of the taxes they will pay, we have a big problem.

Finally perhaps the simplest public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday December 5, 2010

Wichita City Council this week. Tuesday’s city council meeting has a busy agenda. First is the Community Improvement District policy, which was deferred from November 2. I believe the major issue to be resolved is requiring signage on stores or businesses that will be charging extra sales tax. It’s possible there might be a majority on the council who want the warning signs. Developers are opposed, saying that notification in advance drives off customers. Gee, who could have known that people don’t like paying taxes? The city is proposing a web site that identifies all CIDs, but this is a weak form of consumer notification that is pretty much useless, as correctly identified by council member Lavonta Williams. … There’s an appeal of a ruling that a woman has three horses on her property when rules allow one. … Several companies are requesting industrial revenue bonds and relief from paying property taxes: Bombardier Learjet, Cessna, and Coleman. … Go Wichita Convention & Visitors Bureau will ask that its contract with the city be renewed. This is one of the organizations that has refused to fill my records requests, stating that they are not a “public agency” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. Go Wichita is budgeted to receive $2,121,390 from the city this year. The agenda report is available at this link.

DAB agendas missing. On Monday, four of the city’s six District Advisory Boards will meet. As of this moment, three of these boards don’t have their agenda available on the city’s website. Only the DAB for district 6 has its agenda available on the city’s website: The lack of availability of DAB agendas is an issue that the city should work to resolve.

Kansas legislators learn about education reform. Kansas Senator Julia Lynn reports on a trip by several legislators: “Five Kansas legislators received a wake up call after attending the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington DC. The big take away? Kansas is embarrassingly behind on education reform initiatives including the broader concept of choice, charter school legislation, tax credit and special needs scholarship programs and a myriad of educational technology and digital learning applications. … The focus of the conference centered on the need for nationwide reform calling out our present system of public education as factory model driven by the interests of adults and a monopoly that is neither efficient nor responsive. Burdened by outdated and ineffective systems like tenure, collective bargaining, and social promotion, our system is outdated and ineffective. Worse, the model is not capable of educating diverse children to be successful in a competitive world. Governor Jeb Bush, convener of the conference and founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, stated in his opening remarks that ‘We are at a tipping point. We must move towards reform that puts the needs of the child first through customization of education to the diversity of the child’. … Reform of our system will not occur overnight nor will it be comfortable. It will require hand-to-hand combat with those vested in the old factory model system so corrupted by interests of teachers unions and the education establishment.” It is not news to readers of this site that Kansas is lagging in education reform. See Florida school choice helps public schools, for example.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday November 16, 2010

Future of California. George Gilder, writing in the Wall Street Journal, lays out a grim future for California based on voters’ refusal to overturn AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act. Of the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state, Gilder writes: “That’s a 30% drop followed by a mandated 80% overall drop by 2050. Together with a $500 billion public-pension overhang, the new energy cap dooms the state to bankruptcy.” He says that AB 32 may not be necessary at all: “The irony is that a century-long trend of advance in conventional ‘non-renewable’ energy — from wood to oil to natural gas and nuclear — has already wrought a roughly 60% drop in carbon emissions per watt. Thus the long-term California targets might well be achieved globally in the normal course of technological advance. The obvious next step is aggressive exploitation of the trillions of cubic feet of low-carbon natural gas discovered over the last two years, essentially ending the U.S. energy crisis.” … Referring to green energy radicals, Gilder writes: “Their economic model sees new wealth emerge from jobs dismantling the existing energy economy and replacing it with a medieval system of windmills and solar collectors. By this logic we could all get rich by razing the existing housing plant and replacing it with new-fangled tents.” Which reminds me of when I criticized those who promote wind power for its job creation: “After all, if we view our energy policy as a jobs creation program, why not build wind turbines and haul them to western Kansas without the use of machinery? Think of the jobs that would create.” An economic boom to those along the Santa Fe Trail, no doubt.

All the billionaires. An amusing commentary — amusing until you realize what it really means — by Scott Burns in the Austin American-Statesman takes a look at how long the wealth of America’s billionaires could fund the federal government deficit. The upshot is that there are about 400 billionaires, and their combined wealth could fund the deficit for about nine months. What’s sobering about this? All this wealth would go to fund only the deficit — that portion of federal spending above revenue for the year. There’s still all the base spending to pay for. And the wealth of these people, which in many cases is in the substance of the companies they founded or own — Microsoft, Oracle, Koch Industries, Wal-Mart, Google, etc. — would be gone.

Kansas has sold assets before. In this year’s session of the Kansas Legislature, there was a proposal to sell state-owned assets in order to raise funds and reduce costs. Kansas Reporter’s Rachel Whitten reports it’s been done before, with success.

Where are the airlines? James Fallows of The Atlantic regarding the new “groping” TSA screenings at airports. Echoing Wichitan John Todd from last week, one reader writes: “And again, where are the airlines? When TSA begins to drive away customers, they’ll react, is the stock answer. I would argue that it already does drive away customers (certainly if the emails I receive are any indication), but what of those it ‘merely’ makes angry? There’s something wrong with a business model that accepts angry and harassed customers as an acceptable option to no customers at all.” Wichitan Mike Smith writes in: “Tomorrow, the U.S. Senate is having a hearing regarding the TSA’s new procedures that I hope results in the procedures being rescinded. If your readers want to make last minute contact with Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback (who is on the committee with TSA oversight), I urge them to do so.”

Next for the tea party. Patrick Ruffini in National Review looks at the future of the tea party. Ruffini notes the difficulty in maintaining the momentum of grassroots efforts. Both Bush and Obama have faced this. He cautions: “The experience should provide a cautionary tale to the Tea Partiers, with their more humble origins: Hitch yourself to established power institutions at your own peril.” But other, newer organizations have sprung up to help tea party activisits: “Ned Ryun, executive director of American Majority — one of the more promising new institutions that have risen up around the Tea Party movement — wants to ignore Washington and go local. ‘What the movement is really about, quite frankly, is the local leaders, and I’ve made a point with American Majority of going directly to them, and ignoring the so-called national leaders of the movement,’ he told me. ‘I think the national leaders are beside the point; if they go away, the movement still exists. If the local leaders go away, the movement dies.’” Kansas is one of the states that American Majority has been active in since its inception. American Majority plans to be involved at the local government level in the 2012 elections.

