Tag Archives: Kansas legislature

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

Kansas at-risk school funding report released

KPI releases landmark at-risk education report

By David Dorsey, Kansas Policy Institute

The Kansas at-risk program, which spent $3.6 billion over the past 23 years, failed its mission to improve the performance of the very students it was designed to serve. Achievement gaps in academic performance (in this case the difference between low-income and not-low-income students) are universal, significant and persistent despite the incredible growth in funding, in particular the increases since 2005.

From Kansas Policy Institute: "At-risk funding: Increased funding failed to increase achievement"
From Kansas Policy Institute: “At-risk funding: Increased funding failed to increase achievement”
That and other findings and recommendations are in Kansas Policy Institute’s just released research report At-Risk Funding: Increased Money Fails to Increase Achievement.

Four basic reasons the program failed in its mission are: dollars were not targeted exclusively to at-risk students, some funds were actually targeted directly to non-at-risk students, school districts were not held accountable, and scant information about the at-risk program was made available to the legislature and the public.

Despite the shortcomings, an at-risk component should be included in the new education finance law, with these fundamental changes: at-risk students must be clearly identified and dollars targeted directly to them, the method of funding the program should be changed, and school districts must be held accountable to the public.

It is important to note that there is no recommendation for reducing the amount of funding for at-risk students, but a call for a more effective use of the dollars.

Eric Hanushek, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and education policy authority, made these concurring remarks:

This report on at-risk funding in Kansas accurately identifies what is a national problem.  While we directly fund a number of programs to improve the education of at-risk students, we never follow-up to see that the money is used effectively.  If we are going to solve this problem of achievement gaps, we need to fund programs to support at-risk students but to hold schools accountable for results.

As the Kansas legislature crafts a new K-12 finance law, it is the perfect opportunity to overhaul the approach in addressing inequities in achievement based on economic status. It’s time to put all Kansas students first.

Kansas cities force tax breaks on others

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.

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 2014, 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 say that the school district benefits from the incentives. The argument is that 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 Wichita 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 Kansas 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, school districts, and any other affected jurisdictions.

Two examples

In June 2014 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 2014 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 subject 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.

Historic preservation tax credits, or developer welfare?

A Wichita developer seeks to have taxpayers fund a large portion of his development costs, using a wasteful government program of dubious value.

When you hear of a program titled “historic preservation tax credits” you might find yourself in agreement. Preserving history: Who can be against that? And tax credits: Aren’t those just technical adjustments on someone’s tax form?

The Colorado-Derby Building, now renamed and used by the Wichita public school district.
The Colorado-Derby Building, now renamed and used by the Wichita public school district.
If you look closely, however, you’ll find that the historic preservation tax credits program can include buildings with only the slightest historic significance, and has great cost to taxpayers.

The Colorado-Derby Building at 201 N Water Street in Wichita has been nominated for placement on the Register of Historic Kansas Places. It’s a nondescript building which currently houses administrative offices for the Wichita public school district and is known by a different name. Still, it is eligible for placement on the register for being an “example of this private investment trend,” that being the building of office buildings midcentury. A laudable accomplishment, but hardly notable.

The real reason for seeking placement on the register of historic places is money. By using historic preservation tax credits the developer of this building can get taxpayers to pay for much of the costs of rehabilitation. Almost half, which will be millions in this case.

Under the program this building is entering, its owners will receive 25 percent of rehabilitation expenses. The federal government provides tax credits of 20 percent. It’s likely that the owners of this building will also seek these credits.

So with both tax credit programs, 45 percent of the cost of rehabilitating this building could be paid for by taxpayers. And, given the history of the developer, it’s likely he will find other ways to get taxpayers to pay for even more.

Tax credits

USD 259 Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center 2008-04-07 11Tax credits may be a mystery to many, but there is no doubt as to their harmful effect on state and federal budgets. When using tax credits, the government, conceptually, issues a slip of paper that says something like “The holder of this document may submit it instead of $500,000 when making a tax payment.” So instead of paying taxes with actual money, the holder of the credit pays with, well, a slip of paper worth nothing to the government treasury.

This is a direct cost to the government, according to both reason and the Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit. Last year, after conducting an audit of Kansas tax credit programs, auditors explained: “Tax credits, which the government offers to try to induce certain actions by the taxpayer, reduce income tax revenues because they are subtracted directly from the amount of taxes due.” (emphasis added)

The confusing nature of tax credits leads citizens to believe that they have no cost to the state or federal government. But tax credits are equivalent to government spending. The problem is that by mixing spending programs with taxation, some are lead to believe that tax credits are not cash handouts. But not everyone falls for this seductive trap. In an article in Cato Institutes’s Regulation magazine, Edward D. Kleinbard explains:

Specialists term these synthetic government spending programs “tax expenditures.” Tax expenditures are really spending programs, not tax rollbacks, because the missing tax revenues must be financed by more taxes on somebody else. … Tax expenditures dissolve the boundaries between government revenues and government spending. They reduce both the coherence of the tax law and our ability to conceptualize the very size and activities of our government. (The Hidden Hand of Government Spending, Fall 2010)

The use of tax credits to pay for economic development incentives leads many to believe that what government is doing is not a direct subsidy or payment. In order to clear things up, perhaps we should require that government write checks instead of issuing credits.

Back to Kansas: The audit of the historic preservation tax credits program found that in 2001, when the program was started, the anticipated cost to the state was about $1 million per year. By 2007, the actual cost to the state was reported at almost $8.5 million.

Further, the audit found what many already knew: tax credit aren’t an efficient way of transferring subsidy to developers. Most of the time, the developers sell the credits to someone else at a discount, as the audit explains: “The Historic Preservation Tax Credit isn’t cost-effective. That credit works differently than the other three because the amount of money a historic preservation project receives from the credit is dependent upon the amount of money it’s sold for. Our review showed that, on average, when Historic Preservation Credits were transferred to generate money for a project, they only generated 85 cents for the project for every dollar of potential tax revenue the State gave up.”

It would be more efficient for everyone if the state would simply write checks to the developers instead of issuing tax credits. But then the actual economic meaning of the transaction would be laid bare for all to see.

