Tag Archives: Jim Skelton

Sedgwick County Commissioner and former Wichita City Council Member Jim Skelton

A Wichita Shocker, redux

Based on events in Wichita, the Wall Street Journal wrote “What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful …” But Wichita’s elites don’t seem to understand this.

A Wichita ShockerThree years ago from today the Wall Street Journal noted something it thought remarkable: a “voter revolt” in Wichita. Citizens overturned a decision by the Wichita City Council regarding an economic development incentive awarded to a downtown hotel. It was the ninth layer of subsidy for the hotel, and because of our laws, it was the only subsidy that citizens could contest through a referendum process.

In its op-ed, the Journal wrote:

The elites are stunned, but they shouldn’t be. The core issue is fairness — and not of the soak-the-rich kind that President Obama practices. One of the leaders of the opposition, Derrick Sontag, director of Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, says that what infuriated voters was the veneer of “political cronyism.”

What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful, whether the beneficiaries are a union that can carve a sweet deal as part of an auto bailout or corporations that can hire lobbyists to write a tax loophole.

The “elites” referred to include the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the political class, and the city newspaper. Since then, the influence of these elites has declined. Last year all three campaigned for a sales tax increase in Wichita, but voters rejected it by a large margin. It seems that voters are increasingly aware of the cronyism of the elites and the harm it causes the Wichita-area economy.

Last year as part of the campaign for the higher sales tax the Wichita Chamber admitted that Wichita lags in job creation. The other elites agreed. But none took responsibility for having managed the Wichita economy into the dumpster. Even today the local economic development agency — which is a subsidiary of the Wichita Chamber — seeks to shift blame instead of realizing the need for reform. The city council still layers on the levels of subsidy for its cronies.

Following, from March 2012:

A Wichita shocker

“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.

The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.

The Wichita business community, headed by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed this measure, too.

Hopefully this election will convince Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders that our economic development policies are not working. Combined with the startling findings by a Tax Foundation and KMPG study that finds Kansas lags near the bottom of the states in tax costs to business, the need for reform of our spending and taxing practices couldn’t be more evident. It is now up to our leaders to find within themselves the capability to change — or we all shall suffer.

Wichita drops taxpayer protection clause

To protect itself against self-defeating appeals of property valuation in tax increment financing districts, the City of Wichita once included a protective clause in developer agreements. But this consideration is not present in two proposed agreements.

When the Wichita Eagle reported that a downtown developer represented himself as an agent of the city in order to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, city officials were not pleased.

The property in question is located in a tax increment financing district. Incremental tax revenue from the property is earmarked for paying off bonds that were issued for the property’s benefit. If tax revenue is reduced from original projections — perhaps because the tax valuation was appealed — the tax revenue might be insufficient to pay the bonds. City taxpayers are then on the hook.

This is what happened, according to later Eagle reporting: “A special tax district formed by Wichita to assist in the development of the Old Town cinema project can’t cover its debt payments because the developers — including the city itself — petitioned a state court and got their property taxes reduced, records show.”

This week the Wichita city council considers approving a project plan for part of a TIF district in Old Town, the Mosley Avenue Project. It’s contained within the Old Town Cinema Redevelopment District, a tax increment financing (TIF) district. The developer is Mosley Investments, LLC, a development group comprised of David Burk and Steve Barrett, according to city documents.

The involvement of Burk and Barrett is problematic. The downtown developer who the Wichita Eagle said represented himself as an agent of the city without the city’s knowledge or consent was David Burk. Barrett was a partner on the project.

To protect itself when Burk was involved in another TIF-financed project in 2011, the city added language to the developer agreement that prevented appeals of tax valuation, although there was a large loophole included.

But for the Mosley project, there is no such language prohibiting appeals of tax valuation. For another TIF project plan the city will consider the same day, the Union Station project, there is also no such language.

A question posed to city hall but not yet answered is this: Is lack of taxpayer protection an oversight, or is it by design?

More importantly, who in city hall looking out for the interests of taxpayers? Could the generous campaign contributions of Burk and his wife be a factor in this missing taxpayer protection? Or the generous contributions of Key Construction and its executives? (Key Construction is frequently used by Burk.)

Past action by Burk on property in TIF district

In February 2010 the Wichita Eagle reported on the activities of Burk with regard to property he owns in Old Town. Citizens reading these articles might have been alarmed at his actions. Certainly some city hall politicians and bureaucrats were.

The opening sentence of the Wichita Eagle article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) raises the main allegation against Burk: “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, according to court records and the city attorney.”

A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s action. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In the most common form of a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high.

In response to Burk’s action, the city included a special provision in the agreement for a project in which Burk was involved the next year. This project is the Ambassador Hotel, known at the time as the Douglas Place project. This project is also located within a TIF district and receives the benefit of TIF financing. City documents explained that protests of taxes would not be allowed, but there is a loophole: “In addition, the Developer agrees not to protest the taxes on the building unless the valuation reflects a capitalization rate that exceeds the average rate for boutique hotels as determined by a nationally-recognized hotel appraisal firm.” (Wichita City Council agenda packet, September 13, 2011, page 26.) The agreement and the loophole were expressed in more detail in the agreement on page 138 of the same document.

At the time, city manager Layton told the Wichita Eagle that taxpayers would be protected in future deals: “We’ve taken several safeguards based on the city’s development experience over the last few years, as well as the advice from Goody Clancy and their business partners based on their experience.” He added “We think we’re set to encourage downtown development in a way that provides protection to the taxpayer.”

Now this week Dave Burk comes again before the city council asking for TIF money. But there appears to be nothing in the current agreement to protect taxpayers, as there was in the Douglas Place agreement.

Curiously, Burk is not mentioned by name in the documents prepared for the public hearing on January 6.

Sedgwick County elections: Commissioners

In Sedgwick County, two fiscally conservative commission candidates prevailed.

This year three of the five positions on the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners are up for election. Unlike the Wichita city Council, Sedgwick County commissioners run as members of a party, and compete in both primary and general elections. There can be independent and third-party candidates too. This year for one of the Sedgwick County commission districts the incumbent Republican ran unopposed. But in two other districts, there were spirited contests.