The new naysayers. President Obama and others have criticized Republicans for being the party of “No.” Now that some of the president’s deficit reduction commission recommendations are starting to be known, there’s a new party of “No.” Writes Ross Douthat in the New York Times: “But Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson performed a valuable public service nonetheless: the reaction to their proposals demonstrated that when it comes to addressing the long-term challenges facing this country, the Democrats, too, can play the Party of No.”

Community Improvement Districts spread to Overland Park. As reported in Kansas Reporter, Overland Park is considering whether to create its first Community Improvement District. In this case, the district — which allows merchants within to charge extra sales tax for their own benefit — would benefit a proposed residential and retail complex. More about these tax districts may be found here.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday October 18, 2010

Last day to register to vote. Today is the last day to register to vote in the November general election in Kansas. Contact your county election office for details.

Democratic foreign campaign money. “Democratic leaders in the House and Senate criticizing GOP groups for allegedly funneling foreign money into campaign ads have seen their party raise more than $1 million from political action committees affiliated with foreign companies. … Republicans with groups under fire from the White House say the hefty campaign contributions illustrate Democratic hypocrisy.” More at The Hill: Dems have raised more than $1 million this cycle from foreign-affiliated PACs. Related: Axelrod, Gibbs keep up Dems’ offensive on Chamber donations.

Rasmussen polls from last week. 55% Favor Repeal of Health Care Law: “The majority of U.S. voters continue to favor repeal of the new national health care law but are slightly less emphatic about the impact the law will have on the country. Confidence in home ownership falls: “Now more than ever, homeowners expect to see the value of their home go down over the next year. A new Rasmussen Reports survey finds that 32% expect the value of their home to decrease over the next year, the highest finding since Rasmussen Reports began asking the question regularly in December 2008.” Generic Congressional ballot: “With just three weeks to go until Election Day, Republicans hold an eight-point lead on the Generic Congressional Ballot. Polling for the week ending Sunday, October 10, shows that 47% of Likely Voters would vote for their district’s Republican congressional candidate, while 39% prefer the Democrat.”

Waiting for Superman to open in Wichita. Opens October 22 at the Warren Theater on East 13th in Wichita. Check the website for show times. Of the film, the Wall Street Journal wrote: ” The new film “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is getting good reviews for its portrayal of children seeking alternatives to dreadful public schools, and to judge by the film’s opponents it is having an impact. Witness the scene on a recent Friday night in front of a Loews multiplex in New York City, where some 50 protestors blasted the film as propaganda for charter schools.” In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle printed an op-ed penned by the education bureaucracy status quoSharon Hartin Iorio, dean of the Wichita State University College of Education in this case — to inoculate Wichitans against the effects of what I am told is a powerful film. Let’s hope this film gets Kansans to thinking about public schools in our state, as Kansas is way behind the curve on innovation, compared to other states.

Democratic political activists wanted. Craigslist ad: “The Kansas Coordinated Campaign (Democrat) seeks passionate and hard-working persons to do paid door-to-door voter contact in Sedgwick. This is not a fundraising position, and is exclusively focused on ensuring that Democratic voices are heard this November.” Pay is $9/hour. An earlier ad from September: “Looking for several energetic people to work with a small campaign and make sure that Kansas voices are heard in the government! Looks great on resumes, etc. Must be able to work 8-12 hours a week (weekends and/or evenings). Registered Democrats only, no felony convictions.” That job advertised pay of $10/hour.

Energy to be topic at Wichita Pachyderm. This Friday’s meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm club will feature John A. McKinsey speaking on the topic “Cap and Trade: What is the economic and regulatory impact of Congressional legislation?” The public is welcome at Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Trackers at work. The Kansas City Star explains the role of trackers in political campaigns: “Martin’s job is to follow and film political opponents — and try to catch them in a misstep. Trackers like Martin, who works for the Kansas Democratic Party, have become a fixture of modern political campaigns. They now are so common that many political consultants say campaigns are behind the times if they don’t employ one.” In the Kansas fourth Congressional district campaign, Democrat Raj Goyle employes a tracker to follow Republican Mike Pompeo. At the several events where I’ve seen him, he hasn’t asked a question. Here’s some video, apparently shot by the tracker himself, in which Republican National Chairman Michael Steele has a little good-natured fun at the tracker’s expense at a Pompeo campaign event. When asked by me, the Pompeo campaign would not reveal if they use a tracker.

Kansas owes — a lot. From Kansas Budget Watch, a project of the Institute for Truth in Accounting: “One of the reasons Kansas is in this precarious position is state officials used antiquated budgeting and accounting rules to determine payroll costs. Truthful accounting would include in the payroll costs the portion of pension benefits employees earn every year they work. Accurate accounting provides that these real and certain expenses be reported on the state’s budget, balance sheet and income statement when earned, not when paid. Because the pension benefits are not immediately payable in cash, Kansas’ politicians have ignored most of these costs when calculating ‘balanced’ budgets. More than $8.5 billion of these and other costs have been pushed into the future, and thus onto your children’s and grandchildren’s backs.” See Financial State of Kansas for more. Whenever the shortfall of funding KPERS, the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, is mentioned, public sector employees attack the messenger rather than facing the reality of the situation. Their strategy, as it is for a majority of legislators, is to pass along this funding shortfall to a future generation. This is dishonest, and a reason why the public employee pension system needs reform — now.

Sales tax changes could scuttle grocery store CID. A proposal by Kansas Senator Dick Kelsey to eliminate the sales tax on groceries in Kansas could have an impact on a Wichita grocery store’s plans. The store, a Save-A-Lot proposed to be built in Planeview, would use the state’s Community Improvement District law to allow it to collect an extra two cents per dollar sales tax. Question: If the state stopped taxing groceries, could the store still collect the two cents per dollar CID tax? I’m guessing the answer is no. The store’s developer made the point that many of the stores customers use the food stamp program, so they don’t pay tax anyway. And non-grocery items like household supplies would still be taxed (probably), so there’s some sales tax and CID tax there. Here’s an example of how relying on government and politicians adds extra uncertainty and risk to entrepreneurial activity, as if market risk wasn’t enough already. Although I would say that those like Rob Snyder, the developer of the proposed store, who seek government subsidy to back their ventures can hardly be classified as entrepreneurs — at least not the type we need more of.

