Tag Archives: Kansas legislature

Articles about the Kansas legislature, both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum

Citizens in Wichita have been busy exercising their rights of initiative and referendum at the municipal level. The Kansas Legislature should grant the same rights to citizens at the state level.

What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. Citizens in Wichita have exercised these rights, but Kansans are not able to do this at the state level.

Initiative is when citizens propose a new law, and then gather signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is filed, the matter is (generally) placed on a ballot for the electorate to decide whether the proposed law will become actual law. Examples are the initiative to add fluoride to Wichita water (which voters rejected) and reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana (which passed, but has not taken effect pending legal action by the Kansas Supreme Court.)

Referendum is when citizens petition to overturn an act passed by a governing body. An example is the 2012 repeal of a charter ordinance passed by the Wichita city council.

So at the municipal level in Kansas, citizens have the right of initiative, although in practice the right is limited. The right of referendum is more narrowly limited. But at the state level, there is no possibility for citizens to exercise initiative or referendum. The law simply does not allow for this.

Policies, not politicians

Initiative and referendum allow citizens to vote on specific laws or policies. This is contrasted with elections for office, where voters must choose candidate A or candidate B. Voters have to take the entire package of positions associated with a candidate. It isn’t possible to select some positions from candidate A, and others from candidate B. So when a candidate wins an election, can we say why? Which of the candidate’s positions did voters like, and which did voters not like? Results of regular elections rarely provide a clear answer.

Initiative and referendum, however, let citizens vote on a specific law or proposal. There is little doubt as to the will of the voters.

There’s a difference between voting for politicians and voting for policies. When given a chance, Wichitans have often voted different from what the council wanted. An example is the 2012 overturn of a charter ordinance the council passed. Another is the failure of the sales tax in November 2014. That was on the ballot not because of citizen initiative, but it is an example of voting directly for an issue rather than a candidate. Citizens rejected the sales tax by a wide margin, contrary to the wishes of the city council, city hall bureaucrats, and the rest of Wichita’s political class.

It’s different voting for policies than politicians. For one thing, the laws passed by initiative don’t change, at least for some period of time. But politicians and their campaign promises have a short shelf life, and are easily discarded or modified to fit the current situation.

Politicians don’t want it, which is its best argument

Generally, politicians and bureaucrats don’t want citizens to be empowered with initiative and referendum. When the city council was forced to set an election due to the successful petition regarding the Ambassador Hotel issue, reactions by council members showed just how much politicians hate initiative and referendum. Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.”

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer advocated having the election as soon as possible. He told the city “By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest.”

As you can see by these remarks, politicians don’t like citizens second-guessing their actions. Initiative and referendum gives citizens this power. John Fund said it best: “Without initiatives and referendums, elites would barely bother at all to take note of public opinion on issues they disdained — from supermajority requirements to raise taxes to term limits. They serve as a reminder that the experts sometimes have to pay attention to good old common sense.”

Petitioning is not easy

A criticism often leveled against initiative and referendum is that ballots will be crowded with questions submitted by citizens. But as anyone who has been involved in a petitioning effort knows, filing a successful petition is not a simple matter. The first petition effort to relax Wichita marijuana laws failed, with the election commissioner ruling that an insufficient number of valid signatures were submitted. (Generally, petition signers must meet certain requirements such as being a registered voter and living within a certain jurisdiction.) Now the Kansas Attorney General contends that the second petition by the same group is defective because it lacks the proper legal language. It is common for the validity of petitions to be contested, either by government or by special interest groups that believe they will be adversely affected.

How to get it

It will take an amendment to the constitution for the people of Kansas to have initiative and referendum rights at the state level. That requires passage in both chambers of the legislature by a two-thirds margin, and then passage by a majority of voters.

Although the governor does not play a direct role in constitutional amendments — as they do not require the governor’s signature — a governor can still have a role. In 1991 Joan Finney supported initiative and referendum. An amendment passed the Kansas Senate, but did not advance through the House of Representatives.

Today it seems unlikely that the present Kansas Legislature would support an amendment implementing initiative and referendum. Politicians just don’t want to give up the power. (The laws giving some initiative and referendum rights at the municipal level is a state law. State legislators were imposing a hardship on other elected officials, not themselves.)

But initiative and referendum are popular with voters. In 2013 Gallup polled voters regarding petitioning at the national level. 68 percent favored this, while 23 percent opposed. One of the few issues that poll higher than this is term limits for office holders.

By the way, do you know what citizens in states often do after gaining the right of initiative? Impose term limits on their legislatures. Lawmakers don’t want you to do that.

Recent history in Wichita

In 2011, Wichitans petitioned to overturn a charter ordinance passed by the city council. In February 2012 the ordinance was overturned by a vote of 16,454 to 10,268 (62 percent to 38 percent). This was a special election with only question on the ballot.

In 2012 a group petitioned to add fluoride to Wichita water. The measure appeared on the November 2012 general election ballot, and voters said no by a vote of 76,906 to 52,293, or 60 percent to 40 percent.

On the November 2014 general election ballot, Wichita voters were asked about a one cent per dollar sales tax. This was not the result of a petition, but it provides an example of a vote for a policy rather than a person. Voters said no to the sales tax, 64,487 to 38,803 (62 percent to 38 percent.)

In 2015 a group petitioned to reduce the penalties for possession of small amount of marijuana. The measure appeared on the April 2015 city general election ballot, where Wichita voters approved the proposed law 20,327 to 17,183 (54 percent to 46 percent).

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita Eagle reporting, marijuana laws, and the Kansas economy

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita Eagle prints several stories that ought to cause readers to question the reliability of its newsroom. Wichita voters pass a marijuana law that conflicts state law. Performance of the Kansas economy. Finally, some unexplained results in the way people vote. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 81, broadcast April 19, 2015.

Kansas should adapt statewide law to Wichita’s

An initiative passed in Wichita calls for reduced penalties for possession of marijuana, but is in conflict with Kansas state law. There is a simple solution.

On April 7, 2015 Wichita voters passed a ballot initiative that reduces the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The proposed — pending — Wichita law removes the threat of jail, and allows for expunging the record of the violation.

Current news and debate focuses on the conflict between the Wichita ordinance and state law, with the Kansas Attorney General filing a lawsuit asking the Kansas Supreme Court to block implementation of the law Wichita voters approved.1

There is a simple solution, and one that could be implemented quickly. The Kansas Legislature should change state law to allow for the will of Wichita voters to be realized. The legislature might do this in a number of ways. It might use the Wichita ordinance as a model for a similar law that would apply statewide. Or, it could write a law that allows the proposed Wichita ordinance to coexist with state law. There may be other solutions.

Either way, Kansas law needs reform. The law regarding marijuana in Kansas is an example of overcriminalization, that is, of laws we don’t need, or laws that cause more harm than good. In January Charles G. Koch and Mark V. Holden of Koch Industries, Inc. wrote an op-ed published in Politico titled The Overcriminalization of America: How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system.2 They explain the nature and scope of the problem:

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.

The proposed Wichita ordinance fits into this category. It reduces the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, removing the threat of jail. No matter one’s feelings regarding the use of marijuana, it is a victimless crime. This is especially true for those who use — or would like to use, but for fear of breaking the law — marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In addition to the societal aspect of victimless crimes, Koch and Holden explain the economic factor:

Reversing overcriminalization and mass incarceration will improve societal well-being in many respects, most notably by decreasing poverty. Today, approximately 50 million people (about 14 percent of the population) are at or below the U.S. poverty rate. Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.