Then, what qualifies as historic can change as political conditions require. Earlier this year the Wichita city council reversed a decision by the Historic Preservation Board and allowed a property owner to proceed with the demolition of three formerly historic buildings in southern downtown Wichita.

The historic preservation tax credit program is a government handout mechanism we no longer need. Today, most of the money goes to wealthy developers or corporations that can afford to redevelop downtown hotels and lofts with their own money — instead of asking low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries to fund their tax credits.

Material from the Kansas State Historical Society
Nomination for listing on Register of Historic Kansas Places

Colorado-Derby Building – 201 N Water St., Wichita, Sedgwick County

Constructed in 1959-1960, the nine-story Colorado-Derby Building is an early example of a Modern Movement speculative office tower erected within a pattern of development that shaped Wichita’s downtown at midcentury. New buildings erected as icons on the skyline were intended to refresh, modernize, and revitalize the downtown core through public and private investment in civic and commercial improvements. Frank and Harvey Ablah recognized the onset of this trend and constructed the Colorado-Derby Building to provide speculative office space, redeveloping the site of the Ablah Hotel Supply Company. Named for its largest and most prominent tenant, the Colorado-Derby Building was fully occupied when it opened in 1960 and maintained high occupancy rates over the following decade. The construction and subsequent occupancy of this building illustrates the continuing importance of manufacturing industries to the economy of Wichita at midcentury and the ability of these industries to contribute to the economic and physical revitalization of downtown. The blocks immediately surrounding the building continued to develop in a similar fashion over the following decade with large-scale modern buildings and parking lots replacing smaller commercial and industrial buildings built a half-century earlier. All of this development activity culminated in a formal Urban Renewal project utilizing federal funds in the late 1960s. In Wichita, private investment focused on providing office space for industrial companies, rather than public funding initiated the revitalization that transformed downtown. The Colorado-Derby Building is nominated under Criterion A an important early example of this private investment trend.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Jonathan Williams of American Legislative Exchange Council

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Jonathan Williams of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) explains the goals of ALEC, changes to Kansas tax policy and the results, and the effects of state taxes on charitable giving. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Episode 100, broadcast November 8, 2015.


Kansas school support

An interactive visualization of data provided to members of the Kansas 2015 Special Committee on K-12 Student Success.

The Kansas 2015 Special Committee on K-12 Student Success held its first meeting on October 23. As part of the meeting, data on school spending was made available. Of particular interest may be the data on instruction spending.

Dale M. Dennis, Deputy Commissioner of Education, provided committee members these definitions of instruction spending categories:

Instruction — Includes the activities dealing directly with the interaction between teachers and students. This catgory [sic] includes only regular and part-time teachers, teacher aides or assistants, homebound teachers, hospital-based teachers, substitute teachers, and teachers on sabbatical leave.

Student Support Services — Includes the following services: attendance and social work, guidance, health, psychological, speech pathology and audiology.

Instructional Support Services — Includes the following services: improvement of instruction, library and media, instruction-related technology, and academic student assessment.

Example table from visualization.
Example table from visualization.
Committee members were supplied with spreadsheets holding one year’s spending. I’ve gathered the spreadsheets for the three years that were provided and present them in one interactive visualization. One view of the data shows the data items for each school district, with the three years shown together. I added amount per pupil calculations.

Example from visualization.
Example from visualization.
A second view shows the per-pupil values as a line graph over the three years.

This spending data represents Kansas state support only and does not include spending from federal or local funding sources. The provided data was not adjusted for inflation.

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

Mike O’Neal, President of Kansas Chamber of Commerce

Voice for Liberty radio logo square 02 155x116Mike O’Neal, President of Kansas Chamber of Commerce, spoke to members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on October 9, 2015. His topic was “The Kansas Budget and Taxes: The 2015 Legislative Session and Looking Ahead to the 2016 Legislative Session.” This is an audio presentation.

Reporting from the Wichita Eagle on this event is here, but be sure to read the comment by Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute:

The Eagle’s analysis here is just wrong. The statute does not refer to current spending as the Eagle used, but total spending.

72-64c01. Sixty-five percent of moneys to be spent on instruction. (a) It is the public policy goal of the state of Kansas that at least 65% of the moneys appropriated, distributed or otherwise provided by the state to school districts shall be expended in the classroom or for instruction. http://www.kslegislature.org/…/072…/072_064c_0001_k/

Absent a qualification limiting the analysis to current spending or anything else, the statue applies to total spending.

Total spending according to KSDE in 2014 (2015 hasn’t been publised) was $5,975,517,681 and Instruction spending (downloaded and tabulated across all funds in the KSDE Comprehensive Fiscal and Performance System) was $3,293,217,088, which is 55.1% of spending. Mike O’Neal correctly said that Instruction accounted for 55% of total spending.

The difference between actual spent on Instruction and 65% is therefore $591,576,250. That is more than $500 million…and the Eagle is again wrong on the facts.

FYI, the definition of Instruction comes from KSDE and the US Dept of Education…and has not changed over the period.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Sales tax exemptions, criminal justice reform, and charity

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does the elimination of sales tax exemptions hold the solution to Kansas budget problems? We have a problem with overcriminalization and the criminal justice system. Then, is there a difference between government and charity? View below, or click here to watch in high definition at YouTube. Episode 96, broadcast September 27, 2015.

Where are our documents?

Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV, I give some examples of how little information government actually shares with us, despite its proclamations. Click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Following, the script for this video excerpt.

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.

Why is this information not available? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Wichita Facebook page example 2015-09-14 aSince then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.

Here’s another example. The Wichita transit system is a matter of interest right now. Funding for the system has been a problem for some years, and money for the bus system was part of the sales tax last year that Wichita voters rejected. So what is the city and the transit system doing to make information available? The answer is: not much. Wichita Transit Advisory BoardSome of the fundamental documents of government agencies are agendas, agenda reports, and minutes of meetings. And there is such a thing as the Wichita transit advisory board. But good luck finding agendas and minutes for this board. They do not exist. Well, I’m sure they exist somewhere. But they’re not available on the city’s website, or on the transit system’s’ own website. I’m sure that if you call or write someone will send these documents to you. But that takes time, both for citizens and government workers.