TIF for rich, bit not for poor? A letter writer in yesterday’s Wichita Eagle writes: “Tax-increment financing districts have been used to provide millions of dollars to developers in their attempts to revitalize downtown Wichita. Blocking $400,000 for Planeview implies that buildings downtown are of far greater importance than the concern for human beings living in one of the poorest communities in Sedgwick County.” This is an issue the city has to grapple with, although it was the county commission that rejected the formation of the TIF district. The writer continues with a moral plea: “What has happened to our morality and our concern for and recognition of the needs of those who are less fortunate?” Morality is one of the reasons why I and my friend John Todd have opposed all TIF districts, regardless of location and purpose. That, and the fact that they don’t work — if growth in the entire community is the goal, instead of enriching specific people.

Organist Massimo Nosetti. Tuesday Italian organist Massimo Nosetti will perform a recital as part of the Rie Bloomfield Organ Series. The recital starts at 7:30 pm in Wiedemann Recital Hall (map), on the campus of Wichita State University. Cost is $10.

Wichita Eagle Opinion Line. “Am I the only one offended by Russ Meyer’s comment that ‘Anybody who is dumb enough to run against Carl (Brewer) is not qualified to be the mayor of Wichita’? When did Meyer become God?”

Wichita’s alphabet soup of ‘tax tricks’

Thank you to Marian Chambers of Wichita for submitting this letter. It also appeared in today’s Wichita Eagle.

I want to commend the courage shown by the October 10 Sunday Wichita Eagle editorial “Get control of incentives.” It takes some intestinal fortitude to speak out against the “tax tricks” (wonderful description) that have been foisted on the city and county taxpayers already burdened by federal, state, and property taxes.

Wichita is a wonderful place to live. But some of our leaders seem to be threatening our historic legacy by burdening us with an alphabet soup of “tax tricks”; so far, I have counted TIF, STAR, and CID (not to mention the broader state version of EDX and PEAK). The alphabet soup of “incentives” has the same result, regardless of the letters: taking money from taxpayers without them seeing it in their paychecks.

I have no objection to paying straightforward taxes that provide the services we all need and expect: firefighters, police, roads, water, sewers, emergency vehicles, basic schools for our children and basic coverage for our elderly. But “incentives” masquerading as hidden taxes do not promote a quality of life for our citizens.

The Eagle has taken a courageous stand in drawing attention to these ugly, hidden taxes.

In Wichita Planeview neighborhood: Yes, we have!

Developers of a proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood have made the case that without two forms of subsidy, the store won’t be profitable and won’t be built.

There is a counterexample, however. On Hillside, just south of Pawnee and just across the street from Planeview, sit two grocery stores that together occupy 13,000 square feet of space. This is close in size to the proposed Save-A-Lot store’s 16,500 square feet.

While the developer says the Save-A-Lot store can’t be profitable without over $800,000 of taxpayer subsidy, the existence of these grocers proves that it can be done. They are in business, earning a profit, and doing so without government subsidy. The City of Wichita, apparently, is not aware of these success stories, or doesn’t care.

Reviewing the September 14th meeting of the Wichita City Council gives us an idea of how little the city cares how its actions affect existing business.

At that meeting, Rob Snyder, developer of the proposed Save-A-Lot store, said he has “researched every possible way” to make the project work. Without the subsidy, he said, there won’t be a grocery store. But the existence of several grocery stores in or near Planeview, operating profitably without government subsidy, shows that Snyder’s claims are false.

I’m not claiming that Snyder intentionally lied to the city council about the necessity of subsidy for his store. But he has an $800,000 motive to get the council to approve his subsidy. And there’s evidence that corporate welfare like what Snyder requests is not necessary to open and operate a successful grocery store in this part of Wichita.

During his talk to the council, it became apparent that Snyder thinks corporate welfare is a wise business and political strategy. Snyder lamented the fact that earmarks are now unpopular with the American public and not available to finance his proposed grocery store. An earmark — that is to say, a grant of money paid for by U.S. taxpayers — was used as a large part of the financing for the other Save-A-Lot in Wichita at 13th and Grove. An article by James Arbertha tells of the roll earmarks played in the opening of that store.

While it may be necessary for Snyder’s store to be propped up by taxpayer subsidy, citizen Wendy Aylworth told council members of the several grocery stores already operating in the Planeview area. Mayor Carl Brewer appeared surprised to learn of these stores and asked Aylworth for their locations.

The mayor’s surprise is evidence that the city simply does not care about the impact of its corporate welfare policies on existing business. Several people have pointed out to me that these existing stores — with the exception of one large supermarket — are ethnic grocers, although most carry a wide variety of food and household items.

Is the CID tax necessary?

One of the issues relating to CIDs is their very necessity. If a business feels it needs to generate additional revenue, why not simply raise its prices? Why is it necessary to have the government collect taxes in order to generate additional revenue for the merchants in the CID?

Ron Rhodes, who developed the existing Save-A-Lot store in Wichita, addressed the Wichita city council that day. Rhodes referred to the “people who have ability to pay” an extra sales tax, and those who don’t have the ability to pay. Listening to him I couldn’t help be reminded of another slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Rhodes also spoke of neighborhood pride. But how proud can a neighborhood be when merchants have to rely on corporate welfare to open a store there?

In later questioning, Rhodes said that a Save-A-Lot store can’t raise its prices due to a “price deck” policy that says that most prices should be uniform in Save-A-Lot stores. This is an internal business policy of Save-A-Lot that should not bind the City of Wichita. It is not relevant to the formation of public policy in Wichita.

The issue of tax increment financing

At the same meeting, Greg Ferris, a lobbyist for Snyder, told the council that “there will not be a building on that corner if this is not passed today. There will not be any tax revenue, so we are not taking away any tax money away from schools, police, fire, etc.” He said we have “spent months” trying to figure out how to finance a project in that area. He said that “a grocery store is not going to move into the Planeview area to service those people,” alluding to how a grocery store did not move to the 13th and Grove area until the city subsidized it.

Ferris contended that there is no city tax money going in to this project that is taken from something else.

While presenting himself as speaking for the public interest, Ferris is a hired lobbyist for Snyder, the developer of the proposed grocery store. He is being paid to present Snyder’s interests, and those alone. He invokes the standard argument of those seeking corporate welfare through tax increment financing: the “but for” argument. This is the claim that without the benefit of the TIF district, nothing will happen.