We in Kansas have an opportunity to improve both our economy and social environment at the same time.

In a few weeks the Kansas Legislature will reconvene. There is still important business to conduct, such as passing a budget. But there will be time to consider and pass a law that would allow the will of Wichita voters to be implemented. Passing such a law doesn’t mean that legislators recommend or approve of marijuana. It simply means that they recognize a victimless crime for what it is, and in the process make Kansas a more tolerant and welcoming state.

  1. The Daily Chronic
    Kansas AG asks Supreme Court to Review Wichita Marijuana Ordinance
    The Daily Chronic, 2015. ‘Kansas AG Asks Supreme Court To Review Wichita Marijuana Ordinance’. Accessed April 13 2015. http://www.thedailychronic.net/2015/42204/kansas-ag-asks-supreme-court-review-wichita-marijuana-ordinance/.
  2. KRUSE, M.
    The Overcriminalization of America
    KRUSE, MICHAEL. 2015. ‘The Overcriminalization Of America’. POLITICO Magazine. Accessed April 13 2015. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/overcriminalization-of-america-113991.html.

Kansas school funding block grants, new formula benefits students

Estimates from the Kansas Department of Education show that school funding would set new records under the block grant proposal, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Block grants, new formula benefits students

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

The debate over whether to replace the current school funding formula with a temporary block grant exposed one of the greatest challenges facing public education in Kansas. Most school administrators and the special interest groups that lined up in opposition of the proposal focused almost exclusively on their institutional desire for more money and only mentioned students in the context of how they would suffer if the institutions’ demands are not met.

Every Legislative Post Audit study on schools has found them to be inefficient operators, but no administrators opposing the block grants said they would choose to operate efficiently if they wanted more money for instruction under the block grants. School administrators testifying before the K-12 Commission on Efficiency acknowledged that more money could go to classrooms if they outsourced certain functions, but no one opposing the block grants offered up those solutions. No one said that block grants would force them to cut back on their multiple layers of administration or use much of their $857 million in cash reserves. The message was pretty clear; give institutions what they want or the students will suffer.

Opponents also didn’t let facts get in their way. One superintendent said the current formula is “… tied to what it costs to educate kids” but that is a demonstrably false statement. The current formula is based on a cost study that has been proven to be deliberately skewed to produce inflated numbers. Legislative Post Audit gave legislators some estimates years ago but stressed that those estimates were only based on a specific set of variables and said “different decisions or assumptions can result in very different cost estimates.” Even the State Supreme Court said cost studies are “… more akin to estimates that the certainties …” suggested by the district court.

Administrators spoke of how much they would be “cut” under the block grants but that is largely government-speak for not getting as much of an increase as they want. Estimates from the Kansas Department of Education show that school funding would set new records under the block grant proposal, at $6.147 billion or $13,347 per pupil; only $3 million of the $171 million increase this year is for KPERS.

School funding has increased by more than $3 billion since 1998 and is $1.5 billion higher than if adjusted for enrollment and inflation. Yet only 36 percent of White students scored well enough on the 2014 ACT exam to be considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science; it’s even worse for Hispanic and African American students, at 14 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Only 38 percent of 4th Grade students are Proficient in Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and Low Income 4th Graders are almost three years’ worth of learning behind everyone else — in the 4th Grade!

The old school formula certainly gave institutions a lot more money but it didn’t work for students. The new formula should hold districts accountable for improving outcomes; it should also be transparent and require efficient use taxpayer money.

Block grants a chance for more school choice in Kansas

The block grant school funding bill under consideration in the Kansas Legislature would hold districts harmless for enrollment declines due to school choice.

Critics of school choice programs allege that as public school districts lost students to other schools, and the students’ funding follows the students to the new schools, school districts are worse off, financially speaking. That’s because school districts say that their costs do not fall as rapidly as does enrollment, although this has been found to be untrue.

But under the block grant bill in Kansas, school funding is no longer tied to enrollment, at least for the next two years. This means that when school districts lose students for any reason, including due to school choice programs, their revenue stays the same. Funding rises, when measured on a per-pupil basis.

This should be an opening for increased school choice programs in Kansas. Presently Kansas has a law that allows charter schools, but there are few such schools. That’s because local school districts have to approve a charter school, and few districts will do that. We have a tax credit scholarship program in Kansas this year, but it is capped at a small amount of money, and student eligibility requirements mean that not everyone can participate. An “eligible student” is a child who qualifies as an at-risk pupil (eligible for free lunch under the National School Lunch Act) and either attends a school that would qualify as either a Title I Focus School or a Title I Priority School; or has received an educational scholarship under this program and has not graduated from high school or reached 21 years of age. Also, eligible students must have been enrolled in a public school in the year prior to receiving the scholarship or be eligible to be enrolled in a public school, if under the age of six. These are significant restrictions that focus the scholarship program on students who need it most, and who are least likely to be able to afford private schools on their own. But many other Kansas schoolchildren would also benefit from school choice, as they do in other states.

With the primary criticism of school choice out of the picture (the alleged “drain” on public school funding) supporters of choice have an opportunity to advance their cause. So far, no one has publically advanced any proposals or legislation for expansion of school choice in Kansas.

Rally for school choice in Kansas

This month, parents and children from around Kansas rallied in the Kansas Capitol for school choice.

Speakers included James Franko of Kansas Policy Institute. He told the audience that children deserve better than what they are getting today. For many, he said that might be in a public school, but for many others it may be in a private school. Parents and their children should make that decision. It shouldn’t be based on their zip code. Individuals, not institutions, should be the focus.

Kansas now has a private school choice program. Franko told the audience that newspaper coverage of this program emphasizes how it helps private schools and hurts public schools. But we should be reading stories about how school choice helps kids, giving each child the freedom and opportunity to find the best educational fit. He explained that school choice also helps the students who remain in public schools, referring to a Friedman Foundation for Education Choice study. “It’s about helping every single child,” he said.

The study Franko mentioned is A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice. In its executive summary, author Greg Forster, Ph.D. writes “Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.”

Later, the specific finding that Franko used in his talk: “Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.

Michael Chartier of the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice said that there are now 51 school choice programs in 24 states plus the District of Columbia.

School Choice Rally, Kansas Capitol 2015-02-02 15.07.38 HDRAndrea Hillebert, principal of Mater Dei Catholic School in Topeka told the audience that school choice benefits families, schools, and the state. Families can choose the learning environment that is best for their children, and are not penalized if they choose a school that is not run by the government. She told the audience that “school choice encourages — requires — families to take an active role in shaping their students’ future.” Schools benefit because consumer choice is a catalyst for innovating programming and continuous improvement. The state benefits from the increased achievement of students in non-public schools.

Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity – Kansas explained that even as a former public schoolteacher, it has been a challenge for her to navigate the school system so that the needs of her three children were met. She said that parents not only deserve, but have the right to be the primary decision maker for their children.

Bishop Wade Moore, founder and principal of Urban Preparatory Academy in Wichita, completed the program. Urban Prep is a new private school in northeast Wichita, and students from that school attended the rally. He said that our legislators have “a moral responsibility to do what is right for each Kansas kid.” He mentioned the students that are pushed through the system until they graduate, but are unprepared for college, trade school, or employment. “A lot of those children have no chance at life. So we say that we have a crisis in this nation,” he said.