It is not difficult to do this, making documents available. There are many city agencies that make documents available, like the city council and airport advisory board. Earlier this year a local activist mentioned the lack of agendas and minutes for the transit board, bemoaning that there was no part-time web person to post the documents. Well, you don’t need a web person to do it. It is so simple that anyone can do it for free.

Here’s an example. This summer as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.

11-Sedgwick County FinancialsSo I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.

Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.

Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Wichita public schools  YouTubeThe Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.

Second: In August the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. 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.

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 is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate 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.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

Oh, and I can’t forget the federal government. In January I requested a document from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. Our congressman Mike Pompeo and his office have intervened on my half. But after nine months: nothing.

All these levels of government — city, county, school district, state, and federal — say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?

WichitaLiberty.TV: Lack of information sharing by government, community improvement districts, and the last episode of “Love Gov”

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do our governmental agencies really want to share data and documents with us? Community Improvement Districts and homeowners compared. And, the last episode of “Love Gov” from the Independent Institute. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Episode 95, broadcast September 20, 2015.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth and the truth

Why can’t Kansas public school spending advocates — especially a former Kansas state budget director — tell the truth about schools and spending, wonders Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth abuses the truth on school funding … again

Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

Duane Goossen, former Kansas state budget director
Duane Goossen, former Kansas state budget director
The Kansas Center for Economic Growth and Duane Goossen steadfastly refuse to publicly debate school finance and state budget issues with us, as their work is so easily shown to be false, misleading and otherwise distorted (see here, here, here, and here for examples). Mr. Goossen’s most recent piece is another fine example of how they abuse the truth.

He has a table called State Aid and Enrollment that is sourced to page 60 of Kansas July Comparison Report, but much of the information in his table does not appear on page 60. The total amount of $4.059 billion is there and two of the smaller items but not the rest. A few items — KPERS payments, Local Option Budget Aid and Capital Outlay Aid — are close to what we found in other documents but not the $2.639 billion he calls General Classroom Aid. And you can’t find that anywhere because there is no such thing as “General Classroom Aid.

KCEG and other “just spend more” proponents often make reference to “classroom aid” in ways to make it appear that the Legislature is not providing enough “classroom aid” but here’s the dirty little secret you (and especially teachers) aren’t supposed to know: only local school boards and superintendents decide how much money is spent on instruction. The Kansas State Department of Education has an official definition of “Instruction” spending which is often used interchangeably with “classroom” but there is no official aid classification for “classroom.” Mr. Goossen and friends are just making it up for political purposes.

Under both the old school formula and the temporary block grant system, districts get several different types of aid but they alone decide how much of the multiple discretionary amounts received are used for Instruction, Administration, Student Support, Maintenance and other cost centers. Even Capital Outlay Aid (contrary to Goossen’s implication) can used for Instruction purposes (and is) as set forth in the KSDE Accounting Manual.

Here are a few more examples of the truth being tortured by Mr. Goossen:

  • “The Kansas Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to increase [equalization] aid …” Not true. The Supreme Court said the legislature could increase equalization funding or they could write a new equalization formula and not spend more money. Legislators chose to spend $109 million more. Even the District Court, which didn’t get much right about Gannon, acknowledged this point.
  • State Special Education Aid is shown as a decline of $6 million but it is really an increase of $46 million.  The original posting of the July Comparison Report didn’t include $52 million in Federal ARRA pass through but a former state budget director should know that the total was more than the amount listed for state aid. He also understated the increase in state aid by another $53 million for Federal ARRA money included in General State Aid.
  • KPERS is included in the amounts listed under block grants and while it has gone up, he says “… school districts must still pay the bill.”  That’s true, but some of that money goes for KPERS benefits of current employees, and local school boards chose to increase employment more than 8% over the last ten years while enrollment grew by just 4%. That forces money to be diverted from regular aid to pay the higher KPERS cost, which also happens when school boards choose to have district employees perform functions that could be done in the private sector.
  • Capital Improvement Aid helps some districts “… with bond payments for buildings but [does] nothing to cover enrollment increases.” That’s true, but again, Goossen fails to mention that district choices to construct new buildings … sometimes larger or sooner than needed … diverts money that could otherwise be used for general aid.
  • “State aid for classrooms has actually gone down…” That is a false statement because there is no such thing as “state aid for classrooms” but actual Instruction spending increased by $214 million or 7.3% between 2011 and 2014 even without counting a dollar of KPERS. Of course, Instruction spending could have gone up even more if districts had chosen to direct some of the increased spending on other operating areas to Instruction, chosen to operate other areas more efficiently and spent the savings on Instruction or used some of their unused aid from prior years instead of holding it in cash reserves.

Goossen says the block grant system is “not a recipe for creating world-class schools” as though that is some sort of revelation. The block grant system is only a temporary funding mechanism put in place to allow time to build a new student-focused funding system, replacing a dysfunctional, institution-focused system that most certainly was not a recipe for creating world-class schools.

Here’s what the old system produced after the injection of nearly $2 billion over the last ten years:

  • Only 32% of the 2015 graduating class who took the ACT test are considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science. ACT test scores have barely changed.
  • Only 38% of 4th grade students are Proficient in Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test that the Kansas Department of Education declared to be valid and reliable in a November 1, 2011 press release.
  • Low Income 4th graders are almost 2 years’ worth of learning behind others in Math (NAEP).
  • Only 24% of Low Income 8th graders are Proficient in Math (NAEP) and at the current pace, it will take 240 years for them to catch up to other students, only 54% of whom were Proficient on the last exam.
  • 27% of students who graduated from Kansas high schools in 2013 and attended university in Kansas signed up for remedial training (Kansas Board of Regents); no data is available on students who went out of state or attended a private college.

It will always cost a lot of money to fund public education but it’s how the money is spent that makes a difference — not how much. For example, Instruction spending accounts for just 55% of total education spending; $2 billion and ten years ago it was 54%. Here’s another discouraging fact: enrollment increased by 4% over the last ten years, while classroom teacher employment increased by 5% and non-teacher employment increased by 10%.

Outcomes apparently don’t really matter to KCEG and others (including many school districts and their taxpayer-paid lawyers) who continue to say there was nothing wrong with the old system … it just needed more money! Just look at what happened when more money was poured into the system.