It may be true that without the corporate welfare provided by the TIF district and the CID, Snyder won’t develop the Save-A-Lot store. But that doesn’t mean that it is not possible to run a successful grocery store in that part of town, as we have evidence that it is.

Ferris’ claim that no tax money from something else will go into this project is false, too. Will the Save-A-Lot store pledge to forgo the use of police, fire, and other city services? As this store wants to escape paying the same taxes that others have to pay, the rest of Wichita has to pay to provide services that Snyder doesn’t want to pay for.

TIF is not a wise policy. Research on tax increment financing indicates that TIF is a zero-sum game. When someone wins, others lose an equal amount. TIF does not increase the total amount of development that takes place in a city. It simply transfers development from one part of the region to another. This intervention by government may actually decrease the amount of development in a city.

In the case of Snyder and Ferris, the city’s actions in favoring a politically-connected developer and lobbyist with taxpayer-funded welfare may result in small ethnic grocers and one large established supermarket going out of business. How is this progress?

The moral hazard

In visiting with the owner of the large building and one of the grocery stores on Hillside, I asked him if he sought government assistance when developing that property. He answered no, that he didn’t know — speaking in his broken English — “where to dig the money” at that time.

Now he knows to get a shovel.

This creates an increasing cycle of dependence on government, particularly Wichita city government, for managing economic development. Entrepreneurship is replaced by bureaucracy and politics, not only for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, but across the city too.

Drury request for more Broadview Hotel subsidy should be rejected

Tomorrow’s meeting of the Wichita City Council features a public hearing on the creation of a Community Improvement District to benefit Drury Southwest, developer of the Broadview Hotel in downtown Wichita.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

In this case, Drury is asking hotel guests — these are visitors to Wichita, usually — to pay an extra two cents per dollar sales tax. This CID is being constructed as “pay-as-you-go,” in which the extra sales tax is sent back to the applicant as it is collected.

The agenda material for this item tells us that Drury suffered increased costs due to “delays to the project caused by legislative changes to the value of historic tax credits.” Last week I told the council how economic development management by government adds political uncertainty to the entrepreneurial process. The Broadview developers chose to operate in the political arena rather than the marketplace. They were hurt — they claim — and now they want politicians to make up for that.

Drury has already received, or will receive, a huge amount of assistance from government for its work on the Broadview Hotel. Its participation in Kansas’ historic preservation tax credit program means a grant to the developers of perhaps $4 million. It is just as though the state wrote a check to Drury for that amount, and this is money that Kansas taxpayers have to make up.

Further, Drury will escape paying much of the taxes that the rest of us have to pay. According to city information provided last week, Drury plans to spend $22,797,750 on the hotel. If we use this as the appraised value for the property when it is complete, the annual property taxes due for this property would be $22,797,750 times .25 times 126.323 divided by 1000, or $719,970. This calculation may be rough, but it gives us an idea of the annual operating subsidy being given to this hotel for the next ten years.

Then, as part of the industrial revenue bond program this hotel is participating in, the hotel will avoid paying sales tax on purchases related to its renovation and furnishing. It’s a little ironic, then, that the hotel asks its guests to pay a special additional sales tax that benefits only the hotel.

Finally, the city accelerated riverbank improvements that benefit the Broadview, and there’s a sweetheart sale by the city of a parking garage across the street.

So this hotel is receiving plenty of subsidy from Wichita and Kansas taxpayers.

Does Wichita trust its planners?

This request by Drury for more Broadview Hotel subsidy poses a challenge to Wichita city council members. Goody Clancy, the firm that has been planning the revitalization of downtown Wichita, has proposed what seems to be a tougher stance towards government handouts to downtown developers. David Dixon, principal planner for Wichita’s planning effort, was reported in the Wichita Eagle thusly: “Dixon was clear: There will be enough private development downtown to repay taxpayers for the public investments through increases in the tax base.”

In January’s preliminary findings, Goody Clancy told Wichita that there is a strong market for hotels in downtown Wichita. The final report states: “Downtown Wichita offers a strong potential for new lodging developments.” That implies that hotels ought to be profitable without requiring massive subsidy. But right after the preliminary finding, the city broke new ground in granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.

The Goody Clancy plan has not yet been before the Wichita city council for formal acceptance. But most members, especially Mayor Carl Brewer, are enthusiastic about the plan.

Tomorrow’s meeting and the action by the council will let us know if the city has the political will to take Goody Clancy’s findings and advice to heart.

Subsidy for Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store bad for Wichita

By John Todd

I am troubled by what I see the Wichita city government doing to the owners of the Checkers Grocery store located near the Wichita Planeview neighborhood. At the public hearing before the Wichita City Council on September 14th, one of the Checkers owners testified that their grocery business has been serving the people of Planeview for many years. After listening to the owner’s testimony and listening to testimony presented by Planeview customers at the hearing, it appears obvious to me that the Checkers grocery store’s Planeview customer base is a vital part of their business.

At the hearing, the Checkers owner expressed his opposition to the massive subsidy our city was offering the developer of the proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store in Planeview. His concern was the unfair economic advantage city government was creating for their competitor through the use of public funding programs.

The total economic incentive package city officials were offering the Save-A-Lot project through tax increment financing (TIF) and Community Improvement Districts (CID) funding packages was $880,440 of total project cost of $2,083,430. That figure is in excess of 40 percent of the total project cost.

I believe the Checkers grocery store owner’s concerns are valid, and the massive subsidy that the Wichita City Council has approved for their Save-A-Lot competitor is wrong. The council vote was 7 to 0 in favor of the subsidy with no consideration given by council members for Checkers or any other taxpaying grocery businesses that competes in the Wichita market.

The CID funding program, as approved by the Wichita city council, allows the Save-A-Lot grocery store to charge an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. This extra sales tax is then given to the project developer. Under the guise of helping an economically “underserved” neighborhood, customers of the new Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store will soon be paying 9.3 percent sales tax on their grocery purchases. This additional sales tax enriches the developer and punishes the residents of the Planeview neighborhood.

The TIF funding program, also approved by the city council, diverts future real estate taxes into developers’ pocket instead of paying for police and fire protection and the schools that educate our children.