Alluding to how Kansas has few school choice programs, Moore said “It’s time for us to wake up and move ahead, like the rest of the nation, in education reform.” He said that he heard a school superintendent make the statement that our children and parents have a choice in education. He said “They can choose one of our schools to attend.” That is not choice, Moore said. Real choice is when parents have the opportunity to go outside the public school system.

The reason for the poor academic performance of many children is that their parents have not had choice and control over the children’s education. “It is imperative that all children, regardless of their race, gender, place of residence, and socio-economic status, learn the concepts and strategies necessary for them to develop and succeed,” he told the audience.

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Transportation issues in Wichita

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s legislative agenda concerning transportation issues is unsound. For airfares, it relies on a questionable presentation, and for passenger rail, it advocates for a system that is costly for taxpayers. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast December 7, 2014.

For more on this issue, see: City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Airfares and City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Passenger rail

STAR bonds in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem

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

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

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

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

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

What to do
The STAR bonds program is an “active investor” approach to economic development. Its government spending on business leads to taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Kansas and many of its cities employ: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Government spending on specific companies through programs like STAR bonds is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies at all levels of government that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.

Community improvement districts in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

Issues regarding CID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas must get serious about spending

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

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

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

Kansas can balance its budget by improving the operations of, and reducing the cost of, state government. In 2011 the Kansas Legislature lost three opportunities to do just this. Three bills, each with this goal, were passed by the House of Representatives, but each failed to pass through the Senate, or had its contents stripped and replaced with different legislation.

Each of these bills represents a lost opportunity for state government services to be streamlined, delivered more efficiently, or measured and managed. These goals, while always important, are now essential for the success of Kansas government and the state’s economy. There is no reason why these bills, or similar measures, could not be revived. The improvements these bills would foster will not balance next year’s budget. But they will set the stage for controlling the growth of Kansas government spending. This will leave more money in the private sector, which will help Kansas grow.

Kansas Streamlining Government Act

HB 2120, according to its supplemental note, “would establish the Kansas Streamlining Government Act, which would have the purpose of improving the performance, efficiency, and operations of state government by reviewing certain state agencies, programs, boards, and commissions.” Fee-funded agencies — examples include Kansas dental board and Kansas real estate commission — would be exempt from this bill.

In more detail, the text of the bill explains: “The purposes of the Kansas streamlining government act are to improve the performance, streamline the operations, improve the effectiveness and efficiency, and reduce the operating costs of the executive branch of state government by reviewing state programs, policies, processes, original positions, staffing levels, agencies, boards and commissions, identifying those that should be eliminated, combined, reorganized, downsized or otherwise altered, and recommending proposed executive reorganization orders, executive orders, legislation, rules and regulations, or other actions to accomplish such changes and achieve such results.”

In testimony in support of this legislation, Dave Trabert, President of Kansas Policy Institute offered testimony that echoed findings of the public choice school of economics and politics: “Some people may view a particular expenditure as unnecessary to the fulfillment of a program’s or an agency’s primary mission while others may see it as essential. Absent an independent review, we are expecting government employees to put their own self-interests aside and make completely unbiased decisions on how best to spend taxpayer funds. It’s not that government employees are intentionally wasteful; it’s that they are human beings and setting self-interests aside is challenge we all face.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 79 to 40. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs, where it did not advance.

Privatization and public-private partnerships

Another bill that did not advance was HB 2194, which in its original form would have created the Kansas Advisory Council on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.

According to the supplemental note for the bill, “The purpose of the Council would be to ensure that certain state agencies, including the Board of Regents and postsecondary educational institutions, would: 1) focus on the core mission and provide goods and services efficiently and effectively; 2) develop a process to analyze opportunities to improve efficiency, cost-effectiveness and provide quality services, operations, functions, and activities; and 3) evaluate for feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency opportunities that could be outsourced. Excluded from the state agencies covered by the bill would be any entity not receiving State General Fund or federal funds appropriation.”

This bill passed by a vote of 68 to 51 in the House of Representatives. It did not advance in the Senate, falling victim to a “gut-and-go” maneuver where its contents were replaced with legislation on an entirely different topic.

Opposing this bill was Kansas Organization of State Employees (KOSE), a union for executive branch state employees. It advised its “brothers and sisters” that the bill “… establishes a partisan commission of big-business interests to privatize state services putting a wolf in charge of the hen house. To be clear, this bill allows for future privatization of nearly all services provided by state workers. Make no mistake, this proposal is a privatization scheme that will begin the process of outsourcing our work to private contractors. Under a privatization scheme for any state agency or service, the employees involved will lose their rights under our MOA and will be forced to adhere to the whims of a private contractor who typically provides less pay and poor benefits. Most workers affected by privatization schemes are not guaranteed to keep their jobs once an agency or service is outsourced.”

Note the use of “outsourcing our work.” This underscores the sense of entitlement of many government workers: It is not work done for the benefit of Kansans; to them it is our work.

Then, there’s the warning that private industry pays less. Most of the time representatives of state workers like KOSE make the case that it is they who are underpaid, but here the argument is turned around when it supports the case they want to make. One thing is probably true: Benefits — at least pension plans — may be lower in the private sector. But we’re now painfully aware that state government has promised its workers more pension benefits than the state has been willing to fund.

Performance measures

Another bill that didn’t pass the entire legislature was HB 2158, which would have created performance measures for state agencies and reported that information to the public. The supplemental note says that the bill “as amended, would institute a new process for modifying current performance measures and establishing new standardized performance measures to be used by all state agencies in support of the annual budget requests. State agencies would be required to consult with representatives of the Director of the Budget and the Legislative Research Department to modify each agency’s current performance measures, to standardize such performance measures, and to utilize best practices in all state agencies.” Results of the performance measures would be posted on a public website.

This bill passed the House of Representatives by a nearly unanimous vote of 119 to 2. In the Senate, this bill was stripped of its content using the “gut-and-go” procedure and did not proceed intact to a vote.

Opposition to these bills from Democrats often included remarks on the irony of those who were recently elected on the promise of shrinking government now proposing to enlarge government through the creation of these commissions and councils. These bills, however, proposed to spend modest amounts increasing the manageability of government, not the actual range and scope of government itself. As it turns out, many in the legislature — this includes Senate Republicans who initiated or went along with the legislative maneuvers that killed these bills — are happy with the operations of state government remaining in the shadows.

These proposals to scale back the services that government provides — or to have existing services be delivered by the private sector — mean that there will be fewer government employees, and fewer members of government worker unions. This is another fertile area of gathering support for killing these bills.

State workers and their supporters also argue that fewer state workers mean fewer people paying state and other taxes. Forgotten by them is the fact that the taxes taken to pay these workers means less economic activity and fewer jobs in the private sector.

As to not wanting performance measures: Supporters of the status quo say that people outside of government don’t understand how to make the decisions that government workers make. In one sense, this may be true. In the private sector, profitability is the benchmark of success. Government has no comparable measure when it decides to, say, spend some $300 million to renovate the Kansas Capitol. But once it decides to do so, the benchmark and measurement of profitability in executing the service can be utilized by private sector operators. Of course, private contractors will be subject to the discipline of the profit and loss system, something again missing from government.

In Kansas, you may display a political sign in your yard

Kansas law overrides neighborhood covenants that prohibit political yard signs before elections.