Scores barely changed while per-pupil spending jumped from $6,985 per pupil to an estimated $13,343 last year, which is $3,223 more per-pupil than if funding had been increased for inflation since 1998. Reading proficiency remains below 40% and Math Proficiency is still less than 50%.

This is not an indictment of the many good people working hard in schools but an indictment of the old funding system. It is no one’s fault that achievement is unacceptable but it is everyone’s responsibility to acknowledge that fact and work toward a funding mechanism that puts students and outcomes first and uses efficiency savings to drive more resources to instruction and increase pay for effective teachers.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Rodger Woods of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Americans for Prosperity is one of the largest grassroots political action groups. Its motto is “Economic Freedom in Action.” Rodger Woods, deputy state director for AFP-Kansas, joins me to explain AFP’s mission and goals, and some specific issues. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 92, broadcast August 16, 2015.

AFP’s website is Americans for Prosperity.

Kansas school funding growing faster than inflation

Kansas school funding has been growing much faster inflation and enrollment, but for some, it will never be enough, and they will continue to use taxpayer money to press their monetary demands, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Even by KASB standards, school operating spending is $3.9 billion ahead of inflation

By Dave Trabert

A recent blog post by the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) Associate Executive Director Mark Tallman says “Total school district funding is, in fact, at an all-time high, expected to top $6.1 billion this year” but “… the part of school funding available for day-to-day operating costs is not keeping up with inflation and enrollment.” There are several misleading aspects to his statement and the data does not support the intended message, but let’s first give credit for the courage to contradict education officials who say funding has been cut. Bravo!

KASB’s definition of operating costs does not comport with the official definition used by the Kansas Department of Education or the U.S. Department of Education1, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s correct. Let’s also assume that their definition of current operating funding represents the amount needed to efficiently operate schools and achieve the required outcomes, even though the facts refute any such claim.

By increasing the KASB-defined operating spending for inflation (the calculation for 2006 is $6,928 times (191.41 ÷ 185.14) = $7,162), we find that schools received a lot more money each year than if KASB’s 2005 amount had been increased each year for inflation. The margin of difference is getting closer over the next two years (if one doesn’t count all of the funding), but funding will have exceeded inflation by almost $3.9 billion since 2005.

KASB uses a different methodology in their inflation analysis. They show prior years’ spending in 2014 inflation-adjusted (constant) dollars; i.e., $X spending in 2014 has the same buying power as $Y in prior years. That methodology is common for restating buying power but it is irrelevant to the question of whether schools are or have been adequately funded.

The Kansas Constitution says the legislature must make suitable provision for the finance of public education; it does not say that schools must be given whatever they want to spend or that efficient use of taxpayer money cannot be taken into account. The honest truth is that no one knows what schools need to achieve the necessary outcomes while making efficient use of taxpayer money, because no such analysis has ever been undertaken in Kansas. We do know, however, that every Legislative Post Audit has found schools to be operating inefficiently and school superintendents openly acknowledge that they choose to spend more than is necessary in many circumstances. We also know that school districts haven’t even spent all of the money they’ve received over the last ten years, as about $400 million has been used to increase operating cash reserves.

There may be ways to demonstrate that today’s funding has less buying power than a particular point in time but that doesn’t mean that each year’s funding didn’t keep up with inflation and enrollment — as shown above, per-pupil funding as defined by KASB was $3.9 billion more than an inflationary increase.

The gap is even greater for total funding, which would have been $6 billion less over the last ten years if per-pupil funding for the 2005 school year had been increased each year for inflation. School districts received large funding increases beginning in 2006 from a Supreme Court Montoy ruling based on a cost study that has since been abandoned by the Supreme Court in Gannon.

The Shawnee County District Court may believe that schools are not adequately funded, but they ignored the Kansas Supreme Court in arriving at what amounts to little more than a political perspective. School funding has been growing much faster inflation and enrollment, but for some, it will never be enough … and they will continue to use taxpayer money to fund KASB justifications (and attorneys) for their monetary demands.


1KSDE and the U.S. Department of Education say operating expenditures “…do not include equipment (700 object codes), Capital Outlay or Bond & Interest. [700 object codes include expenditures for acquiring fixed assets, including land or existing buildings; improvements of grounds; initial equipment; additional equipment; and replacement of equipment.]”  The KASB definition also excludes Food Service and employee retirement costs but they don’t disclose that their definition is not the official definition and it also does not comport with the Kansas Supreme Court, which says all funding sources, including retirement costs, should be considered as part of adequate funding.

Public radio ignores facts, pushes rhetoric on Kansas school funding

A Kansas radio news reporter seems not to care about reporting facts about Kansas school spending. Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute reports.

Public radio ignores facts, pushes rhetoric on school funding

By Dave Trabert

The latest attempt to undermine Kansas tax reform comes from KCUR-FM and National Public Radio: “Huge income tax cuts have led to … shrinking classroom budgets for public schools.” That statement might make a captivating movie ad but the film would be classified as fiction.

The Kansas Department of Education says school funding last declined by 0.045% in the 2011 school year and has increased every year since. To put that tiny reduction in perspective, it’s the equivalent of cutting spending from $1,000.00 to $999.55. Income tax cuts hadn’t even been proposed at that point and didn’t go into effect for another eighteen months. Tax reform had nothing to do with the 2011 reduction in school funding, but why let facts get in the way of a popular tale.

The final numbers aren’t in yet, but funding for the 2015 school year just ended is estimated at about $6.1 billion and more than $13,000 per student. That would be the fourth consecutive record for total funding and the third consecutive record for per-student funding, using data from the Kansas Department of Education and the Kansas Division of the Budget.

Why do KCUR and NPR say school budgets are “slashed” and “shrinking” given this data? Because school officials say so. Seriously. No data was cited — just statements made by school officials.

The first story on KCUR-FM ran on July 2 and included this false statement: “The Legislature has cut classroom funding.” First of all, the Legislature does not set classroom funding and there is no official definition of ‘classroom funding;’ the amount that goes to Instruction (defined by the Department of Education) is determined by each local school board. On average, school districts spend about 55 cents of every education dollar on Instruction — and that ratio has remained about the same since 2005 even though total funding increased by nearly $2 billion.