The subsidy programs our city is offering the Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery project are great for the developer, but bad for competing businesses and their customers. They create an unfair advantage for other grocery stores and result in increased sales tax for the very residents it is intended to help. The grocery store will no doubt expect fire and police protection and the grocery store customers will want schools for their children. Yet, the store will not be paying anywhere near its fair share for these services, as it will continue to effectively pay the same property taxes as does a vacant lot. Perhaps these programs should be renamed “The Developer Relief Act!”

Under TIF, the developer is the winner and the people that pay the city’s bills lose. In other words, one guy wins and the taxpaying public loses. The harm is that by exercising its power to choose winners and losers, government discourages the risk-takers that invest their own money in projects. The potential for abuse of government’s power to create winners and losers in the marketplace creates a sense of regulatory uncertainty.

This uncertainty serves to keep private capital on the sidelines rather than being invested, as businessmen are justifiably concerned that the city may prop up a subsidized competitor in their same market. Not only do entrepreneurs have to contend with all the usual economic risks they face, they must also face political risk coming from Wichita City Hall. No one can plan ahead with this type of government involvement tampering with markets.

Unfortunately, as is the case when government exercises its power to influence economic development outcomes, the hidden results of this intervention does more harm than good. Government mandated stimulus programs, even on the local level, are not good public policy.

State law gives the Sedgwick County Commissionand USD 259 (the Wichita public school district) until October 14th to voice objection to the diversion of tax funds away from county services and schools and into the pocket of the Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery developer. I hope they exercise the check over local government’s abuse of local economic stimulus tools by voting to opt out the county taxpayer from the city’s abuse of their economic power. Sedgwick County commissioners need to step to the line and put a stop to this nonsense!

For Wichita city hall, ‘stakeholder’ has a narrow meaning

Recently the City of Wichita held a stakeholder meeting regarding Community Improvement Districts and the city’s policies regarding them.

While the term “stakeholder” is vague and means different things to different people, you might think that such a gathering might include representatives from the community at large. In an effort to achieve diversity, you know.

Instead, the meeting was stacked almost exclusively with those who have an interest in extracting as much economic subsidy as possible from the city.

There are a few exceptions, notably Wichita developer Johnny Stevens, who is outspoken in his belief in market-driven development. Stan Longhofer is an academic at Wichita State University, and the last time he offered advice to the city council (at least publicly) the council didn’t take his advice, even though they paid him well for it.

There may be a few other exceptions, but most of the people on this list have benefited from various forms of taxpayer subsidy. Some are presently applying for more.

One name that is surprising to see on this list is Dave Burk. Earlier this year the Wichita Eagle reported this: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza.”

After this, I don’t know why the city would be interested in anything Dave Burk has to say.

When ordinary citizens of Wichita wonder if their voice is valued, or when they wonder if Wichita city hall is overrun by a “good ol’ boy” network of insiders who get what they want from the city, this meeting is additional evidence to help them decide.

Here’s the list of invitees to the stakeholder meeting:

Cathy Erickson, Dave Burk, Dave Lundberg, Doug Rupe, Grant Tidemann, Jerry Jones, Johnny Stevens, Larry Weber, Brad Saville, Christian Ablah, Greg Ferris, Jeff Fluhr, Calvin Klaasen, Jay Maxwell, Jeff Walenta, Jim Korroch, Korb Maxwell, Mert Buckley, Robert Snyder, Stan Longhofer, Tim Austin, Wess Galyon, Gary Oborny, Darryl Crotts, David Leyh, Lea Firestone, Troy Farha, Gene Gutschanritter

Photos of Wichita Planeview grocery stores

Carneceria Mexican Food Market in Wichita Planeview neighborhoodCarneceria Mexican Food Market in Wichita Planeview neighborhood

Supporters of a proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood claim that there are no grocery stores nearby. Therefore, the city is willing to grant over $800,000 in special tax treatment to this store. This special tax treatment — let’s call it what it is: corporate welfare — is not available to the store’s competitors that already exist in the neighborhood or nearby.

But Wendy Aylworth’s research and John Todd’s photography show that the claims of the store’s supporters are not true: There are grocery stores — nice ones, too — in Planeview. The Wichita City Council is granting special tax-advantaged status to a competitor to these largely mom-and-pop stores in the form of tax increment financing (TIF) and Community Improvement District additional sales tax.

Click here to view a set of photographs of Planeview grocery stores taken by Todd.

Wichita City Council subsidizes pizza and doughnuts for Planeview

Here’s some citizen-powered commentary and research from a Wichita citizen, Wendy Aylworth.

At the September 14th Wichita City Council meeting the public was treated to tales of the helpless nature of Wichita’s Planeview residents. It sounded as if residents are being held in an open-air prison, victims of society, greedy QuikTrip stores, and price-gouging cab companies, unable to obtain the necessities of life without trekking an entire ONE mile to get groceries! (See City OKs tax at Planeview store, Wichita Eagle, September 15, 2010)

There are in fact four grocery stores right across the street from Planeview on Hillside, and one more just around the corner from Hillside on 31st Street South. Two are owned by Americans of Latino descent and three by Americans of southeast Asian descent. Perhaps the race of the owners is the reason the media refuses to report that these are indeed grocery stores and carry milk, eggs, apples, oranges, fish, fresh meats, lettuce, cheese, cereals, spices and all the other basics of a good, healthful diet.

However, one does have to go to QuikTrip if one wants pizza. Thus the “need” for a Save-a-Lot financed by you and me. Cheaper pizza, that staple of food stamp life.

Save-A-Lot will also provide a variety of 129 snack foods including potato chips and microwave popcorn with theater butter! Finally junk food will be available within 1.1 miles of Planeview at prices lower than QuikTrip!

And although residents speaking to the city council on Tuesday complained about having to go to QuikTrip for milk, the truth is QuikTrip carries milk at prices rivaling the cheapest in town. The price was $3.29 gallon on Wednesday, Sep 15th. On other days it’s on sale for $2.99 gallon. But Save-A-Lot should have a lower regular price on bacon. Pop might also be cheaper!

The claim by the government-subsidized developer that this chain grocery store must be built because there are large numbers of residents of Planeview who don’t have cars (and thus have to walk to QuikTrip to get pizza) is also false. There are a few; only a few. One Planeview resident explained that those not having vehicles could take a cab or get a ride — and the bus drives right through Planeview. The City of Wichita on one hand pushes for residents to make greater use of the public buses, yet the city council members clearly believe residents can’t possibly go shopping using a bus. Still, people who live in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Portland shop via subway and bus every day. The Wichita City Council is hypocritical, forever at odds with itself, and constantly undermining families who start businesses in an attempt to meet the needs of fellow citizens.