Sedgwick County Commission, district 4In district four, which covers north-central and northwest Wichita, Maize, Valley Center, and Park City, incumbent Richard Ranzau was challenged by Carolyn McGinn. She had held this position in the past, and then served in the Kansas Senate, an office she still holds. Ranzau is well known — notorious, we might say — for his tough line on spending taxpayer dollars. The McGinn campaign had about twice as much money to spend. A lot of that came from the people we know as Wichita’s crony capitalists, that is, people and companies who actively seek handouts from government. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed McGinn. Now, you may think of your local chamber of commerce as pro-business. And, the chamber is pro-business, no doubt about it. But pro-business is not the same as pro-capitalism. Being pro-business is not the same as being in favor of economic freedom. Being pro-business is not the same as supporting a limited, constitutional, government that protects our freedoms and property rights.

I want to stress this point. Just this week Wichita’s own Charles Koch wrote an op-ed for USA Today. After expressing concern for the weak economy and its effect on workers, he offered a plan forward. He wrote “First, we need to encourage principled entrepreneurship. Companies should earn profits by creating value for customers and acting with integrity, the opposite of today’s rampant cronyism.”

Concluding his article, Koch wrote: “Our government’s decades-long, top-down approach to job creation has failed. Its policies have made our problems worse, leaving tens of millions chronically un- or underemployed, millions of whom have given up ever finding meaningful work. In doing so, our government has not only thwarted real job creation, it also has reduced the supply and quality of goods and services that make people’s lives better and undermined the culture required to sustain a free society. When it comes to creating opportunities for all, we can do much better. It’s time to let people seek opportunities that best suit their talents, for businesses to forsake cronyism, and for government to get out of the way.”

While Charles Koch was writing primarily about the United States government, the same principles apply to local government. And Wichita’s cronies — those who seek profits through politicians and bureaucrats rather than customers — they lined up behind Carolyn McGinn in a big way. By using their generous funding, she ran a negative campaign against Richard Ranzau. He forcefully and truthfully responded to her negative ads, and I’m pleased to say that I helped in that effort.

What was the result of the election? Ranzau won with 54 percent of the vote. He now moves on to face Democrat Melody McRae-Miller in the November general election. She held this county commission seat before McGinn, and she also served in the Kansas legislature, in the House of Representatives.

Sedgwick County Commission, district 5There was also a contest in district 5, which is Derby and parts of southeast Wichita. The one-term incumbent Jim Skelton declined to run for re-election. The two Republican candidates were Jim Howell and Dion Avello. Howell has represented parts of Derby in the Kansas House of Representatives for four years. Avello has been mayor of Derby for many years. The Wichita Chamber endorsed Howell in this race. Campaign funds were close in this race, with Howell having a small edge. The result of the election was Howell winning with 63 percent of the vote. He moves on to face the Democrat in the general election, former Rose Hill Mayor Richard Young.

22-CommissionWhat do the results of these elections mean? First, there may be a shift of power on the Sedgwick County commission. Currently, commissioners Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn are often in a minority of two against the other three commissioners. It’s thought that it Howell is elected, he would often join Ranzau and Peterjohn to form a working majority of three. That could cause a change in policy at the County commission, and that’s something that the Wichita chamber and Wichita’s cronies don’t want. It will be interesting to see who the chamber and the cronies support in the general election, Ranzau or the Democrat. In 2008, when Peterjohn ran for his first term, the Wichita chamber campaigned against him, making it their most important priority in that election.

For this shift to materialize, both Ranzau and Howell must win their November elections.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004Ranzau’s victory is a defeat for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce. Besides endorsing McGinn, it made independent expenditures in her favor. This has broader implications than just one county commission district. This week the Wichita City Council voted in favor of placing a sales tax issue on the November ballot. The Wichita Chamber is strongly behind the sales tax in Wichita, and I would expect to see the chamber devote a lot of resources campaigning for its passage. Richard Ranzau is opposed to the sales tax increase. While his county commission district encompasses a lot of territory that is outside the City of Wichita, and it is only Wichita voters who will decide the sales tax issue, I think we can safely conclude that his victory paints a gloomy forecast for approval of a sales tax.

Looking even farther to the future. Ranzau’s county commission district overlaps part of Wichita city council district 5. That is currently represented by Jeff Longwell. He can’t run again because of term limits. Longwell is firmly in the grasp of Wichita’s cronies. Could Ranzau’s victory pave the way for a fiscally conservative city council candidate in district 5? That election will be next spring.

Also next spring Wichita will elect a new mayor. There are many names mentioned as candidates, including Longwell. What do the victories of Ranzau and Howell mean? What impact will the sales tax campaign and election result have on the spring elections?

24-Carolyn McGinn Key Construction 2014-07-02 01bThe Wichita Chamber and the Wichita cronies campaigned hard for Carolyn McGinn against Richard Ranzau. Well, I should clarify: They spent a lot of money on the campaign. Richard himself, his family, and his volunteers worked hard. The desire for economic freedom by Richard Ranzau and his volunteers was a more powerful force than the greed of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, Key Construction, David Burk, and Bill Warren.

Keep this in mind. The Sedgwick County Commission has very little power to initiate the type of economic development incentives that the Wichita Chamber and the cronies want. That power rests almost totally at the Wichita City Council and the Kansas Department of Commerce. Also, the county commission has limited power to stop or object to incentives. Their main voice is the ability to cancel the formation of a tax increment financing district.

So if the Wichita Chamber and the cronies are willing to intervene to such extent in the campaign for county commissioner, think what they will be willing to do in city council or mayoral contests, if they see that their grip on the really big cookie jar might be in doubt. Since the departure of Michael O’Donnell for the Kansas Senate there has been no one on the Wichita city council who questions anything the Chamber and the cronies want. Not in any serious manner, that is. We see council members making false displays of pretense now and then, but that’s all they do.

Wichita’s evaluation of development team should be reconsidered

Dump truck carrying coinsIn an effort to avoid mistakes made in the past and inspire confidence in the process, parties wishing to receive economic development subsidies for projects in downtown Wichita are evaluated on a variety of measures. The evaluation matrix released for a project to be considered next week by the Wichita City Council, however, ought to be recalculated.

City documents describe one of two competing projects as this: “River Vista is proposed by River Vista LLC, a development group comprised of George Laham, Dave Burk, Dave Wells and Bill Warren.”

wichita-evaluation-matrix-2013-08

It’s this ownership team that ought to cause the city concern. Two of the evaluation criteria are “Past project experience with the City of Wichita” and “References, especially from other municipal partners.” This development team was awarded the maximum number of points possible for each (points being a positive measure). Here are a few things that the evaluation committee may not have considered when awarding these points.

Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

Despite these two cost overruns on city projects, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote in a letter recommending Key Construction on a different matter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” Maybe that’s what the evaluation committee relied on.

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. This no-bid contract awarded to Key was cronyism in the extreme. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for an example of how Key Construction has mastered political cronyism.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “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, according to court records and the city attorney.”

rebenstorf-quote-dave-burkA number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

With the history of these parties working in public-private partnerships, the Wichita City Council needs to question the matrix delivered by the evaluation committee.

Sedgwick County Commission: Let’s not vote today

At the October 31 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Karl Peterjohn introduced a measure that would let the Kansas Legislature know that the commission supports improving the tax climate in Kansas, and specifically would limit property tax growth. But electoral politics forced a delay in a vote.

In response to Peterjohn’s proposal, the coalition of one Democrat and two liberal Republicans that form the working majority on the commission maneuvered to delay voting on the measure until after the November 6 election. With the item appearing on tomorrow’s agenda, it’s very likely that the majority coalition — Commission Chair Tim Norton, Dave Unruh, and Jim Skelton — will vote against the proposal.

Why the rush for delay? Norton was facing a vigorous challenge in the election. He couldn’t afford to cast a vote against property tax reform. With Skelton publicly supporting Norton, and Unruh doing so behind the scenes, the two Republicans supported their liberal Democratic fellow traveler in delaying the vote until after the election.

But after the election, Norton is free to vote against property tax reform. Skelton and Unruh don’t face the voters for another two years, and they’ll be relying on the short memory span of most voters.

Sedgwick County tower sale was not in citizens’ best interest

The sale of a radio tower owned by Sedgwick County reveals another case of local government not looking out for the interests of citizens and taxpayers, with the realization that the stain of cronyism is alive and well.

As a result of system upgrades, the county no longer needs a radio tower located near 77th Street North and Interstate 135. Pixius Communications, LLC made an offer to purchase the tower and the five acre tower site for $280,000. The county proceeded making arrangements for the sale, preparing a sales agreement contract between Sedgwick County and Pixius with a sales price of $280,000, along with several other legal documents necessary to support the sale. These documents are available at the agenda file for this item.

According to sources, County Manager William Buchanan supported the Pixius offer. So did commissioners Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton.

But commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn felt that the best way to sell the tower was through an auction.

Commission Chair Tim Norton, because of his receipt of campaign contributions from Pixius, Jay Maxwell (owner of Pixius), and Penny Maxwell (spouse of owner), was going to abstain from voting. (Skelton has accepted contributions from the Maxwells, but he was going to vote nonetheless.)

So there was not a majority of three votes to accept the Pixius offer. Buchanan suggested the auction. All commissioners agreed.

Now we know the results of the auction: A Florida company offered $610,000. After a sales commission ($55,000) and half of closing costs ($1,128), the county will net $553,872. That’s almost twice the price the county manager and two commissioners were willing to sell the tower for.

There’s something else: What will be the appraised value of the tower and site for tax purposes? The selling price of a property is strong evidence of its value. As a result of the auction, therefore, this property is likely to be appraised at $610,000 instead of $280,000. That’s good for those who think it’s good for government to bring in more tax revenue.

This episode is another instance where no-bid contracts and cronyism cost taxpayers. Maxwell, the almost-beneficiary of this sweetheart no-bid contract, has been the recipient of many benefits at taxpayer expense, such as tax increment financing and community improvement district taxes. He’s tried for more, but even the Wichita City Council has a limit to its cronyism, now and then. Although cronyism and no-bid contracts have been a problem at Wichita City Hall.

Interestingly, a recent KSN Television news story characterized Ranzau and Peterjohn as “hardline fiscal conservatives.” The story went on to report “Incumbent Democrat Tim Norton often sides with the two more moderate members of the commission with many votes being decided by a 3-2 margin.” Those moderate members are, of course, Unruh and Skelton.

Norton didn’t have to take sides — at least publicly — on this issue, but I’m confident that if this was not an election year for Norton, he would have voted for the original Pixius deal that we now see was a disaster for taxpayers.

In the KSN story Norton was quoted as saying “I’m a business man of many years in Wichita. I understand the business climate and job retention.”

Unruh and Skelton are also businessmen. I hope these commissioners look after their personal business with more care and concern than they have shown for the business of taxpayers.

Special interests will capture south-central Kansas planning

Special interest groups are likely to co-opt the government planning process started in south-central Kansas as these groups see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play over the next few years.

Sedgwick County has voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

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

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

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and sphere of influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is now chairman of REAP? Special interest groups know how to play the political game.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.'”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita voters reject cronyism — again

Tuesday’s primary election in Kansas was notable for the large number of victories by conservative challengers over Republican senate incumbents. Also important is that voters in Wichita and the surrounding area rejected, for the second time this year, the culture of political cronyism that passes for economic development in Wichita.

On Tuesday incumbent Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn defeated a challenge by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell. The contrast was clear: Peterjohn with his long-time, outspoken advocacy for limited government and free market principles, although perhaps tempered a bit based on some votes he’s made. Longwell, however, advocates for “more tools in the toolbox.” In other words, a larger role for government in economic development and centralized planning.

The result: Peterjohn won, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Longwell had the endorsements of many Wichita-area politicians, including Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and all other Wichita City Council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) and council members Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita).

Sedgwick County Commission members Tim Norton, Jim Skelton, and Dave Unruh also endorsed Longwell.

In addition to these endorsements, Longwell had a large money advantage over Peterjohn. According to campaign finance reports filed July 30, Longwell had raised nearly $62,000.

Peterjohn’s July 30 report showed about $20,000 raised, so as of that date Longwell had over three times as much campaign money at his disposal than Peterjohn.

The money advantage and the endorsements are linked. On Longwell’s July 30 campaign finance report we learned that executives of a Michigan construction company made campaign contributions immediately before and after Longwell participated in a city council voted that benefited them. Key Construction, a heavy contributor to Longwell’s campaign, also benefited from Longwell’s vote that day. This was just another episode in Longwell’s history of voting for overpriced no-bid contracts and no-interest city loans for his large campaign contributors.