Secondly, the Legislature increased funding. Administrators may not be getting as much funding as they want (in government parlance that is a “cut”) but KSDE data shows block grant funding increased last year by $142.2 million without counting KPERS and increased another $4.5 million this year. (The spreadsheets are no longer on the KSDE site but we have them for anyone interested.)

I shared this information with KCUR reporter Sam Zeff but the data apparently didn’t matter to him. He said KSDE Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis told the court that schools were getting less money and superintendents say they are getting less money, so that’s all the proof he needed. But school officials’ claims are based on getting less money than they want or feel they are entitled to receive … school officials are not saying that they are getting less money than they actually received in the previous year, but that is the message they want to send.

For example, USD 259 said the block grants cut their funding by $4.8 million last year but the district’s chief financial officer said spending was expected to increase by $87 million, or 14 percent. Only government could call that a “cut.” (See here for details.)

The reporter was even given an email from Dale Dennis (also documented in a KPI Blog post), confirming that school funding increased last year.

Mr. Zeff agreed to get together and look at the KSDE data but that meeting never occurred. Two days later, another version of the story ran on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” And just to make sure listeners got the message, there were four false references to school funding “shrinking” or being “slashed.” That story also falsely said the Kansas Legislature “…stripped teachers of tenure.” No such thing occurred. The Legislature merely said ‘due process’ procedures associated with efforts to remove a teacher would be determined by individual school districts rather than be mandated by state law. If any districts actually eliminated due process, it must be a well-kept secret; we can’t find any media stories citing elimination of due process and inquiries to various education organizations produced no results in that regard.

There was another breach of sound journalistic principles in both stories — no alternate views were included. Both stories dealt with opinions on the perceived ramifications of political actions but only one viewpoint was presented.

Reporters should be able to rely on school officials to make clear, factual statements but that still is no substitute for actual examination of hard data and the inclusion of multiple viewpoints in these plainly political stories.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Bad news from Topeka on taxes and schools, and also in Wichita. Also, a series of videos that reveal the nature of government.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The sales tax increase is harmful and not necessary. Kansas school standards are again found to be weak. The ASR water project is not meeting expectations. Then, the Independent Institute has produced a series of videos that illustrate the nature of government. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 88, broadcast July 19, 2015.

The “Love Gov” series of videos from the Independent Institute can be found here: Love Gov: From first date to mandate.

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.

This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”

The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.

Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”

Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.

The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.

But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.

Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.

The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

Kansas sales tax has disproportionate harmful effects

Kansas legislative and executive leaders must realize that a shift to consumption taxes must be accompanied by relief from its disproportionate harm to low-income households.

While Kansas legislative leaders and the governor praise the shift from income taxes to sales taxes, they ignore the severely regressive effect of sales taxes in Kansas. That is, a sales or consumption tax affects low-income families in greatest proportion relative to their incomes. The primary reason for the harshness of the Kansas sales tax is its application to food purchased in grocery stores. Few states tax food, and many of those that do apply a lower tax rate to food.

During the debate over a proposed sales tax increase in Wichita last year, I gathered data from the U.S. Census Bureau regarding expenditures on various categories for five different levels of household income. My findings were that if the city raised sales tax by one cent per dollar, the lowest income class of families would experience an increase nearly four times the magnitude as would the highest income families, measured as a percentage of after-tax income. Others produced similar results. This is the regressive nature of sales taxes.

At the national level the Fair Tax is a program whereby income taxes are replaced by consumption taxes. Proponents believe it would be a positive factor for economic growth. In recognition of the regressive nature of sales taxes, the Fair Tax plan includes a “prebate” to compensate households for the sales tax paid on necessities like food. In effect, there would be no tax on food and other necessities, up to the poverty level.

During the legislative session this year, Kansas Legislative Research told legislators that increasing the sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.50 percent would generate $164,200,000 in additional revenue to the state. This implies that a one percent increase in the sales tax rate would generate about $469 million in revenue. (This is based on static analysis, and therefore does not account for the changes in behavior that the higher sales tax would induce, however large or small the effect.)

Effect of sales tax on consumers of different income levels. Click for larger version.
Effect of sales tax on consumers of different income levels. Click for larger version.
It’s thought that the present sales tax on food results in about $390 million in tax collections. While these two values — 469 and 390 — are not equal to each other, the $469 million figure is close to the gap between revenues and expenses. (The tax bill the legislature passed will raise about $400 million, but it is widely believed the governor will have to make an additional $50 million in cuts.)

So what would have happened if the legislature had raised the sales tax by one cent per dollar and eliminated the sales tax on food? The answer is the sales tax in Kansas would be less regressive.

I modified my worksheet to allow for adjustment of the sales tax rate for general purchases, and for food separately. I gathered the results for three scenarios and present the results in a chart. I use the sales tax rates that Sedgwick County residents would experience. This includes a one cent per dollar county-wide tax in addition to the statewide rate. (Most counties and cities add to the statewide rate. The unweighted average sales tax rate for Kansas cities is 7.835 percent, based on Kansas Department of Revenue figures.)

Kansas sales tax effects by income quintile, three scenarios. The vertical distance between the lines is a measure of the degree of regressivity. It is larger for lower income households. Click for larger version.
Kansas sales tax effects by income quintile, three scenarios. The vertical distance between the lines is a measure of the degree of regressivity. It is larger for lower income households. Click for larger version.
The blue line, labeled “Sales tax at 7.15% on all purchases” is the current tax in effect in Sedgwick County. Note that the lowest quintile of households pay nearly seven percent of their after tax income in sales taxes. For the highest quintile the value is less than two percent.

The gold line (“Sales tax at 7.50% on all purchases”) represents the rates that will be in effect after July 1. Note that the vertical distance between the blue and gold lines is larger for low-income households than for high-income households, again illustrating the regressive nature of sales taxes.

The red line (“Sales tax at 8.15%, food at 0%”) illustrates the situation had the legislature raised the sales tax by one cent per dollar and eliminated the sales tax on food. Notice that the vertical distance between the red and gold lines is greatest for lower-income households, and becomes less as income increases. This means that under this policy, the sales tax is less regressive. But the Kansas Legislature did not do this. Instead, it implemented a sales tax changes that increases its regressive nature.