The grocery stores the media ignores, in case you’d like to show them your support, are:

Thai An Oriental Market at 2425 South Hillside Street, Wichita, KS, telephone 440-7888. Open everyday 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, except they close early at 7:00 pm on Mondays. This is a large store in a brand new building the owner built from the ground up.

Super Del Centro at 2425 South Hillside Street, Wichita, KS, open 9:00 am to 9:00 pm 7 days a week This store shares the new building with the Thai An market.

Four Star Asian Market at 2441 South Hillside Street, Wichita, KS, telephone 684-0966. This is a smaller family business, but still carries a great selection.

Lao Food Market at 3141 South Hillside Street, Wichita, KS. This is a large family-owned store in a building built in 1994, very clean and well-kept. Open 9:00 am to 9:00 pm everyday and often stays open even later on Saturdays and Sundays, if a customer needs.

Carniceria Mexicana Super Tienda at 3108 E 31st St South. Open 7 days a week 8:00 am to 9:00 pm They have probably the largest avocados in town!

No, none of these stores on Hillside have doughnuts, but they all have cookies!

There’s also Checkers grocery store at the southeast corner of Pawnee and K-15, open 6:00 am until Midnight everyday. It’s locally owned and run and is only one mile from Planeview, and 1.3 miles from the new, smaller grocery store the city council is subsidizing.

Economic development planning in Wichita on tap

Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council features four public hearings concerning Community Improvement Districts. One CID also will have a public hearing on its application for tax increment financing (TIF).

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

Under tax increment financing (TIF), developers get to use their property taxes to pay for the same infrastructure (or other costs) that everyone else has to pay for. That’s because in TIF, the increment in property taxes are used to pay off bonds that were issued for the exclusive benefit of a development. Or, as in the case with a new form of TIF called pay-as-you-go, the increment in property taxes are simply given back to the developer. (Which leads to the question: why even pay at all?)

The developments seeking this form of public financing include a grocery story in Plainview, a low-income and, according to the application, underserved area of town. Material on this hearing provided by the city is at Plainview Grocery Store CID and TIF in Wichita, Kansas.

A second applicant asks to charge an extra one cent per dollar sales tax for Central Park Place, a proposed suburban shopping center. Read more here: Community Improvement District at Central Park Place, Wichita, Kansas.

Then the developers of Bowllagio, a proposed bowling alley and entertainment district, will make their pitch to add two cents per dollar sales tax. Read more here: Community Improvement District for Bowllagio (Maize 54 Development).

Finally, the developers of the downtown Wichita Broadview Hotel will ask to add two cents per dollar sales tax on purchases made by the hotel’s visitors. Read more here: Community Improvement District for Broadview Hotel, Wichita, Kansas.

All of these applications should be turned down by the city council, and for a variety of reasons.

For example, the goal of the Plainview grocery store is to serve a low-income area of town. To do that, however, the store will be charging its customers an extra $1 for every $50 spent. Supporters make the case that many of the potential customers presently shop at Quik-Trip, which is not an inexpensive store, so the city is really doing these people a favor. The developer makes the case that he’s just trying to do something for the community, giving back something.

But if the developer really wants to do something for the community, he should agree to pay his share of property taxes like almost everyone else pays. That won’t happen, as most of the taxes he will pay will be routed right back to him through the TIF district.

The extra sales tax is a consumer protection issue, both in the case of the Plainview grocery store and the suburban shopping center. Shoppers won’t have any idea that they’re going to be paying extra sales tax by shopping at these merchants until after they get their receipt. Most people probably won’t notice then.

There are several council members who normally would be in favor of exposing greedy merchants who overcharge people, but they haven’t shown this concern so far regarding Community Improvement Districts.

The Broadview hotel is already the recipient of potentially $4.75 million in Kansas historic preservation tax credits. Despite the name of the program, the tax credits are in effect a grant of money to the developers — the state might as well write the developers a check. The City of Wichita has also assisted the hotel in several ways. But now it’s back at the government trough asking for even more corporate welfare.

We ought to ponder the wisdom of renovating this hotel if it can’t survive without so much government assistance. And having plowed so much into an economically unfeasible project, we can easily see sometime a few years down the road where owner Drury Hotels come to the city saying they can’t make a profit, and they need some other form of assistance.

Having given so much already, the city won’t be able to turn down the request for a little more. It’s happened before.

Even pointing out how the city works at cross-purposes with itself doesn’t impress the council. We spend millions every year subsidizing airlines so that airfares to Wichita are low. Then we turn around and add extra tax to visitors’ hotel bills, with Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell and the Wichita Eagle editorial board approving this as a wise strategy.

People remember high taxes. I don’t think it’s a good strategy to establish high-tax districts designed to capture extra tax revenue from visitors to our city. A good strategy for Wichita to pursue would be to establish itself as a low-cost destination, but we’re going the other way.

Then we must consider: does all this economic development planning work? The answer, emphatically, is: No. City leaders tell us that they do these things to grow Wichita’s economy. The activity of developers who seek subsidy like this is called, in economic terms, rent seeking, and city leaders encourage it. But evidence shows that rent seeking activity harms economic growth.

It’s usually pretty good for the favored developers who receive such economic rents (subsidy). But it’s a bad deal for everyone else. It illustrates one of the primary problems with government taxation and spending. John Stossel explains:

The Public Choice school of economics calls this the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Individual members of relatively small interest groups stand to gain huge rewards when they lobby for government favors, but each taxpayer will pay only a tiny portion of the cost of any particular program, making opposition pointless.

We see this in play nearly every week in Wichita as the city seeks to manage economic development. City leaders portray “success stories” (that’s when a company accepts subsidy from the city to build something) as evidence of people having faith in Wichita. Someone has confidence in Wichita because they’re investing here, they say.

But I wonder why these people won’t invest in Wichita unless they receive millions of dollars through preferential tax treatment such as tax abatements, CID, TIF, STAR bonds, forgivable loans, and other forms of local corporate welfare.