The day after Peterjohn held a news conference questioning Longwell’s Michigan contributions, Longwell held the news conference that announced the above-mentioned endorsements. Many of those endorsers also receive campaign money from those they award with no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded largesse.

Despite the advantage in campaign funds and the endorsements, voters in west Wichita and west Sedgwick County rejected the political cronyism that is Jeff Longwell’s legacy in government service.

It’s the second time this year voters have rejected cronyism. In February Wichita voters voted down a tax giveaway to the Ambassador Hotel by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Longwell played a role in that election, too. When citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge the taxpayer-funded giveaway to the hotel, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.”

When it came time for the council to set the date for the special election on the hotel tax, Longwell attempted to have the election commissioner set the date as early as possible, obviously thinking that a short campaign would benefit the hotel developers.

Those hotel developers, by the way, included many of Longwell’s long-time campaign contributors.

After Wichita voters rejected this special tax deal, the Wall Street Journal in a column titled “A Wichita Shocker: You can beat city hall” wrote: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.”

It’s no wonder Longwell was disappointed when citizens petitioned their government. Voters soundly rejected the political cronyism and sweetheart deals that are Longwell’s legacy.

Skelton, Sedgwick County Commissioner, censured by party

Yesterday evening the Sedgwick County Republican Party censured a Sedgwick County Commissioner for supporting a Democrat in an upcoming election.

Treatha Brown-Foster, who is chair of Kansas Black Republican Council, offered a resolution critical of Jim Skelton.

The resolution read: “Whereas, Jim Skelton, an elected Republican official in Sedgwick County, who has benefited from the support of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, has publicly supported a Democratic candidate over a Republican candidate for election to the Sedgwick County Commission. Be it resolved that Jim Skelton be censured for this action.”

The resolution was met with applause. The motion was seconded and the vote to approve it was unanimous.

In June Skelton expressed his support in a Wichita Eagle article for incumbent Tim Norton over challenger Ben Sauceda. Norton is a Democrat; Sauceda is a Republican. The two face no primary challenges, and will meet in the November 6th general election.

In January Skelton joined with fellow Republican Commissioner Dave Unruh to elect Norton as commission chair. Despite Republicans holding a four to one majority, the commission is chaired by a Democrat.

Sedgwick County will hold Southfork TIF hearing

Since the Wichita City Council passed a resolution authorizing the formation of the Southfork tax increment financing district, the affected county (Sedgwick) and school district (Wichita) have an opportunity to veto the district’s formation. They don’t have to take action to approve the district — only silent assent is required. But they can take action, as Sedgwick County did in January, to cancel the formation of the district.

At Tuesday’s commission staff meeting, commission chair Tim Norton along with commissioners Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton didn’t believe a public hearing was necessary the matter should not be placed on the agenda. That would mean the county gave its silent consent to the district’s formation.

But after learning of that action, myself and at least two others contacted the county manager’s office and asked to be placed on the public agenda portion of the meeting, where citizens may address any topic.

Whether we would be allowed to speak was touch-and-go. County policy is that speakers must “provide your request in writing to the Sedgwick County Manager’s Office at least nine days prior to the meeting date.” The emphasis is in the original. (I wonder if email counts as writing?)

(That lengthy nine day lead time is a problem in itself. I believe that good public policy requires that the lead time be at least one day less than the period between meetings of the body, which is case of this commission, is normally seven days.)

But late Tuesday someone at the courthouse had a change of heart or mind, and now there will be a public hearing on Wednesday May 9th on this matter. Strictly speaking, it’s not a public hearing, but the item will be on the agenda, and it’s anticipated that chairman Norton will allow the public to address the commissioners on this issue.

I can understand (but not approve of) the motives of the three commissioners who approve of this district not wanting to hear members of the public speak against this item and their policies. Especially when the public has shown their skepticism on these matters, an example being the vote turning down an incentive for the Wichita Ambassador Hotel. In that election, voters repudiated the big-spending, big-government programs of the liberal Republicans on the Wichita City Council. If citizens could vote on the formation of this TIF ddistrict, commissioners Skelton and Unruh might find themselves in the same situation.

In Kansas, planning will be captured by special interests

The government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next few years.

This week the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot how to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Then once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

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

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

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is a board member of REAP, and may become the next chairman? Special interest groups know how to play the political game, that’s for sure.

Federal, United Nations planning imported to Wichita

Yesterday the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.

Republican commissioners Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton joined with Democrat Tim Norton to pass the measure. Below, Paul Soutar of Kansas Watchdog explains why this planning process is a bad idea.

Local Planning Initiative Has Federal Strings, UN Roots

by Paul Soutar, Kansas Watchdog

The Sedgwick County Commission will decide Wednesday whether to give a consortium of South Central Kansas governments and organizations broad control over community planning funded by a federal grant and based on a United Nations agenda.

The Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Consortium for Sustainable Communities seeks to implement a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (RPSD) for South Central Kansas.

REAP’s application for a federal grant said the plan will “provide an overall vision and commitment for sustainable growth in South Central Kansas. The RSPD will provide goals, strategies, and action steps to support that vision. Specifically, that RPSD will create a regional integrated transportation, housing, air quality and water infrastructure plan that aligns federal resources and provides for sustainable development and resources (fiscal, human and capital) to support our economic centers.‘

Much of the language and goals of sustainable communities grants reflect the goals of the U.N.’s Agenda 21, a global environmental agenda for the 21st century revealed at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive framework for global, national and local action aimed at improving environmental equality through massive changes in how resources are consumed and allocated.

According to Sustainable Development in the 21st century (SD21), a December 2011 UN review of implementation of Agenda 21, “Achieving greater equity requires a significant reduction in consumption by industrialized countries.”

Continue reading at Local Planning Initiative Has Federal Strings, UN Roots.

A Wichita shocker

“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.

The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.

The Wichita business community, headed by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed this measure, too.

Hopefully this election will convince Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders that our economic development policies are not working. Combined with the startling findings by a Tax Foundation and KMPG study that finds Kansas lags near the bottom of the states in tax costs to business, the need for reform of our spending and taxing practices couldn’t be more evident. It is now up to our leaders to find within themselves the capability to change — or we all shall suffer.

Sedgwick County commissioners vote Democratic

This morning the Sedgwick County Commission voted to select member Tim Norton of Haysville as chairman for the upcoming year. Norton, a Democrat, received the votes of two of the board’s four Republican members: Those of outgoing Chairman Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn nominated Richard Ranzau for the position, but he received only two votes.