Kansas has a food sales tax refund program. It has been altered several times in recent years. Even if households can — and do — claim it, it doesn’t cover their likely cost of sales tax on food. At a rate of 7.50 percent, the lowest quintile of households pay an estimated $263 in sales tax, which is far above the maximum refund.

Kansas legislative leaders have said that food sales tax could be an issue to tackle next year. One proposal this year had the tax on food falling to 4.90 percent. That is welcome, and would reduce the harsh regressive nature of Kansas taxation. But Kansas would still have a high tax rate on food. Kansas legislative and executive leaders must realize that a shift to consumption taxes must be accompanied by relief from its disproportionate harm to low-income households.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Radio show host Joseph Ashby

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Radio talk show host Joseph Ashby joins host Bob Weeks to discuss his interview with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, the end of the legislative session, and Republican presidential candidates. Episode 87, broadcast June 21, 2015. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Arts funding, property taxes, uninformed officials, tax increment financing, and social security

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Is Wichita risking a Soviet-style future? A look at Wichita property taxes, uninformed and misinformed elected officials, tax increment financing, and social security. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 86, broadcast June 7, 2015.

Kansas City school district figures

The Kansas City, Kansas school district has implemented layoffs and salary cuts. Following are some charts of statistics for this district. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Click on charts for larger versions.

Spending in Kansas City school district.
Spending in Kansas City school district.
Enrollment and employment in Kansas City school district.
Enrollment and employment in Kansas City school district.
Fund balances for Kansas City school district.
Fund balances for Kansas City school district.

Kansas public school establishment ought to thank Sam Brownback

Kansas public schools ought to thank the governor and legislature for failing to give parents the power of school choice.

The public school establishment in Kansas is angry with the governor and legislature over school finance. Really, the public schools ought to be grateful for Governor Sam Brownback. In many states with conservative Republican governors, school choice programs have grown. In the summer of 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on what it called “The Year of School Choice.”

Some governors have been warriors for school choice. Not Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, however. He signed a small school choice bill when it landed on his desk. But he has not vocally advocated for expanded school choice. There are several Kansas legislators who are in favor of school choice, but not enough, certainly not in leadership.

As public schools and their unions despise any form of school choice and the accountability it provides, they should be grateful for our governor and legislature. Kansas public schools operate without much competition, and that’s the way public schools and their unions like it.

School choice in Kansas

How little school choice exists in Kansas? One implementation of school choice that is popular in some states is the charter school. According to National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Kansas has a poor charter school law. That is, Kansas law makes it difficult to start and maintain a charter school. Of the 43 states that have charter schools, Kansas ranked 42. Kansas public schools are effectively shielded from the diversity and competition that charter schools provide.

Others have also found the Kansas charter school law to be very restrictive. The Center for Education Reform found the Kansas charter school law to be the worst in the nation.

Governor Brownback signed a tax credit scholarship program. The Kansas program is small and restrictive, earning the grade of “D” from Center for Education Reform. Kansas has no school voucher program.

Altogether, Kansas parents have little power to choose schools for their children. The primary power Kansas parents have is to choose where they live. If a family can afford to, it can live in a district where the public schools are not as bad as they are in other districts. Given that these desirable districts almost always cover higher-income areas, poor parents don’t have this possibility.

School choice won’t fix everything, but it goes a long way. Here’s a portion of the 2011 Wall Street Journal article “The Year of School Choice.”

Choice by itself won’t lift U.S. K-12 education to where it needs to be. Eliminating teacher tenure and measuring teachers against student performance are also critical. Standards must be higher than they are.

But choice is essential to driving reform because it erodes the union-dominated monopoly that assigns children to schools based on where they live. Unions defend the monopoly to protect jobs for their members, but education should above all serve students and the larger goal of a society in which everyone has an opportunity to prosper.

This year’s choice gains are a major step forward, and they are due in large part to Republican gains in last fall’s elections combined with growing recognition by many Democrats that the unions are a reactionary force that is denying opportunity to millions. The ultimate goal should be to let the money follow the children to whatever school their parents want them to attend.

Kansas needs low taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In its conclusion, the paper states:

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

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

Kansas legislators: Don’t raise taxes

Letter from ALEC to Kansas lawmakers. Click to read.
Letter from ALEC to Kansas lawmakers. Click to read.
To balance the budget, there are many things Kansas lawmakers could do other than raising taxes.

In congratulating Kansas lawmakers for passing a pro-growth tax cut, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) reminds everyone that there is more than one way to balance a budget. Spending needs to be addressed:

However, as budget realities need to be addressed, the spending side of the fiscal coin is a good place to start. ALEC has conducted non-partisan research on how states can make government more efficient. In the State Budget Reform Toolkit, case studies and policy options are examined that allow the state to maintain core services of government at a lower cost. One example is to eliminate positions in state agencies that have been vacant for more than six months, or to adopt a sunset review process for state agencies, boards and commissions. These examples and many more can be found on our website for your review.

Some of the ideas in the State Budget Reform Toolkit have been considered and rejected by the Kansas Legislature. Others have not been considered, as far as I know. Most take more than one year to implement. These ideas remind us that when the Kansas Legislature and Governor Brownback cut taxes for everyone, they did not start planning for lower spending.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas legislative failure, newspaper editorials, and classical liberalism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The failure of Kansas lawmakers to reform state spending means you will pay. A newspaper editorial excuses bad behavior by government. Then: What do classical liberals and libertarians believe? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 85, broadcast May 24, 2015.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Initiative and referendum

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast May 3, 2015.

For more about this issue, see Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum and Initiative and referendum.

Kansas school weightings and effects on state aid

In making the case for more Kansas school spending, the focus on base state aid per pupil leaves out important considerations.

Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history tableMuch of the discussion surrounding school funding in Kansas has centered around base state aid per pupil. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula, and therefore an important number. But base state aid is not the only important number. Action taken by the Kansas Legislature has led to increases in state funding for schools at the same time that base state aid has fallen. Much of the increase is due to the conditions that schools say are costly, such as teaching students from low-income families or non-English speaking students.