Some neighborhoods have restrictive covenants that prohibit homeowners from placing any signs in their yard except signs advertising homes for sale. But a 2008 Kansas law overrides these restrictive covenants to allow for the placement of small political yard signs starting 45 days before an election. Still, residents of covenant neighborhoods may want to observe their neighborhood’s restrictions.

Political yard signsFor the August 5, 2014 primary election, the 45 day period in which signs are allowed started on June 21. (Although I could be off by a day. Sometimes lawyers count days in strange ways.)

The bill was the product of then-Senator Phil Journey of Haysville. The bill passed unanimously in both the Kansas House and Senate.

According to the First Amendment Center, some 50 million people live in neighborhoods with homeowners associations. And laws like the 2008 Kansas law are not without controversy, despite the unanimous vote in the Kansas Legislature.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that governmental entities like cities can’t stop homeowners from displaying political yard signs, a homeowners association is not a government. Instead, it is a group that people voluntarily enter. Generally, when prospective homeowners purchase a home in a neighborhood with restrictive covenants, they are asked to sign a document pledging to comply with the provisions in the covenants. If those covenants prohibit political yard signs, but a Kansas law says these covenants do not apply, what should a homeowner do? Should state law trump private contracts in cases like this?

Practically: Should you display signs in your yard?

While Kansas law makes it legal for those living in communities with covenants that prohibit political yard signs, residents may want to observe these convents. Here’s why: If neighbors are not aware of this new Kansas law and therefore wrongfully believe that the yard signs are not allowed in your neighborhood, they may think residents with signs in their yards are violating the covenants. By extension, this could reflect poorly on the candidates that are being promoted.

Those who are not aware of the law allowing yard signs are uninformed. Or, they may be aware of the law but disagree with it and wish their neighbors would not display political yard signs. These people, of course, may vote and influence others how to vote. Whether to display yard signs in a covenant neighborhood is a judgment that each person will have to make for themselves.

The Kansas statute

K.S.A. 58-3820. Restrictive covenants; political yard signs; limitations. (a) On and after the effective date of this act, any provision of a restrictive covenant which prohibits the display of political yard signs, which are less than six square feet, during a period commencing 45 days before an election and ending two days after the election is hereby declared to be against public policy and such provision shall be void and unenforceable.

(b) The provisions of this section shall apply to any restrictive covenant in existence on the effective date of this act.

Or, as described in the 2008 Summary of Legislation: “The bill invalidates any provision of a restrictive covenant prohibiting the display of political yard signs, which are less than six square feet, 45 days before an election or two days after the election.”

As lawmakers, Kansas judges should be selected democratically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, Ware writes:

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

Prospects for Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complete paper may be downloaded at no charge here.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Flipping in Wichita, price of sin going up, and what your legislature wants you to know

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: In Wichita, historic value is gone in a flash, a flip-flop on drivers permits, and does the city really believe in transparency or was it just a way to get votes? Then, let’s stop calling a vice a sin, and what does the Kansas Legislature really want you to know? View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 74, broadcast February 8, 2015.

Kansas school funding controversy is about entitlement, not need

From Kansas Policy Institute.

School funding controversy is about entitlement, not need
By Dave Trabert

When every Johnson County school district qualifies as a property-poor district, you know you have a broken school funding formula … and a controversial claim based on entitlement.

The Kansas Legislature authorized $134 million in school funding this year in a good-faith effort to resolve the Supreme Court equity finding in Gannon v. State of Kansas. Most of the increase, $109 million –- was for Supplemental General State Aid (SGSA), which equalizes Local Option Budgets for property-poor districts.  The other $25 million was for equalization of Capital Outlay aid.

Kansas Judicial Center
Kansas Judicial Center
You wouldn’t know it from most media coverage, but the Supreme Court ruling on equity provides the Legislature with broad latitude in resolving wealth-based disparity, and does not require specific funding levels. “We agree that the infirmity can be cured in a variety of ways — at the choice of the legislature. And the legislature should have an opportunity to promptly cure. Any cure will be measured by determining whether it sufficiently reduces the unreasonable, wealth-based disparity so the disparity then becomes constitutionally acceptable, not whether the cure necessarily restores funding to the prior levels.

The Legislature didn’t have to increase SGSA in order to satisfy the Supreme Court ruling on LOB equity, but they did so anyway. The $109 million authorized was based on calculations from the Kansas State Department of Education, but KSDE underestimated the amount by which districts would increase their Local Option Budgets, and now school districts want another $36 million from taxpayers. Districts want this money because the formula says they are entitled to it. But there is ample evidence that more money is not needed, and now SB 71 has been introduced into Senate Ways and Means Committee to revise the equalization formula and eliminate the $36 million increase.

SB 71 is opposed by school districts, but it is a necessary fix to a broken formula and frankly, districts don’t need the extra money.

The intention of SGSA is to offset wealth-based disparity among school districts, but calculations from the Kansas Department of Education has the current formula allocating $54.8 million to districts in Johnson County –- the state’s wealthiest county. Every district in Johnson County is considered a “property-poor” district under the current formula, including Blue Valley, which may be the most affluent district in Kansas.

Johnson County schools are being subsidized by taxpayers in far less affluent parts of Kansas under the current formula. One additional mill of property tax levied in the Blue Valley district raises $2.3 million; one mill raises $2.9 in Shawnee Mission and $1.7 million in Olathe. But taxpayers in counties where one mill generates less than $50,000 are being asked to subsidize property-rich districts; those counties include Cheyenne, Clark, Edwards, Ellis, Gove, Gray, Greeley, Kearny, Kiowa, Lane, Logan, Ness, Reno, Rice, Rooks, Rush, Russell, Stafford, Thomas, Trego and Wallace. One or more districts in those counties are considered ineligible for equalization aid by the current formula, but those districts’ patrons are expected to subsidize urban districts in Johnson County, Sedgwick County, Shawnee County and Wyandotte County –- just to name a few.

On the issue of need, the K-12 Commission on Student Achievement and Efficiency heard testimony from school districts, regional service centers and others recently, confirming that school districts could operate much more efficiently. However, school districts made it very clear that they are strongly opposed to being required to make efficient use of taxpayer money. Legislative Post Audit also told the Commission that districts have not enacted many of their recommendations to reduce the cost of services.

There is also no need to increase equalization of Capital Outlay aid. The $25 million allocated for this year was based on Capital Outlay property taxes levied by school districts last year, but districts increased local property taxes even more, entitling them to $20 million more in Capital Outlay equalization. This is another example of a broken school funding formula, as it has nothing to do with need. School districts began this year with a record $434.9 million set aside for Capital projects. Capital Outlay reserves are completely separate from capital projects related to bond issues and have increased each year since 2005. Districts may feel entitled to even more money for capital projects but there is no need to further pump up their reserves.

The equalization system and the entire entitlement-based school funding system need to be replaced with a student-focused and taxpayer-focused perspective.

Kansas legislative resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download (PDF, 30KB)

Transparency in the Kansas House of Representatives: Some success

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download (PDF, 45KB)

WichitaLiberty.TV: Radio show host Joseph Ashby

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Radio talk show Joseph Ashby appears to talk about transparency in the Kansas Legislature and the State of the City Address for Wichita. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 73, broadcast February 1, 2015.

The video of Titus referred to is now available here.

This is how much the Kansas Legislature wants Kansans to know

Not much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interns can do this.

But the Kansas Legislature doesn’t do this.