It may be remarkable that a board with a four to one majority in one party elected a member of the minority party to serve as chair, or it may simply be a reflection of the actual ideological makeup of the board. Peterjohn and Ranzau consistently take stances and make votes that favor limited government and free markets, while Unruh and Skelton generally join with the politically-liberal Norton on most issues. The chairman is more than just a ceremonial position, as the chairman presides over commission meetings. On many agenda items, the commission is not obligated to hear testimony from citizens, although it must when there are items that have public hearings required by law. It was the practice of Kelly Parks and Peterjohn, when they served as chair, to allow anyone who appeared at meetings to speak. In his term as chair, Unruh was seen as less accommodating, although I think that anyone who really cared to was allowed to speak, sometimes with a gentle admonition to hurry along. It is unknown in what manner Norton will run the meetings while he is chair. A hint: He’s objected to the term “ObamaCare” as pejorative, so I wouldn’t use that word around the courthouse.

For Chairman Pro Tem, the commissioners selected Skelton. Ranzau’s name was placed into nomination by Peterjohn, and he received the same two votes as he did for chairman. The votes for Skelton by Norton and Unruh are surprising. Skelton’s recent behavior has been erratic, even bizarre at times. His recent appearance at the Wichita City Council (video here) brought laughter and guffaws from both the bench and the public. I got the sense, however, the people were laughing at Skelton, not with him.

Unruh’s selection for 2011 Chairman’s award

Chairman Unruh selected Visioneering Wichita as the recipient of the annual Chairman’s award. This organization is in favor of government intervention into the economy — and people’s lives — on a large and increasing scale. Most of the items on its legislative agenda involve more government spending. While Visioneering — its chair Jon Rolph, anyway — denies advocating for increased taxes, Milton Friedman has taught us that it is the level of spending that is the true measure of the size of government. The size of that Visioneering seeks to expand.

Wichita’s political class

From June.

The discussion at yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting provided an opportunity for citizens to discover the difference in the thinking of the political class and those who value limited government and capitalism.

At issue was Mid-Continent Instruments, Inc., which asked the city for a forgivable loan of $10,000. It received the same last week from Sedgwick County. According to city documents, the State of Kansas through its Department of Commerce is also contributing $503,055 in forgivable loans, sales tax exemptions, training grants, and tax credits.

At the city council meeting Clinton Coen, a young man who ran for city council earlier this year, spoke against this measure, which he called corporate welfare.

In response to Coen, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked if we should ignore companies that want to do business here, or should we allow them to leave? Implicit in the question is that the threat dangled by Mid-Continent is real: that unless the city gives them $10,000, they will expand somewhere else. How citizens and council members feel about this issue largely depends on their perceived genuineness of this threat.

When Coen recommended that the city cut spending, Clendenin said “I can guarantee you, from what I have seen, this city government has cut a tremendous amount of spending.” When pressed by Coen for examples of cuts, he demurred. Clendenin also said that the $10,000 is needed to show the city’s commitment to the company.

Perhaps coming to the rescue of her younger and less experienced colleague, Council Member Janet Miller asked City Manager Bob Layton how much has been cut from the budget, and he replied “we’ve cut over $20 million in the general fund over three years.”

In saying that, Layton is using the language and mind-set of bureaucrats and politicians. In this world, it’s a cut if spending does not rise as fast as planned or hoped for. As you can see from the accompanying chart, Wichita general fund spending has not been cut in recent years. It has risen in each of the last three years, and plans are for it to keep rising.

Wichita general fund spending

This illustrates a divide between the thinking of the political class and regular people. Blurring the distinction between plans and reality lets politicians and bureaucrats present a fiscally responsible image — they cut the budget, after all — and increase spending at the same time. It’s a message that misinforms citizens about the important facts.

Miller also praised the return on investment the city receives for its spending on economic development, citing Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research and the cost-benefit calculations it performs. These calculations take the cost of providing the incentives and compare it to the returns the city and other governmental entities receive.

What is rarely mentioned, and what I think most people would be surprised to learn, is that the “returns” used in these calculations is manifested in the form of increased tax revenue. It’s not like in the private sector, where business firms attempt to increase their sales and profits by providing a product or service that people willingly buy. No, the city increases its revenue (we can’t call it profit) by collecting more taxes.

It’s another difference between the political class and everyone else: The political class craves tax revenue.

Aside from this, the cost-benefit calculations for the city don’t include the entire cost. The cost doesn’t include the county’s contribution, the majority of which comes from residents of its largest city, which is Wichita. Then, there’s the half-million in subsidy from the state, with a large portion of that paid for by the people of Wichita.

But even if you believe these calculations, there’s the problem of right-sizing the investment. If an investment of $10,000 has such glowing returns — last week Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton called the decision a “no-brainer” — why can’t we invest more? If we really believe this investment is good, we should wonder why the city council and county commission are so timid.

Since the applicant company is located in his district, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), praised the company and the state’s incentives, and made a motion to approve the forgivable loan. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted yes.

Going forward

While the political class praises these subsidies and the companies that apply for them, not many are willing to confront the reality of the system we’re creating. Some, like O’Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, have recognized that when government is seen as eager to grant these subsidies, it prompts other companies to apply. The lure of a subsidy may cause them to arrange their business affairs so as to conform — or appear to conform — to the guidelines government has for its various subsidy programs. Companies may do this without regard to underlying economic wisdom.

We also need to recognize that besides simple greed for public money, businesses have another reason to apply for these subsidies: If a publicly-traded company doesn’t seek them, its shareholders would wonder why the company didn’t exercise its fiduciary duty to do so. But this just perpetuates the system, and so increasing amounts of economic development fall under the direction of government programs.

While most people see this rise in corporate welfare as harmful — I call it a moral hazard — the political class is pleased with this arrangement. As Meitzner said in making his motion, he was proud that Wichita “won out” over the other city Mid-Continent Instruments considered moving to.

Another harmful effect of these actions is to create a reputation for having an uncompetitive business environment. Not only must businesses of all types pay for the cost of these subsidies, some face direct competition by a government-subsidized competitor. This is the situation Wichita-area hotels face as a result of the city granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.