School districts are compensated for these costs through weightings. If a district has a student who falls into certain categories — like qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — that adds a weighting in that category. The number of pupils plus the number of weightings are multiplied by base state aid to determine total state aid. 1

A large weighting — in terms of its magnitude — is the bilingual education weighting, intended to cover additional costs of non-English speaking students. This weighting was originally 20 percent. Starting with the 2005-2006 school year it was raised to 39.5 percent.

Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history. Click for larger version.
Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history. Click for larger version.
Another large weighting is the at-risk weighting, intended to cover the additional costs of teaching students from low-income families. This started at five percent. As shown in the nearby chart, it has risen by a factor of nine, reaching 45.6 percent starting with the 2008-2009 school year. This chart doesn’t include the high-density at-risk weighting. Starting with the 2006-2007 school year districts with a high concentration of at-risk students could receive an extra weighting of four percent or eight percent. Two years later the weightings were raised to six percent and ten percent. This formula was revised again in 2012 in a way that probably slightly increased the weightings.

The weightings have a large effect on school funding. For the 2004-2005 school year, base state aid was $3,863 and the at-risk weighting was ten percent. An at-risk student, therefore, generated $4,249 in funding. Other weightings might also apply.

Ten years later base state aid is $3,852 and the at-risk weighting is 45.6 percent. This generates funding of $5,609. If in a district that qualifies for the maximum high-density at-risk weighting, an additional $404 in funding is generated. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)

Kansas school spending per student, compared to base state aid, adjusted for CPI, 2014. Click for larger version.
Kansas school spending per student, compared to base state aid, adjusted for CPI, 2014. Click for larger version.
As can be seen in the charts produced from data available from the Kansas State Department of Education, the ratio of total state spending to base state aid has generally risen since the adoption of the school finance formula two decades ago. For the school year ending in 1993 the ratio was 0.7, meaning that state aid was less than base state aid. For the school year ending in 2014, the ratio was 1.85, or 2.6 times as much as in 1993. This means that while base state aid per pupil for 2014 was $3,838, total spending by the state was $7,088 per pupil.

Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014
Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas legislative failure means you pay

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Legislature has had several years to come up with plans for reforming government spending. But it didn’t do that. Now, it is most likely you will be asked to pay more taxes to compensate for the legislature’s failure. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Originally broadcast May 3, 2015.

For more on this issue, see: In Kansas, a lost legislative opportunity and Efficiency has not come to Kansas government.

In Kansas, a lost legislative opportunity

Kansas legislators are struggling to balance the state’s budget. In 2012 the legislature passed a tax cut, although it was unevenly applied. But in the intervening years, the legislature has not taken serious steps to cut state spending to match. Legislators failed to consider bills to streamline and outsource government functions, although the bills had passed in a previous session. The legislature has also failed to consider budgetary process reform as explained below in an article from May 2012.

Leaders in the Kansas legislature and executive branch tell us the only way to balance the Kansas budget this year is by raising more revenue through taxation. That may be true, as reforming spending and budgeting takes time to accomplish. We had the time. But our legislature and executive branch squandered that opportunity. Now, they ask you for more tax revenue.

This year Kansas made a leap forward in reducing income tax rates. The next step for Kansas is to reduce its spending, both to match the reduced revenue that is forecast, but also to improve the efficiency of Kansas government and leave more money in the hands of the private sector. Specifically, Kansas needs to improve its budgeting process and streamline state government.

In Kansas, like in many states, the budgeting process starts with the previous year’s spending. That is then adjusted for factors like inflation, caseloads, and policy changes that necessitate more (or rarely, less) spending. The result is that debates are waged over the increment in spending. Rarely is the base looked at to see if the spending is efficient, effective, or needed.

There are several approaches Kansas could take to improve on this process. One is zero-based budgeting. In this approach, an agency’s budget set to zero. Then, every spending proposal must have a rationale or justification for it to be added to the budget.

Zero-based budgeting can be successful, but, according to the recent paper Zero-base Budgeting in the States from National Conference of State Legislatures, it requires a large commitment from the parties involved. It also can take a lot of time and resources. Kansas could start the process with just a few agencies, and each agency could go through the process periodically, say once every five or six years. Some states have abandoned the zero-based budgeting process.

In its State Budget Reform Toolkit, American Legislative Exchange Council advocates a system called priority-based budgeting. This process starts with deciding on the core functions of state government. That, of course, can be a battle, as people have different ideas on what government should be doing.

ALEC reports that “In 2003, Washington state actually implemented priority based budgeting to close a budget deficit of $2.4 billion without raising taxes.”

The spending cuts Kansas needs to balance the budget are not large. Kansas Policy Institute has calculated that a one-time cut of 6.5 percent next year would be sufficient to bring the budget to balance.

The problem that Kansas will face in reducing state spending and streamlining its government is that there are those who are opposed. Streamlining often means eliminating programs that aren’t needed, aren’t performing as expected, or are very costly. These programs, however, all have constituencies that benefit from them — the concept of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs that public choice economics has taught us. These constituencies will be sure to let everyone know how harmful it will be to them if a program is scaled back or ended.

Streamlining also means that there may be fewer state employees. Some will say that the loss of state employees means a loss for the economy, as the state workers will no longer be receiving a paycheck and spending it. This reasoning, however, ignores the source of state workers’ pay: the taxpayers of Kansas. With fewer state employees, taxpayers will have more money to spend or invest. The problem is that it is easier to focus on the employees that may lose their jobs, as they are highly visible and they have vocal advocacy groups to watch out for them. This is an example of the seen and unseen, as explained by Henry Hazlitt.

Kansas school employees, the trend

The trend in Kansas public school employment and teacher/pupil ratios may surprise you, given the narrative presented by public schools.

“More students, but fewer teachers — Since 2009, Kansas schools have gained more than 19,000 students but have 665 fewer teachers.” (Quality at Risk: Impact of Education Cuts, Kansas Center for Economic Growth)

“Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off.” (What’s the Matter With Kansas’ Schools?, New York Times)

This is typical of the sentiment in Kansas — that there are fewer teachers since Sam Brownback became governor, and that class sizes have exploded.

Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for the interactive visualization of this data.
Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for the interactive visualization of this data.
Below is a chart of data from Kansas State Department of Education. This data shows that for the past four years employment is rising, both for teachers and certified employees. Also, the ratio of these employees to students is falling, meaning fewer pupils per employee.