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

Ray Merrick on the gotcha factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Present but not voting: None.

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

Sin-tax or vice-tax?

As Kansas considers raising additional revenue by raising the tax on tobacco and alcohol, let’s declare the end to governmental labeling of vice as sin, and people as sinners.

Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are vices, not sins. Yes, some religions may label these activities as sins, and the people who engage in them, sinners. That is fine for them to do. But these sins — no, vices — harm no one except the person practicing them. Yes, I know that some will say that alcohol fuels aggression in some people, and that leads to harm to others. If they really believe that line of reasoning, they should call for the prohibition of alcohol rather than the state to profiting even more from its sale. (And we know how well prohibitions work [not].)

Say, if smoking and drinking are sinful, what does it say about the State of Kansas profiting from these activities? And what about the state having an even greater rooting interest in smoking and drinking, so there is more for the state coffers?

At one time gambling was illegal in Kansas. It was a sin, we were told. But then the state found it could profit from gambling, first through the lottery, and now through full-service casinos. But gambling is still illegal, unless the state controls it — and profits from it. What constitutes sin, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder — and profiteer.

Like the general sales tax, these special sales or excise taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those least able to pay. If we feel sorry for those who drink or smoke, how about this: Let’s offer them a good word or a hand up — not a kick in the teeth in the name of propping up state spending.

By the way: Many of those who may vote on these higher Kansas taxes have signed a pledge to not raise taxes. I wonder if we can place a tax on violating a pledge made to to voters.

Lysander Spooner wrote long ago:

Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.

Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.

Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.

In vices, the very essence of crime — that is, the design to injure the person or property of another — is wanting.

It is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another. But no one ever practises a vice with any such criminal intent. He practises his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property; no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.

For a government to declare a vice to be a crime, and to punish it as such, is an attempt to falsify the very nature of things. It is as absurd as it would be to declare truth to be falsehood, or falsehood truth.

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

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

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

I see a few issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unemployment insurance for school bus drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Property tax for state universities proposed to increase four-fold

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the bill passes, the calculation is

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

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

Blubaugh, Mayor vote for licenses for undocumented workers to drive to their illegal jobs

The Wichita city council voted to recommend that the Kansas Legislature create drivers permits for undocumented workers so they could drive to their jobs.

In December the Wichita City Council voted to include drivers permits for undocumented workers in its legislative agenda. The item as presented to council members read: “RECOMMEND: The Wichita City Council supports legislation that provides a driver’s permit to undocumented workers for the sole purpose of obtaining vehicle insurance for work-related transportation.”

In his remarks, as presented in the meeting minutes, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer stated “he has given this a lot of thought and he is the one who has asked for it because he believes it is the right thing to do.”

Wichita City Council Member Jeff Blubaugh
Wichita City Council Member Jeff Blubaugh
The measure passed four to three, with Council Member Jeff Blubaugh (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voting along with the council’s progressive members.

No matter what one believes about our immigration laws, it is illegal for undocumented workers to hold their jobs. Yet, the city wants to make it legal for them to drive to their illegal jobs.

This also illustrates the problem with resolving our nation’s issues with immigration. We’ve shown that we’re not willing to enforce the laws we have. Here, the Wichita City Council takes steps to help illegal immigrants break our laws. Why do we expect people to respect and obey them?

Kansas minimum wage hike would harm the most vulnerable workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is harmed?

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

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

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

The role of labor unions

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

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

Minimum wage as competitive weapon

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

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

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

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

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

Hate crimes should not be enhanced in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school finance case based on inadequate standards

The just-released Gannon school finance decision in Kansas concludes that not long ago Kansas schools were functioning adequately. But data on Kansas school standards says something else.

The court’s decision, in its conclusion, states: “At the beginning of FY 2009 (July l, 2008), the evidence established that the Kansas K-12 school system was functioning as a K-12 school system should in order to provide a constitutionally adequate education to Kansas children.”

It’s going to take some time to read and understand the decision, and even longer to see what effect it has on legislation, spending, and most importantly, the wellbeing of Kansas schoolchildren. It seems as though the court used student performance on Kansas state assessment data in making its decision. If so, that could be a problem. That’s because at a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered its standards for schools. This is what the National Center for Education Statistics concluded about Kansas school standards in the most recent version of its report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. (NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, and is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.)

The mapping project establishes a relationship between the tests each state gives to assess its students and the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states. The conclusion of NCES is that Kansas school standards are relatively low, compared to other states.

Kansas school standards for grade 4 reading compared to other states. Click for larger version.
Kansas school standards for grade 4 reading compared to other states. Click for larger version.
For Kansas, here are some key findings. First, NCES asks this question: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of reading standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?” For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

“Although no substantive changes in the reading assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of both its grade 4 and grade 8 standards decreased.

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its reading grade 8 assessment between 2005 and 2009, and the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased.

In other words, NCES judged that Kansas weakened its standards for reading performance.

More information about how NCES judged other Kansas standards may be found here. A video presentation may be viewed at Kansas school standards have changed.

This is not the only study of school testing standards that found that Kansas has low standards compared to other states. In another study, Kansas ranked forty-fourth among the states, meaning that seven states had standards judged to be weaker than Kansas’. The remainder of the states and the District of Columbia have stronger standards. The study also found that the Kansas standards have become weaker in recent years.

The Strength of State Proficiency Standards, excerpt for Kansas.
The Strength of State Proficiency Standards, excerpt for Kansas.
This research was published by Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. It may be read at Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards: Students proficient on state tests but not national.

It’s important to note that this survey compares a state’s own standards to the NAEP test, which is the same for the entire country. It does not measure the performance of the students. Instead, it serves to compare the strength — and honesty — of a state’s test against a common standard:

Note that an A or a B does not indicate a relatively high performance by students in the state. Rather, it indicates that the state’s definition of proficient embodies higher expectations for students. It is best thought of as a high grade for “truth in advertising,” telling citizens frankly how well students are performing on an internationally accepted scale, just as states have pledged to do by joining the CCSS consortium.

Kansas standards are judged to be weak in two different assessments. Why would a Kansas court rely on these standards?

Year in Review: 2014

Here is a sampling of stories from Voice for Liberty in 2014.

January

A transparency agenda for Wichita
Kansas has a weak open records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

New York Times on Kansas schools, again
The New York Times — again — intervenes in Kansas schools. As it did last October, the newspaper makes serious errors in its facts and recommendations.

Visit Wichita, and pay a tourism fee
The Wichita City Council will consider adding a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills, calling it a “City Tourism Fee.” Welcome to Wichita!

Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product
Compared to peer areas, Wichita’s record of growth in gross domestic product is similar to that of job creation: Wichita performs poorly.

The death penalty in Kansas, a conservative view
What should the attitude of conservatives be regarding the death penalty? Ben Jones of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty spoke on the topic “Capital Punishment in Kansas from a conservative perspective: Is it a failed policy?”

Kansas school test scores, the subgroups
To understand Kansas school test scores, look at subgroups. Sometimes Kansas ranks very well among the states. In other instances, Kansas ranks much lower, even below the national average. It’s important for Kansans — be they citizens, schoolchildren, parents, education professionals, or (especially) politicians of any party — to understand these scores.

The state of Wichita, 2014
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. He said a few things that deserve discussion.

February

In Wichita, why do some pay taxes, and others don’t?
A request by a luxury development in downtown Wichita raises issues, for example, why do we have to pay taxes?