Even those not in direct competition face increased costs as they attempt to hire labor, buy supplies, and seek access to capital in competition with government-subsidized firms. Could this uneven competitive landscape be a factor that business firms consider in deciding where to locate and invest?

We can expect to see more government intervention in economic development and more corporate welfare. Former council member Sue Schlapp in April took a job with the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job title is “senior constituent liaison,” which I think can be better described as “customer service agent for the corporate welfare state.” Her office is in Wichita city hall.

Increasingly we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions based on incorrect and misleading information, such as claiming that the city’s general fund budget has been cut when spending has increased. Sometimes they are fed incorrect information, as in the case of a presentation at Sedgwick County Commission that bordered on fraudulent.

Sometimes, I think, officeholders just don’t care. It’s easiest to go along with the flow and not raise ripples. They participate in groundbreakings and get their photograph in the newspaper and on television that way. Which brings up an important question: why do none of our city’s mainstream media outlets report on these matters?

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday December 7, 2011

Wichita petitions. At yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, the invocation featured a Bible verse that contained the phrase “Petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be offered for those in authority.” I don’t think the speaker was aware of the irony, since petitions were delivered to city hall just the day before. These petitions seek to overturn an action of the city council, and city leaders are not pleased that citizens took to the streets to gather signatures in opposition to the council’s action.

Petitions being contested. Speaking of petitions, the developers of the Ambassador Hotel are calling those who signed the petition and asking them to rescind their signature. The signers are being read a script that claims a study by Wichita State University indicates that 978 jobs will be created by the project. At the time the hotel developers persuaded the Wichita City Council and other governmental units to grant them over $15 million in taxpayer subsidy, they claimed the project would create 100 to 120 jobs. More reporting by Bill Wilson of the Wichita Eagle at Clash over hotel incentives heating up. … Work started and continues on the hotel even though the subsidy targeted by the petition is in doubt, so it appears the hotel will open — and jobs be created — no matter what happens to the petition.

AFP statement on peitition. “Activists with Americans for Prosperity and many other local organizations are firmly engaged in the public process, acting on our right to ask for a public vote on how our city doles out tax dollars to private interests,” said Susan Estes, AFP-Kansas grassroots coordinator and Wichita resident. “Certainly the opposition in this matter is acting on its right to fight our efforts. “However, from what we have heard from some of the recipients of recent phone calls, the actions of our opposition seem desperate, insulting and even intimidating to some. We find it interesting that an entity so concerned about receiving public incentives is so against allowing the public to vote on one portion of the approved incentive package. Great lengths are being taken — and at great expense — to prevent Wichitans from voting, even going so far as to have individuals from Colorado calling petition signers to sway their opinion about a Wichita issue.” … “The signature gathering process has simply been about one thing: providing the people of Wichita an opportunity to express support or opposition to this type of public tax policy. A campaign would allow both proponents and opponents to share their message with the people of Wichita. We believe his would be a healthy debate for our community. One that is needed, one that we hoped would be embraced by all. We are not afraid of this public debate, but apparently some are.”

Smart Taxpayers Exposing Waste. An initiative of the American Beverage Association is exposing ways in which government is spending money to run attack ads on the beverage industry. The claim is that $230 million of federal stimulus money has been spent in this way. The Facebook page, located at Smart Taxpayers Exposing Waste (STEW), holds many examples.

Planning grant to be topic of meeting. On Monday December 12th Americans for Prosperity Foundation will feature Sedgwick County Commission Member Richard Ranzau speaking on the topic “The $1.5 million dollar Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) HUD Sustainable Development Planning Grant: Economic Development or Economic Destruction?” Some background on this item may be found at Sedgwick County considers a planning grant. This free event is 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.

Kansas history writer to speak. This Friday (December 9th) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Beccy Tanner, Kansas history writer and reporter for The Wichita Eagle, speaking on “The Kansas Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. … Upcoming speakers: On December 16: Kansas Senator Garrett Love. The youthful legislator, just completing his first year in office, will be speaking on “Young people in politics.” … On December 23 there will be no meeting. The status of the December 30th meeting is undetermined at this time. … On January 6: David Kensinger, Chief of Staff to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. … On January 13: Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal, speaking on “The untold school finance story.” … On January 20: Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.

Wichita City Council. Some video from this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council. First, my discussion of tax increment financing (TIF) districts. Then, click here for Clinton Coen and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s discussion. Under the mayor’s leadership, things disintegrate. Finally, former council member Jim Skelton returns to Wichita city council chambers.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday December 2, 2011

Wichita trip to Ghana. KAKE Television reports that Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer believes the recent trip to Africa by him and others may result in sales of beef and airplanes. I wonder, though: don’t marketers of beef and airplanes know about Africa already? And who has the greater motive to sell, not to mention knowledge about the products that might meet African customers’ needs: sales reps for these companies, or politicians? … The most telling indication that this trip is more junket than anything else is that Brewer and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast and east Wichita) paid for their own airfare. If this trip was truly good for the city, the city should pay all expenses for those who go, just as companies pay legitimate travel expenses for their employees.

Register of Deeds returns funds. At this week’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission Register of Deeds Bill Meek returned $200,000 in unspent funds from his office. These unspent funds may be used by other county offices for “equipment or technological services relating to the land or property records filed or maintained by Sedgwick County,” according to the resolution passed by commissioners.

Transaction fee, or interest? At the same commission meeting, there was discussion on the topic of the county charging extra fees for paying money to the county using credit cards. During the discussion, Commissioner Jim Skelton speculated that, depending on the card you have, there will be “$50 to $250 or more on interest” each month. The commissioner may not have heard that if you pay the entire statement balance each month, there won’t be any interest charges.