These preferential tax treatments increase the cost of government for everyone else in the city. That fuels the cycle of people coming to city council saying their plans are not feasible unless they receive tax breaks. This expanding role of Wichita in centralized economic planning is great if you’re a city hall bureaucrat like Wichita city manager Bob Layton and Wichita economic development director Allen Bell. It satisfies the incentives and motivations of bureaucrats. But it’s bad for economic freedom and the people of Wichita.

Finally, perhaps the simplest public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

For downtown Wichita, Mayor Brewer has a vision

In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer penned a piece that states his belief in the importance of downtown and prepares the people of Wichita for the start of a prescriptive planning process, with accompanying subsidy to politically-favored developers willing to fulfill the plan.

The mayor used the word “vibrant” twice. Asking citizens a question like “Would you like to have a vibrant downtown?” is meaningless. Who doesn’t? It’s only when the question is accompanied by context that citizens can start to understand how they should answer.

For example, in the mayor’s article, he mentions the use of special assessment financing that funded suburban infrastructure, and that this is not sufficient for downtown needs. This statement reveals a misunderstanding by the mayor about the various forms of financing that might be used to help development.

Special assessment financing means that the city spends money to build something, like the new street to serve a site where someone wants to build a house or a shopping center. The cost of this street, plus interest, is added to the property’s tax bill over a period of years. The property owner doesn’t get anything for free.

But in the forms of financing that the mayor and city hall planners favor for downtown, developers do get something for free. Under tax increment financing (TIF), developers get to use their property taxes to pay for the same infrastructure that everyone else has to pay for. That’s because in TIF, the increment in property taxes are used to pay off bonds that were issued for the exclusive benefit of a development. Or, as in the case with a new form of TIF called pay-as-you-go, the increment in property taxes are simply given back to the developer. (Which leads to the question: why even pay at all?)

Some deny that TIF directly enriches the developer. They’ll make arguments such as “it’s only used for infrastructure and eligible expenses” or “it’s not lending, it’s bonding” or “it wouldn’t happen but for TIF” or the biggest lie: TIF doesn’t have any cost. But despite these claims, TIF has a cost, and it does directly enrich the developer. That’s its entire purpose; its reason for being. If TIF didn’t enrich the developer, how does it change something that is claimed to be not economically feasible into something that is?

While city leaders say that public participation in the revitalization of downtown is to be limited, we should be cautious and skeptical. Goody Clancy planners have said that public participation will be limited to TIF. This is bad in its own right and should be opposed on its merits.

We need to be skeptical of the mayor and downtown planners because there isn’t enough TIF money available to do what they want to do. I fully expect a citywide sales tax, probably in the amount of one cent per dollar, to be proposed for the benefit of downtown subsidized developers. City leaders speak fondly of such a tax that Oklahoma City has used for many years.

City leaders have already shown themselves to be not averse to imposing additional sales taxes in Wichitans and our visitors, having granted several Community Improvement Districts the ability to charge up to an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. This means that when visitors check out of the Fairfield Inn in downtown Wichita, they’ll be faced with a sales tax rate of 9.3 percent. That’s in addition to the six percent guest tax, which in the case of this hotel is collected for the exclusive benefit of itself, rather than funding general government and tourism activities.

More community improvement districts are in the works. Wichita may soon be peppered with them.

No faith in free markets means no faith in people

The unwillingness of Wichita city leaders to let Wichitans freely decide where they live, and Wichita businesses freely decide where to locate, is a sign of lack of confidence in free markets and the people of Wichita. Because Wichitans do not choose to live and locate their business firms where politicians like Carl Brewer and Janet Miller — to name just two — and city hall bureaucrats like Wichita city manager Bob Layton and Wichita economic development director Allen Bell want them to, they deliver a slap in the face. It appears in the form of a vision backed up by planning, regulation, and the power to dish out favorable tax treatment, as outlined above.

Once formed, a vision is a powerful force. Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future has written about visionaries and government planning:

The worst thing about having a vision is that it confers upon the visionary a moral absolutism: only highly prescriptive regulation can ensure that the vision overcomes an uncaring populace responding to a free market that planners do not really trust. But the more prescriptive the plan, the more likely it is that the plan will be wrong, and such errors will prove extremely costly for the city or region that tries to implement the plan.

An example of planning that many see as having gone wrong is the government planning that led to growth on the city’s fringes. An example that helped make this possible is the government’s decision to build the northeast expressway also known as K-96. Acts of government like this are claimed to have caused the demise of downtown, the very situation that planners now want to correct.

With government making “mistakes” (their claim, not mine) like this on a grand scale, why are we willing to trust that politicians and bureaucrats are making correct decisions now? Especially when you look at the campaign finance reports of most city council members and see the same names giving repeatedly to all council members, with these same names appearing repeatedly before the council asking for their subsidy. This is not a decision making process that gives citizens confidence.

It bears repeating: the existence of the downtown planning process tells Wichitans they’ve made a mistake in where they chose to buy a home or build a business. Not only will Wichitans have to pay for what they freely chose, they’re going to be asked to pay again so that those with purportedly superior vision can have their way.

More intervention for Wichita proposed

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider accepting petitions for the formation of another Community Improvement District. In this case the applicant is the Broadview Hotel in downtown Wichita.

This hotel is already the recipient of potentially $4.75 million in Kansas historic preservation tax credits. Despite the name of the program, the tax credits are in effect a grant of money to the developers.

Now the hotel seeks permission to charge extra sales tax for its own benefit.

The action the council may take tomorrow is on the consent agenda, as noticed by the Wichita Eagle’s Brent Wistrom. The consent agenda is usually reserved for non-controversial items. It’s likely that many more CIDs will be proposed, so many that accepting petitions requesting their formation is now considered a routine item of business.

Each CID, however, must have a public hearing. But already council members have indicated they are ready to approve all CIDs, and council members are not receptive to opposition, if a televised overheard whispered remark by one council member is any indication.

Separately a proposed downtown Wichita grocery store gets government assistance. Announced by the Kansas Department of Commerce, the Exchange Market & Deli in downtown Wichita can receive $2.5 million in government stimulus financing. The bonds are exempt from federal income taxes, and the federal government pays 45 percent of the interest. It’s part of President Obama’s stimulus program.

The project this grocery store is attached to — Exchange Place — is the beneficiary of over $10 million in Wichita tax increment financing. That is, if the developers, Real Development, can close on their financing of a nearby project. That financing has been delayed several times.