Class size is not the same as pupil-teacher ratio. But if there are proportionally more teachers than students, we have to wonder why class sizes are growing. What are the teachers doing?

The story is not the same in each school district. I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in individual Kansas school districts. Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Kansas School Enrollment and Employment
Kansas School Enrollment and Employment
Kansas School Employment
Kansas School Employment
Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio
Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas revenue and spending, initiative and referendum, and rebuliding liberty

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Legislature appears ready to raise taxes instead of reforming spending. Wichita voters have used initiative and referendum, but voters can’t use it at the state level. A look at a new book “By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 83, broadcast May 3, 2015.

The Kansas revenue problem in perspective

If we take the budgetary advice of a former Kansas state budget official, we need to be ready to accept the economic stagnation that accompanied his boss’s tenure.

Writing in his blog, former Kansas budget director Duane Goossen offers his advice for fixing the Kansas budget: “The state has a revenue problem that will not fix itself. Lawmakers have to face up to the fact that they must make revenue match expenditures. Unaffordable income tax cuts caused the problem. That’s the place to look for a correction.” (Lawmakers Make It Clear: Kansas Has A Revenue Problem)

Goossen has one thing correct: revenue and expenditures must be equal, over any long period of time. The preference for Goossen, as we see, is to raise revenue to support more spending. We can’t afford tax cuts, he writes.

But this is a backwards way of looking at the relationship between government and its subjects. When someone says we can’t afford tax cuts, that presumes a few things. First, it presumes that the previous level of taxation was better than the current level.

Second, it presumes that tax cuts have a cost that can’t be afforded. The only way this is true is if we believe that the state has first claim on our incomes. The state takes what it believes it needs, and we get to keep the rest. Then if, somehow, the government is persuaded to give any of that claim back to us, this “gift” has to be paid for.

But for those who believe in self-ownership, this is nonsense. It’s the people who “give” tax money to the government, not the government who “gives” it back in the form of tax cuts. If the government cuts taxes, the government gives us nothing. It simply takes less of what is ours in the first place.

Growth of jobs in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
Growth of jobs in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
But the attitude of many government officials is the opposite. In 2006 Kansas cut taxes on business equipment and machinery. At the time, the Wichita Eagle reported: “Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, who first proposed the business machinery tax cut, agreed. ‘We’re not giving away money for the sake of giving it away,’ she said. ‘I’m hoping that the economic growth will actually help fund the school plan that we just passed.'” (emphasis added) (Lawmakers hope for growth)

Growth of gross domestic product in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
Growth of gross domestic product in Kansas and nearby states. Click for larger version.
For the former governor of Kansas, letting business firms keep a little more of the money they earn means the state is “giving it away.” By the way, Duane Goossen — who now believes the only solution for the Kansas budget is to raise taxes — was the state’s budget director when Sebelius said the state is going to “give away money” in the form of tax cuts.

If take Goossen’s advice and return to the tax rates of the Sebelius and Graves eras, let’s make sure we understand the economic growth Kansas experienced during those years. Nearby is a snapshot of Kansas job growth starting when Bill Graves became governor, along with growth in some nearby states. A chart of GDP growth starts in 1997, two years into the Graves administration. We don’t want to return to these levels of growth.

If you’d like to use the interactive visualizations of this employment and GDP data, click here for employment, and click here for GDP.

Efficiency has not come to Kansas government

Kansas state government needs to cut spending, but finds itself in a difficult situation of its own making.

The budget bill under consideration in the Kansas Legislature calls for spending $3 million for the production of an efficiency analysis review. It’s a good idea, but is too late to help the legislature balance the budget this year.

Trimming Kansas government spending is a long-term project. The legislature has looked at several bills that would help control spending, but has not passed the bills. Had they been passed when introduced, the state would be in a much better position to make reforms. But a look at the history of these bills leads us to wonder if the leaders of our state government — both in the executive and legislative branches — are really serious about controlling spending.

The three bills — explained in detail below — were in play during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions. They all passed the House of Representatives in 2011. But given that the Senate was in the hands of moderate Republicans, there was little chance that the bills would also pass the Senate. That’s what happened. Each bill died in the Senate.

Starting with the 2013 session, however, the Senate has been in conservative hands. Have the bills been reintroduced? With the exception of the efficiency analysis review mentioned above and a look at K — 12 education, I don’t believe the bills, or anything else like them, have been introduced or considered.

Both chambers of the Kansas Legislature and the governor’s mansion have been under the control of conservatives for three years, but no serious initiative to control spending has emerged, with the exception of the efficiency task force on K — 12 education. This ought to cause voters to ask if the desire and will to cut spending truly exists.

It’s curious that liberals and progressives in Kansas are opposed to efforts to increase efficiency, such as the school task force. If the government services that liberals support are truly vital, they ought to insist that they are delivered as efficiently as possible so that the greatest number may benefit to the greatest extent. But that doesn’t happen.

A simple path forward

Recently I attended a meeting where a speaker reported his observations of state workers wasting time while at work. He contrasted that to the private sector, where he said this waste is less likely to happen. Shouldn’t we investigate state agencies, looking for instances of waste, and when found, eliminate the waste, he asked? It’s a good idea, but something that I think would be difficult to accomplish.

There is an easier way to root out inefficiencies in the operations of state government — and local and federal too. That is to use the benefits of the private sector that the speaker praised. We can do this by outsourcing government functions to the private sector. Then, the work is done under the motivations that exist in the private sector.

Kansas Policy Institute produced a report in 2013 that shows how Kansas can save using the principles of privatization and outsourcing. The report is Better Service, Better Price: How privatization can streamline government, improve services, and reduce costs for Kansas taxpayers.

Reforms of this nature take some time to implement. Several years ago Kansas governmental leaders had time to start the state on a path to reform, but did not take the opportunity. Now these same leaders are considering raising taxes to balance the Kansas budget. This did not have to happen.

The bills that did not pass

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

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

Kansas Streamlining Government Act

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

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

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

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

Privatization and public-private partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 charge additional sales tax, up to an extra two cents per dollar.

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

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

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

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

Issues regarding CID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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