This is a cut? In Republicans Take an Ax to Government, David Boaz writes: “Sort of. Two million dollars. Two million dollars. That’s what the Washington Post sees as ‘shrinking government.’ I’m guessing the Post doesn’t often run a story when a governor does something that “expands government” by $2 million. But Virginia has a reputation for fiscal conservatism. Maybe $2 million is actually a big chunk of the state’s budget. Let’s check the numbers. As it turns out, this week the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers put out a report on state finances, and it showed that Virginia’s general fund spending is up 7.1 percent in 2012. And according to Virginia’s own budget, that’s an increase of $1.1 billion in FY2012. That’s not the whole budget, by the way. In addition to the $16 billion in General Fund spending, Virginia will also spend $23 billion in FY2012. ”

Tax incentives questioned. In a commentary in Site Selection Magazine, Daniel Levine lays out the case that tax incentives that states use to lure or keep jobs are harmful, and the practice should end. In Incentives and the Interstate Competition for Jobs he writes: “Despite overwhelming evidence that state and local tax incentives are having little to no positive effect on promoting real economic growth anywhere in the country, states continue to up the ante with richer and richer incentive programs. … there are real questions as to whether the interstate competition for jobs is a wise use of anyone’s tax dollars and, if not, then what can be done to at least slow down this zero sum game?” As a solution, Levine proposes that the Internal Revenue Service classify some types of incentives as taxable income to the recipient, which would reduce the value and the attractiveness of the offer. Levine also correctly classifies tax credits — like the historical preservation tax credits in Kansas — as spending programs in disguise: “Similarly, when a ‘tax credit’ can be sold or transferred if unutilized it ceases to have a meaningful connection to state tax liability. Instead, in such circumstances the award of tax credit is merely a delivery mechanism for state subsidy.” In the end, the problem — when recognized as such — always lies with the other guy: “Most state policy makers welcome an opportunity to offer large cash incentives to out-of-state companies considering a move to their state but fume with indignation when a neighboring state uses the same techniques against them.”

Golden geese on the move. Thomas Sowell: “The latest published data from the 2010 census show how people are moving from place to place within the United States. In general, people are voting with their feet against places where the liberal, welfare-state policies favored by the intelligentsia are most deeply entrenched.” Sowell notes that blacks, especially those young and educated, are moving to the South and suburbs. “Among blacks who moved, the proportions who were in their prime — from 20 to 40 years of age — were greater than in the black population at large, and college degrees were more common among them than in the black population at large. In short, with blacks, as with other racial or ethnic groups, those with better prospects are leaving the states that are repelling their most productive citizens in general with liberal policies.” Detroit, he writes is “the most striking example of a once-thriving city ruined by years of liberal social policies.” Finally, a lesson for all states, including Kansas: “Treating businesses and affluent people as prey, rather than assets, often pays off politically in the short run — and elections are held in the short run. Killing the goose that lays the golden egg is a viable political strategy.” (Mass Migration Of America’s Golden Geese.) The migration statistics concerning Kansas are not favorable, although some are trending in a better direction.

Rep. Hedke, author of new book, to speak. This Friday (December 2nd) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Kansas Representative Dennis Hedke speaking on “Energy and environmental policy.” Hedke is the author of the just-published book The Audacity of Freedom, described as an “unequivocal challenge to the Socialist-Marxist-Communist principles being pushed upon freedom loving Americans by entities and individuals both within and outside the United States.” In his forward to the book, Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal writes: “Dennis Hedke’s The Audacity of Freedom is a timely and welcome “from the heart” wake-up call for those who value freedom and America. Unapologetically, Hedke does not mince words in describing the combination of crises that threaten our country. His irrefutable and precise recitation of compelling facts and refreshingly candid faith and patriotism are infectious. He exhorts us not to stand by and suffer any longer the fools who have been insulting our collective intelligence and bringing us dangerously close to a socialistic irrelevance in the world. His book, in short, is important.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. … Upcoming speakers: On December 9: Beccy Tanner, Kansas history writer and reporter for The Wichita Eagle, speaking on “The Kansas Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary.” … On December 16: David Kensinger, Chief of Staff to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. … On December 23 there will be no meeting. The status of the December 30th meeting is undetermined at this time. … On January 6: Kansas Senator Garrett Love. … On January 13: Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal, speaking on “The untold school finance story.” … on January 20: Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.

Economic freedom in America: The decline, and what it means. “The U.S.’s gains in economic freedom made over 20 years have been completely erased in just nine.” Furthermore, our economic freedom is still dropping, to the point where we now rank below Canada. The result is slow growth in the private sector economy and persistent high unemployment. This is perhaps the most important takeaway from a short new video from Economic Freedom Project, which is a project of the Charles Koch Institute. The video explains that faster growth in government spending causes slower growth in the private economy. This in turn has lead to the persistent high unemployment that we are experiencing today. … To view the video at the Economic Freedom Project site, click on Episode Two: Economic Freedom in America Today. Or, click on the YouTube video below.

Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation

Whether one agrees with the effectiveness and wisdom of government involvement in local economic development, there’s one thing that’s certain: facts and understanding are in short supply.

An illustration of how confusing things can get was provided last Wednesday at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission. Aviation manufacturer Bombardier LearJet was seeking a small part of a larger incentive package from the county. The county was being asked to contribute $1 million, but the overall package Bombardier is seeking is worth $52.7 million. That’s the entire cost of the Wichita portion of the project.

A large part of the package Bombardier is seeking is based on the Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program. Administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce, the program allows qualifying companies to retain 95 percent of the state income withholding taxes their employees pay.

It’s a roundabout method of distributing corporate welfare that allows companies — and gullible or self-serving politicians — to pretend as though this program has no cost, or that companies are in fact investing their own money.

In the present case, Bombardier LearJet plans to obtain $27.0 million through this program. It’s described in a company presentation as “Initial State of Kansas Bond Issuance.” They call it that because the State of Kansas will issue bonds that LearJet will buy. That makes it seem that Bombardier LearJet is actually contributing something of their own.

This misconception might be reinforced in a dialog between John Dieker, vice president of strategic projects for Bombardier Learjet, and Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton. Skelton was perhaps trying to counter my testimony earlier in the meeting. I had wondered if Bombardier LearJet was contributing even one dollar of their own funds to the project.

Skelton asked Dieker “Where is this money coming from?”

Dieker replied “We have the incentives we got from the state at $27 million. We have the interest that throws off since corporate bought the bonds, that’s corporate money that’s going back into the project, so that’s $6 million.

Skelton asked “So the corporation did buy the bonds?”

The answer was “Yes, corporation bought the bonds.”

Skelton concluded: “Well that’s your … I would consider that your money, sir.”

Dieker didn’t dispute Skelton’s conclusion. He should have.

Here’s how this financing works, in this case: The state issues $27 million in bonds and sells them to Bombardier Learjet. At this moment, LearJet holds bonds (both an asset and a liability) worth $27 million. The state’s balance sheet hasn’t changed.

Going forward is where Bombardier LearJet benefits. In the normal course of affairs, the bonds would be repaid out of the company’s cash flow. But under the PEAK program, the bonds are repaid by its employees, through the tax withheld on their paychecks.