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior
he Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

Our Kansas grassroots teachers union
Letters to the editor in your hometown newspaper may have the air of being written by a concerned parent of Kansas schoolchildren, but they might not be what they seem.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens
This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers
The documents hold information that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for.

In Wichita, citizens want more transparency in city government
In a videographed meeting that is part of a comprehensive planning process, Wichitans openly question the process, repeatedly asking for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.

March

Special interests struggle to keep special tax treatment
When a legislature is willing to grant special tax treatment, it sets up a battle to keep — or obtain — that status. Once a special class acquires preferential treatment, others will seek it too.

In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance
Last year the Wichita City Council selected a development team to build apartments on the West Bank of the Arkansas River, between Douglas Avenue and Second Street. But city leaders may have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside this land to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.”

In Wichita, pushing back at union protests
A Wichita automobile dealer is pushing back at a labor union that’s accusing the dealer of unfair labor practices.

Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups
The Wichita City Council will consider a resolution in support of the status quo for city elections. Which is to say, the council will likely express its support for special interest groups whose goals are in conflict with the wellbeing of the public.

State employment visualizations
There’s been dueling claims and controversy over employment figures in Kansas and our state’s performance relative to others. I present the actual data in interactive visualizations that you can use to make up your own mind.

State and local government employment levels vary
The states vary widely in levels of state government and local government employees, calculated on a per-person basis. Only ten states have total government employee payroll costs greater than Kansas, on a per-person basis.

April

Wichita not good for small business
When it comes to having good conditions to support small businesses, well, Wichita isn’t exactly at the top of the list, according to a new ranking from The Business Journals.

Cronyism is welfare for rich and powerful, writes Charles G. Koch
“The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism,” writes Charles G. Koch in the Wall Street Journal.

Rich States, Poor States for 2014 released
In the 2014 edition of Rich States, Poor States, Utah continues its streak at the top of Economic Outlook Ranking, meaning that the state is poised for growth and prosperity. Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance rankings, and fell in the forward-looking forecast.

Wichita develops plans to make up for past planning mistakes
On several issues, including street maintenance, water supply, and economic development, Wichita government and civic leaders have let our city fall behind. Now they ask for your support for future plans to correct these mistakes in past plans.

May

Poll: Wichitans don’t want sales tax increase
According to a newly released poll from Kansas Policy Institute, Wichitans may want more jobs and a secure water source but they certainly don’t support a sales tax increase as the means to get either. Reporting on this poll is available in these articles: In Wichita, opinion of city spending consistent across party and ideology, Few Wichitans support taxation for economic development subsidies, Wichitans willing to fund basics, and To fund government, Wichitans prefer alternatives to raising taxes.

Contrary to officials, Wichita has many incentive programs
Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available.

In Wichita, the streetside seating is illuminated very well
Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone. Except for the waste, that is.

Wichita seeks to form entertainment district
A proposed entertainment district in Old Town Wichita benefits a concentrated area but spreads costs across everyone while creating potential for abuse.

In Wichita, capitalism doesn’t work, until it works
Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements?

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency
At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know.

Wichita per capita income not moving in a good direction
Despite its problematic nature, per capita income in Wichita is used as a benchmark for the economy. It’s not moving in the right direction. As Wichita plans its future, leaders need to recognize and understand its recent history.

Uber, not for Wichita
A novel transportation service worked well for me on a recent trip to Washington, but Wichita doesn’t seem ready to embrace such innovation.

For Kansas’ Roberts, an election year conversion?
A group of like-minded Republican senators has apparently lost a member. Is the conservative voting streak by Pat Roberts an election year conversion, or just a passing fad?

June

Wichita property taxes compared
An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.

Government employee costs in the states
The states vary widely in levels of state government and local government employees and payroll costs, calculated on a per-person basis. Kansas ranks high in these costs, nationally and among nearby states.

With new tax exemptions, what is the message Wichita sends to existing landlords?
As the City of Wichita prepares to grant special tax status to another new industrial building, existing landlords must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.

Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement
Proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing.

Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.
Public service announcements on Facebook and Wichita City Channel 7 urge Wichitans to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation.

July

Wichita property taxes rise again
The City of Wichita is fond of saying that it hasn’t raised its mill levy in many years. But the mill levy has risen in recent years.

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome
A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

For Wichita’s new water supply, debt is suddenly bad
Wichita city leaders are telling us we need to spend a lot of money for a new water source. For some reason, debt has now become a dirty word.

Pat Roberts, senator for corporate welfare
Two years ago United States Senator Pat Roberts voted in committee with liberals like John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and Debbie Stabenow to pass a bill loaded with wasteful corporate welfare.

August

Charles Koch: How to really turn the economy around
Writing in USA Today, Charles Koch offers insight into why our economy is sluggish, and how to make a positive change.

Wichita airport statistics updated
As the Wichita City Council prepares to authorize funding for Southwest Airlines, it’s worth taking a look at updated statistics regarding the airport.

Wichita sales tax hike would hit low income families hardest
Analysis of household expenditure data shows that a proposed sales tax in Wichita affects low income families in greatest proportion, confirming the regressive nature of sales taxes.

Welcome back, Gidget
Gidget stepped away for a few months, but happily she is back writing about Kansas politics at Kansas GOP Insider (wannabe).

September

Wichita planning results in delay, waste
Wichita plans an ambitious road project that turns out to be too expensive, resulting in continued delays for Wichita drivers and purchases of land that may not be needed.

‘Transforming Wichita’ a reminder of the value of government promises
When Wichita voters weigh the plausibility of the city’s plans for spending proposed new sales tax revenue, they should remember this is not the first time the city has promised results and accountability.

Fact-checking Yes Wichita: NetApp incentives
In making the case that economic development incentives are necessary and successful in creating jobs, a Wichita campaign overlooks the really big picture.

Arrival of Uber a pivotal moment for Wichita
Now that Uber has started service in Wichita, the city faces a decision. Will Wichita move into the future by embracing Uber, or remain stuck in the past?

Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Boeing incentives
The claim that the “city never gave Boeing incentives” will come as news to the Wichita city officials who dished out over $600 million in subsidies and incentives to the company.

Beechcraft incentives a teachable moment for Wichita
The case of Beechcraft and economic development incentives holds several lessons as Wichita considers a new tax with a portion devoted to incentives.

For Kansas budget, balance is attainable
A policy brief from a Kansas think tank illustrates that balancing the Kansas budget while maintaining services and lower tax rates is not only possible, but realistic.

To Wichita, a promise to wisely invest if sales tax passes
Claims of a reformed economic development process if Wichita voters approve a sales tax must be evaluated in light of past practice and the sameness of the people in charge. If these leaders are truly interested in reforming Wichita’s economic development machinery and processes, they could have started years ago using the generous incentives we already have.

For Wichita Chamber’s expert, no negatives to economic development incentives
An expert in economic development sponsored by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce tells Wichita there are no studies showing that incentives don’t work.

Water, economic development discussed in Wichita
Dr. Art Hall, Executive Director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas School of Business, presented his “Thoughts on Water and Economic Development” at the Wichita Pachyderm Club Friday, September 19, 2014

Stuck in the box in Wichita, part one
To pay for a new water supply, Wichita gives voters two choices and portrays one as bad. But the purportedly bad choice is the same choice the city made over the last decade to pay for the last big water project. We need out-of-the-box thinking here.