Each of these projects is another example of increasing government intervention in the future of downtown Wichita. Each represents a loss of economic freedom to Wichitans, as the city council uses taxes to override the decisions that thousands of Wichitans have made as to where to live and locate their business. Some of the city council members that consistently vote for these interventions describe themselves as conservative.

Wichita Community Improvement District approvals signal increased interventionism

Yesterday’s action by the Wichita City Council in approving two Community Improvement Districts signals a new era in increased intervention in free markets by Wichita politicians and bureaucrats.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

Although at past city council meetings some members seemed as though they might view the districts with skepticism, there was little meaningful discussion, and no council members voted against the formation of the districts.

The mayor and city council members are unable — or unwilling — to consider the harmful effects of their interventions in creating special tax districts.

Or, it might be that some strategic campaign contributions helped city council members make up their minds. While I believe that Council Member Lavonta Williams is an honest and honorable council member, we have to be concerned when campaign contributions are made by people who know they will be asking the council for special treatment and favor, as Christian Ablah did yesterday.

He got what he wanted from the council. Wichita taxpayers lost.

The city looks silly when it jumps through hoops to conform to laws that shape the way it conducts economic development. As I urged the council:

Let’s stop distinguishing between “eligible costs” and other costs. When we 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 to the developers.

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? As long as you were planning to spend $10 next Monday, or could shift your spending, this restriction has no economic meaning.

The issue of high-tax districts being a consumer protection issue didn’t resonate with the council, either. There are several council members who normally would be in favor of exposing greedy merchants who overcharge people, but not in this case. Maybe it’s the campaign contributions again.

Even pointing out how the city works at cross-purposes with itself doesn’t work. We spend millions every year subsidizing airlines so that airfares to Wichita are low. Then we turn around and add extra tax to visitors’ hotel bills, with Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell and the Wichita Eagle editorial board approving this as a wise strategy.

People remember high taxes. I don’t think it’s a good strategy to establish high-tax districts designed to capture extra tax revenue from visitors to our city.

But perhaps the simplest public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

No one at Wichita city hall wants to talk about this, at least in public.

Next month the city will hold public hearings for three proposed CIDs in addition to the two approved yesterday. I suspect that the next year will see many more proposed.

With each intervention like this — not to mention each TIF district, STAR bond, industrial revenue bond with accompanying tax abatement, forgivable loan, EDX property tax exemption, historic preservation income tax credit, and other programs — Wichita and Kansas move farther away from the principles of economic freedom that have created prosperity, and move closer to a centrally planned economy. Those have not worked out well.

More Wichita Community Improvement Districts proposed

Tomorrow’s meeting of the Wichita City Council will consider starting the process for the approval of three Community Improvement Districts in Wichita.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

CIDs may work in one of two ways: First, the city might sell special obligation bonds, give the money to the applicant, and pay off the bonds with the extra sales tax that is collected.

The other way is “pay-as-you-go,” in which the extra sales tax is sent to the applicant as it is collected.

Tomorrow’s city council meeting will accept petitions by property owners in the proposed CIDs and set dates for public hearings, usually around 30 days in the future.

The first of the proposed CIDs is the Bowllagio project at Kellogg and Maize Road. This is proposed to be a pay-as-you-go CID, meaning that the city will not issue bonds. The applicant proposes to collect the full two cents per dollar extra tax for up to 22 years.

The second is a development in the 2600 block of north Maize Road titled Central Park Place Development. The applicant proposes collecting an additional one cent per dollar for up to 22 years on a pay-as-you-go basis.

The third project is Planeview Grocery Store Project at George Washington Blvd. and Pawnee in southeast Wichita. This applicant proposed to collect two cents per dollar extra sales tax on a pay-as-you-go basis. This applicant also proposes creating a tax increment financing (TIF) district.

According to city documents, a goal of this project is to provide “affordable access to grocery shopping to the underserved Planeview area.” But if affordability is a goal of this project, we have to question the wisdom of adding two cents per dollar spent to the grocery bills of low income people.

Community Improvement Districts and public policy

There are several public policy issues surrounding Community Improvement Districts that deserve consideration.

First, the extra sales tax collected in these districts needs to be considered from a consumer protection perspective. How will shoppers in these districts learn that they are going to be paying extra sales tax? While some shoppers may not care, certainly low-income shoppers need to stretch their grocery dollars. Asking them to spend two cents extra per dollar doesn’t seem like the city is watching out for the best interests of its citizens.

Then there’s the “tax our visitors” strategy of council member and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell and some other council members. Since the extra sales taxes in some CIDs like a hotel will largely be paid by visitors, it’s a wise economic development strategy, they say.

We need to consider, however, the effect of these high sales tax districts on visitors to Wichita. Will they be happy with their decision to visit Wichita once they learn of the high taxes on their hotel or restaurant bill? Will they mistakenly assume that these high taxes apply to the entire city? When corporate expense accounting sees the high taxes charged in Wichita, will they want to send business here again?

But perhaps the simplest public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

No one at Wichita city hall has an answer for this question.

Community Improvement Districts discussed in Wichita

At yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, council members approved the start of the process to create two Community Improvement Districts in Wichita. Yesterday’s action sets August 10 as the date for a public hearing.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from last year. They allow merchants in a geographic district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID. More background may be read in the article Wichita community improvement districts should have warning signs.

In my remarks to the council, I asked the city to consider consumer protection and education regarding CIDs. I noted that just by crossing a street and shopping within the boundaries of a CID, consumers will have to pay higher sales tax. How would consumers know this in advance?

Council member Paul Gray noted that by crossing a street, consumers might enter a different municipality and have to pay more sales tax. While this is true — the neighboring city of Andover is considering a one-cent city sales tax — the Wichita city council can’t control what its neighbors do. But it can control what happens within the boundaries of Wichita.

Gray said that he didn’t want to create community improvement districts and then handicap them with further government regulation. I agree. But the proper way to avoid this extra regulation is to avoid government intervention in the first place by forging the creation of community improvement districts.

But perhaps the most important public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

City council members and city staff did not provide an answer to this question.

Gray did not vote on this measure as a family member is employed by the business seeking this CID. Council member Lavonta Williams was absent. All other council members voted to approve the petition and set a public hearing on August 10.

Wichita Eagle reporting on this issue is at Public hearings set on sales tax districts at WaterWalk and Central and Oliver. Wichita Business Journal reporting is at City Council moves forward on two CIDs.