The benefit to LearJet is that it has to pay these taxes, but it manages to be the exclusive beneficiary. Normally these taxes go to fund the operations of Kansas state government. But under the PEAK program, these tax payments go right back to Learjet and are used to pay off the liability of the bonds. The tax payments never benefit the state, as do tax payments from almost all other companies in Kansas. (Bombardier is not the only company benefiting from PEAK.)

Bombardier is even counting the interest on these bonds as part of their capital contribution to the project. The interest, however, is also being paid by employee withholding taxes, at no cost to the company.

So did Bombardier LearJet contribute $27 million of its own money, as Skelton claims? When the entire economic transaction is considered, the answer is absolutely not.

If you’re not convinced by this argument, simply ask: why would Bombardier LearJet engage in such a transaction if it didn’t benefit them?

Schemes like this call into question one of the the fundamental principles of taxation: that the proceeds be used to fund the operations of government, not to enrich one particular person or company. But continually, chasing economic development dreams, states and local government concoct schemes like PEAK — and others like tax increment financing (TIF) districts, Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), rebates of hotel guest taxes, revenue bonds of various forms, and other monstrosities — that turn over a public function to benefit private interests.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday November 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street. One of the most troubling things about OWS is the anti-semitism. FreedomWorks has a video which explains. Also from FreedomWorks, president Matt Kibbe contributes a piece for the Wall Street Journal (Occupying vs. Tea Partying: Freedom and the foundations of moral behavior.). In it, he concludes: “Progressives’ burning desire to create a tea party of the left may be clouding their judgment. Even Mr. Jones has grudgingly conceded that tea partiers have out-crowd-sourced, out-organized, and out-performed the most sophisticated community organizers on the left. ‘Here’s the irony,’ he said back in July. ‘They talk rugged individualist, but they act collectively.’ He and his colleagues don’t seem to understand that communities can’t exist without respect for individual freedom. They can’t imagine how it is that millions of people located in disparate places with unique knowledge of their communities and circumstances can voluntarily cooperate and coordinate, creating something far greater and more valuable than any one individual could have done alone. In the world of the contemporary Western left, someone needs to be in charge — a benevolent bureaucrat who knows better than you do. They can’t help but build hierarchical structures — a General Assembly perhaps — because they don’t understand how freedom works.”

Johnson Controls. Rhonda Holman’s recent Wichita Eagle editorial criticized those who spoke against the award of a forgivable loan to Johnson Controls, specifically mentioning the claim by Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau that Johnson was going to move these jobs to Wichita “no matter what.” No one has disputed Ranzau. I specifically asked at the commission meeting that someone from Johnson address this assessment. The Johnson people in the audience chose not to answer. It would be helpful if someone at the newspaper or county at least pretended as through they cared about the truth of these matters. … At one time newspapers might have objected to Commission member Jim Skelton voting on this matter due to a family member working at Johnson. True, Kansas law says he was eligible to vote on the matter. Sedgwick County has no code of ethics that prohibited it, either. But Skelton could have acted as though the county had a code of ethics, and a model code of ethics says Skelton should not have voted on this matter.

Save-A-Lot store opens. Yesterday a Save-A-Lot grocery store opened in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood. This is a store that was said to be impossible to build without subsidy in the form of tax increment financing (TIF) and an extra community improvement district (CID) sales tax of two cents per dollar. The Sedgwick County Commission exercised its veto power over the TIF district, and developer developer Rob Snyder canceled his plans for the store. But someone else found a way. Said Snyder at the time to the Wichita City Council: “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.” 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.” … This episode has severely harmed the credibility of those who plead for incentives and subsidies, and also of the city hall bureaucrats who plead their cases for them. For more see For Wichita, Save-A-Lot teaches a lesson.

Teacher pay. A look at public school teacher pay by American Enterprise Institute finds that — opposite of the myth spread by school spending advocates — teachers are paid much more than they could earn in the private sector. While teachers are paid less than private sector workers with similar college degree attainment, the course of study for teachers is less demanding than most other fields. Fringe benefits for teachers are much higher than for private sector workers. Job security, even in the face of recent layoffs, is much greater for teachers and has a value: “Consider that one-fifth of the highest-performing public school teachers in Washington, D.C., recently declined to give up even part of their job security in exchange for base salary increases of up to $20,000.” … The authors note the study is based on averages: “Our research is in terms of averages. The best public school teachers — especially those teaching difficult subjects such as math and science — may well be underpaid compared to counterparts in the private sector.” But teachers have formed unions that ensure that all teachers are paid the same without regard to ability. See Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid: Our research suggests that on average — counting salaries, benefits and job security — teachers receive about 52% more than they could in private business. … Naturally, the best way to set teacher salaries is through voluntary exchange in markets. That doesn’t happen with public school teachers.

Ranzau, Skelton to speak. This week’s meeting (November 11th) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Sedgwick County Commission Members Richard Ranzau and Jim Skelton, speaking on “What its like to be a new member of the Sedgwick County Board of County commissioners?” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. … Upcoming speakers: On November 18th: Delores Craig-Moreland, Ph.D., Wichita State University, speaking on “Systemic reasons why our country has one of the highest jail and prison incarceration rates in the world? Are all criminals created equal?” … On November 25th there will be no meeting.

Making economics come alive. On Monday November 14th Americans for Prosperity Foundation will show the video “Making Economics Come Alive” with John Stossel. Topics included in this presentation are Economics of Property Rights, Private Ownership and Conservation, Property Rights and the Status of Native Americans, Atlas Shrugged: Selfishness and the Economics of Exchange, Economics and the Military Draft, Regulation and Unintended Consequences, Regulation: Louisiana Florist, The Unintended Consequences of the Ethanol Subsidies, The Unintended Consequences of Minimum Wage Laws, Public Choice Economics and Crony Capitalism, Trade Restrictions and Crony Capitalism, Stimulus Spending and Crony Capitalism, and Political Versus Market Choices. This free event is 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.

Economics in two minutes. In two minutes, Art Carden explains the important ideas of economics in Economics on One Foot: “Individuals strive to achieve their goals in the best ways possible, every action has a cost, incentives matter, value is determined on the margin, profits and losses help gauge value creation and destruction, and government interventions often have unintended and undesirable consequences.” … This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.