October

Kansas economy has been underperforming
Those who call for a return to the economic policies of past Kansas gubernatorial administrations may not be aware of the performance of the Kansas economy during those times.

Union Station TIF provides lessons for Wichita voters
A proposed downtown Wichita development deserves more scrutiny than it has received, as it provides a window into the city’s economic development practice that voters should peek through as they consider voting for the Wichita sales tax.

A simple step towards government transparency in Wichita
Kansas law requires publication of certain notices in newspapers, but cities like Wichita could also make them available in other ways that are easier to use.

While Wichita asks for new taxes, it continues to spend and borrow
The City of Wichita says it doesn’t have enough revenue for things like street maintenance and transit, but continues to borrow for spending on new projects.

Wichita debt levels seen to rise
As part of the campaign for a proposed Wichita sales tax, the city says that debt is bad. But actions the city has taken have caused debt levels to rise, and projections are for further increases.

For Wichita, another economic development plan
The Wichita City Council will consider a proposal from a consultant to “facilitate a community conversation for the creation of a new economic development diversification plan for the greater Wichita region.” Haven’t we been down this road before?

In Wichita, pro-sales tax campaign group uses sales tax-exempt building as headquarters
While “Yes Wichita” campaigns for higher sales taxes, it operates from a building that received a special exemption from paying sales tax.

For Wichita Chamber of Commerce chair, it’s sales tax for you, but not for me
A Wichita company CEO applied for a sales tax exemption. Now as chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, he wants you to pay more sales tax, even on the food you buy in grocery stores.

Should Wichita expand a water system that is still in commissioning stage?
Should we be concerned about rushing a decision to expand a water production system that has not yet proven itself?

Wichita sends educational mailer to non-Wichitans, using Wichita taxes
Why is the City of Wichita spending taxpayer money mailing to voters who don’t live in the city and can’t vote on the issue?

Wichita to consider tax exemptions
A Wichita company asks for property and sales tax exemptions on the same day Wichita voters decide whether to increase the sales tax, including the tax on groceries.

November

In election coverage, The Wichita Eagle has fallen short
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.

Kansas school spending visualization updated
There’s new data available from Kansas State Department of Education on school spending. I’ve gathered the data, adjusted it for the consumer price index, and now present it in this interactive visualization.

In Kansas, school employment rises again
For the fourth consecutive year, the number of teachers in Kansas public schools has risen faster than enrollment, leading to declining pupil-teacher ratios.

Richard Ranzau, slayer of cronyism
In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges in the battle for capitalism over cronyism.

Kansans still uninformed on school spending
As in the past, a survey finds Kansans are uninformed or misinformed on the level of school spending, and also on the direction of its change.

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

Kansas cities should not unilaterally grant tax breaks
When Kansas cities grant economic development incentives, they may also unilaterally take action that affects overlapping jurisdictions such as counties, school districts, and the state itself. The legislature should end this.

City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Cultural Arts Districts
Wichita government spending on economic development leads to imagined problems that require government intervention and more taxpayer contribution to resolve. The cycle of organic rebirth of cities is then replaced with bureaucratic management.

December

City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Airfares
The City of Wichita’s legislative agenda regarding the Affordable Airfares subsidy program seems to be based on data not supported by facts.

Options for funding Wichita’s future water supply
Now that the proposed Wichita sales tax has failed, how should Wichita pay for a future water supply?

KU records request seen as political attack
A request for correspondence belonging to a Kansas University faculty member is a blatant attempt to squelch academic freedom and free speech.

Why is this man smiling?
In Wichita, the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce crafts a sweetheart deal for his company to the detriment of Wichita taxpayers.

Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce: What is the attitude towards taxes?
Does the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce support free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom, or something else?

Will the next Wichita mayor advocate enforcing our ethics laws?
Wichita has laws that seem clear. But the city attorney said they don’t mean what they seem to say. Will our next mayor stand up for ethics?

Campaign contribution stacking in Wichita
Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.

Economic development in Wichita: Looking beyond the immediate
Decisions on economic development initiatives in Wichita are made based on “stage one” thinking, failing to look beyond what is immediate and obvious.

Economic development in Sedgwick County
The issue of awarding an economic development incentive reveals much as to why the Wichita-area economy has not grown.

Balancing the Kansas budget

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

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

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

In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

  • The council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
  • A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
  • The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
  • Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
  • When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
  • A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “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.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
  • The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.

Third, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?

Wichita's mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
Wichita’s mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, townships, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Some incidents

warren-bailout-poses-dilemmaIn 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. 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.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.
Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table compiled from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

Michigan contractors headline 500These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Jeff Longwell vote to help Michigan CompanyThen on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s legislative agenda, and a bit of bad news

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at some elements of Wichita’s legislative agenda for state government, in particular special tax treatment for special artists, problems with the city’s numbers regarding airfares, and why we should abandon the pursuit of passenger rail. Then, why are people not more involved in political affairs? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 67, broadcast December 7, 2014.

City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Airfares

The City of Wichita’s legislative agenda regarding the Affordable Airfares subsidy program seems to be based on data not supported by facts.

Excerpt from Wichita Legislative Agenda, November 2014
Excerpt from Wichita Legislative Agenda, November 2014
As the City of Wichita prepares its legislative agenda for the Kansas Legislature, the first issue gets off to a rocky start with figures that are not aligned with facts. Probably the largest whopper is the claim of how much has been saved in airfares. The Wichita document states this: “Since 2002, Affordable Airfares has provided $1.446 billion in savings for Wichita Mid-Continent air travelers.”

That is a lot of money. It is certainly exaggerated. We don’t really know how much the subsidy program has saved, as we can not know what would have happened had there been no subsidy program. So we estimate, and here two estimates.

A study from Dr. Art Hall contained this: “Combining the estimated aggregate savings for AirTran and Frontier sums to an annual average range of $30.75 to $39.5 million. (An Evaluation of the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program, Arthur P. Hall, Ph.D., February 2013)

Minutes of a July 2011 REAP board meeting hold “This program also saved air travelers out of MidContinent Airport more than $33.2 million in reduced fares in 2010, compared to 2000.”

So if we use, say, $35 million as the annual savings, then for the 12 years from 2002 to 2014 the savings sum to $420 million. The city claims $1,446 million, or 3.4 times as much. Wichitans might want to ask city hall why there is such a large difference.

The city’s legislative agenda also mentions a presentation given by William S. Swelbar, an aviation industry analyst, reporting “The Wichita airport performance is acknowledged for its unique performance in growth and capacity (Bill Swelbar presentation at WSU Economic Conference).” There are several curious aspects of this presentation.

Excerpt from William S. Swelbar presentation, October 2014
Excerpt from William S. Swelbar presentation, October 2014
The slide that shows growth in traffic at the Wichita airport needs to be interpreted with caution. First, note that the scale of the vertical axis does not start with zero. This is something that needs to be recognized. Here’s why: The bars for departures appear to be rapidly rising. The bar for 2013 looks about twice as tall as the bar for 2102. This leads to the impression that whatever it is that these bars represent, it has doubled from 2012 to 2013. That’s because bars on a chart traditionally represent a quantity of something, starting from zero.

When we examine the entire vertical axis of the chart, we see that it does not start with zero. Instead, it starts at the value 12,050, and the entire axis represents a range of 250 passengers per year. This means that the increase in departures from 2012 to 2013, which looks like an impressive jump in Swelbar’s chart — a doubling in value — is an increase from 12,120 to 12,195. This represents a growth of departures of 75 per year, which is 0.62 percent. Or, about 6 flights per month. This is better than a decline, but not by much. (I’m reading the chart and interpreting the height of the bars against the scale, so these numbers could be off a bit.)

It is not deceptive to start a bar chart from a point other than zero, as long as readers are aware of that and interpret the numbers cautiously and appropriately. But that wasn’t made clear in this presentation. These numbers need to be placed in meaningful context. Otherwise, city council members and bureaucrats might jump on this chart and use it as evidence of dramatic changes happening at the Wichita airport when in reality the change is quite mild. This is what has happened.

What about the increase in departures from 2013 to 2014? The presentation by Swelbar was given in October 2014 and would have been based on data available only through June or July. But somehow, Swelbar told the audience how many departures the Wichita Airport would experience in all 2014. I can understand presenting an estimate for 2014, but the number is not presented as such.

The data for the years that are complete also appear to be questionable. For departures, Swelbar shows departures rising from 12,120 for 2012 to 12,195 for 2013 (again, estimating from the heights of bars on the chart). The Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows departures from Wichita in 2012 as 12,037, then declining to 11,984 for 2013. (Click here to view these statistics.) The statistics from the Wichita airport don’t directly report the number of scheduled departures. For what it’s worth, the airport reports passenger count of 1,509,206 in 2012, which fell to 1,508,872 in 2013.

These are problems found on the first page of the city’s presentation. The agenda was presented to the council during a workshop on November 25. The council will vote on adoption of the agenda on December 9, having postponed the vote from December 2.

Kansas cities should not unilaterally grant tax breaks

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

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

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

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

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

Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one

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

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

Two examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kansas, school employment rises again

For the fourth consecutive year, the number of teachers in Kansas public schools has risen faster than enrollment, leading to declining pupil-teacher ratios.

Listening to Kansas school officials and legislators — not to mention politicians campaigning for office — you’d think that Kansas schools had very few teachers left, and that students were struggling in huge classes. But statistics from Kansas State Department of Education show that school employment has rebounded, both in terms of absolute numbers of teachers and certified employees, and the ratios of pupils to these employees.

The story is not the same in every district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past four years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Since the number of teachers has risen proportionally faster than enrollment, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

The trend for certified employees is a year behind that of teachers, but the number of certified employees has also risen, and the ratio to pupils has mostly fallen.

(In the chart, “fiscal year” refers to the calendar year in which the school year ends. So fiscal year 2015 refers to the 2015-15 school year.)

Public school advocates complain that class sizes in Kansas schools are rising. I understand that the ratio of teachers to pupils is not the same statistic as class size. They measure different things. But if Kansas schools, considered as a whole, have rising teacher and certified employment levels that leads to decreasing pupil to teacher ratios, and at the same time class sizes are increasing — we have to wonder about the management of schools.

I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for larger version.
Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for larger version.

For Wichita Eagle, no immediate Kansas budget solution

The Wichita Eagle shows how its adherence to ideology misinforms Kansans and limits their exposure to practical solutions for governance.

In an op-ed posted the day before election day, the editorial board of the Wichita Eagle wrote of the problems it believes the next Kansas governor will face:

The candidates vying to be Kansas governor have lofty-sounding goals and campaign promises. But here’s the grim reality: Whoever wins Tuesday will spend the next several years trying to fill a budget hole.

And that hole keeps growing deeper. (“Budget hole awaits winner,” November 3, 2014)

The state has to make changes. We’ve cut taxes, but we’ve not yet met the challenge of cutting spending to match. The problem with this op-ed is the assertion that will take several years to fix. Here’s what I left in reply:

I have to disagree. Kansas Policy Institute has examined the Kansas budget and found ways to make several structural changes that would immediately (within one year) balance the Kansas budget. This would preserve existing services and fully fund the increases in K-12 school spending and social service caseloads that Kansas Legislative Research has projected. The policy brief that KPI has prepared on this matter is only ten pages long and not difficult to comprehend.

The changes that KPI recommends are specific adjustments to the way Kansas spends money. They are not the vague calls to eliminate waste that we see politicians campaign on. This is something that Kansas could do if both Democrats and Republicans have the will.

Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute, added this:

Bob is right. And the Eagle is well aware of our budget plan but declines to let readers know that the budget can be balanced without service reductions or tax increases. It won’t take “several years” to fix the budget; our plan could be implemented by passing a few pieces of legislation.

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute on the Kansas budget

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute talks about KPI’s recent policy brief “A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 64, broadcast November 2, 2014.

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

Kansas school spending and achievement

Following, from Dr. Walt Chappell, a discussion of Kansas school spending. Chappell served on the Kansas State Board of Education from 2009 to 2012.

The truth is, Governor Brownback and most Kansas legislators have worked hard to get more money into K-12 classrooms and have increased funding to educate our children each of the last four years. Claims that funds for schools have been cut, supposedly causing test scores to drop, schools to close, class sizes to go up and college tuition to increase are totally false.

apple-chalkboard-books-2Yes, there was a large reduction of $419 million to fund Kansas schools in 2009 when Mark Parkinson was Governor. The 2008 Great Recession hit Americans hard and state tax revenues dropped like a rock. Then, in 2011, the Federal government stopped sending emergency TARP funds to all states.

The Kansas Legislature made up the $219 million in Federal cuts by raising the amount spent from state tax revenues by $223 million. Brownback signed that budget bill.

Continue reading Kansas school spending and achievement

Kansas sales tax on groceries is among the highest

Kansas has nearly the highest statewide sales tax rate for groceries. Cities and counties often add even more tax on food.

Additional cost of proposed Wichita sales tax as percent of after-tax income, by income quintile. Click for larger version.
Additional cost of proposed Wichita sales tax as percent of after-tax income, by income quintile. Click for larger version.
Only 14 states apply sales tax to food purchased at grocery stores for home consumption. This is generally in recognition that sales taxes are highly regressive. My research shows that the lowest income class of families experience a cost nearly four times the magnitude as do the highest income families, as a percentage of after-tax income. See Wichita sales tax hike would hit low income families hardest.

When we look at statewide sales tax rates applied to food, we see that Mississippi has the highest sales tax rate for food at 7.00 percent. Kansas is next at 6.15 percent, then Idaho at 6.00 percent.

Cities and counties often have additional sales taxes. Sedgwick County adds one percent for a total sales tax rate of 7.15 percent. If the proposed Wichita sales tax succeeds, the sales tax in Wichita, including on groceries, will be 8.15 percent.

It could be that some cities in other states have combined sales tax rates higher than what Wichita currently has, and what Wichita will have if the proposed sales tax passes. As an example, Oklahoma has a statewide sales tax of 4.5 percent that applies to groceries. With city and county taxes added, the rate in Oklahoma City is 8.375 percent. If the proposed sales tax passes, Wichita would be right behind at 8.15 percent.

Of note, those in Kansas have the possibility of receiving a food sales tax credit of $125. But this is something that must be applied for, and qualifying conditions must be met. Also, the credit is nonrefundable, meaning that applicants must have income tax liability of at least $125 to receive the full credit.

The following table shows the sales tax rate for states that apply sales tax to food. All other states have either no sales tax, or no sales tax on groceries. View below, or click here to open in a new window.