Tag Archives: Kansas state government

Articles about Kansas, its government, and public policy in Kansas.

Kansas should adapt statewide law to Wichita’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich States, Poor States, 2105 edition

In Rich States, Poor States, Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance, and fell in the forward-looking forecast for the second year in a row.

In the 2015 edition of Rich States, Poor States, Utah continues its streak at the top of Economic Outlook Ranking, meaning that the state is poised for growth and prosperity. Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance rankings, and fell in the forward-looking forecast.

Rich States, Poor States is produced by American Legislative Exchange Council. The authors are economist Dr. Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, who is Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Project for Economic Growth at The Heritage Foundation, and Jonathan Williams, who is vice president for the Center for State Fiscal Reform at ALEC,

Rich States, Poor States computes two measures for each state. The first is the Economic Performance Ranking, described as “a backward-looking measure based on a state’s performance on three important variables: State Gross Domestic Product, Absolute Domestic Migration, and Non-Farm Payroll Employment — all of which are highly influenced by state policy.” The process looks at the past ten years.

Economic Outlook Ranking. Click for larger version.
Economic Outlook Ranking. Click for larger version.
Looking forward, there is the Economic Outlook Ranking, “a forecast based on a state’s current standing in 15 state policy variables. Each of these factors is influenced directly by state lawmakers through the legislative process. Generally speaking, states that spend less — especially on income transfer programs, and states that tax less — particularly on productive activities such as working or investing — experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more.”

For economic performance this year, Kansas is twenty-eighth. That’s up from thirty-second last year.

In this year’s compilation for economic outlook, Kansas ranks eighteenth, down from fifteenth last year and eleventh the year before. In 2008, the first year for this measure, Kansas was twenty-ninth.

Kansas compared to other states

A nearby chart shows the Economic Outlook Ranking for Kansas and some nearby states, shown as a trend over time since 2008. The peak of Kansas in 2013 is evident, as is the decline since then.

Why Kansas fell

Rich States Poor States Kansas trends 2015 aloneKansas fell in the Economic Outlook Ranking from 2013 to 2015. To investigate why, I gathered data for Kansas from 2008 to 2015. The nearby table shows the results for 2015 and the rank among the states, with the trend since 2008 shown. A rank of one is the best ranking, so for the trend lines, an upward slope means a decline in ranking.

There are several areas that may account for the difference. One value, “Top Marginal Corporate Income Tax Rate,” did not change from 2013 to 2015, remaining at 7.00%. But the ranking for Kansas fell from 24 to 27, meaning that other states improved in this measure relative to Kansas.

For “Personal Income Tax Progressivity (change in tax liability per $1,000 of Income)” Kansas fell two positions in rank.

In “Property Tax Burden (per $1,000 of personal income)” Kansas fell three spots since 2013.

In “Sales Tax Burden (per $1,000 of personal income)” Kansas fell three spots in rank. The burden is calculated proportional to personal income.

In “Recently Legislated Tax Changes (per $1,000 of personal income)” Kansas fell one position in rank.

Kansas improved six rank positions for “Debt Service as a Share of Tax Revenue.”

Kansas remains one of the states with the most public employees, with 695.4 full-time equivalent employees per 10,000 population. This ranks forty-eighth among the states.

“Average Workers’ Compensation Costs (per $100 of payroll)” rose by one cent, and Kansas fell two spots in ranking.

Kansas has no tax and expenditure limitations, which is a disadvantage compared to other states.

How valuable is the ranking?

Correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance
Correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance
After the 2012 rankings were computed, ALEC looked retrospectively at rankings compared to actual performance. The nearby chart shows the correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance. In its discussion, ALEC concluded:

There is a distinctly positive relationship between the Rich States, Poor States’ economic outlook rankings and current and subsequent state economic health.

The formal correlation is not perfect (i.e., it is not equal to 100 percent) because there are other factors that affect a state’s economic prospects. All economists would concede this obvious point. However, the ALEC-Laffer rankings alone have a 25 to 40 percent correlation with state performance rankings. This is a very high percentage for a single variable considering the multiplicity of idiosyncratic factors that affect growth in each state — resource endowments, access to transportation, ports and other marketplaces, etc.

Rich States, Poor States compilation for Kansas. Click for larger version.
Rich States, Poor States compilation for Kansas. Click for larger version.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth: Short on facts again

The Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s latest scare tactic on education funding is filled with demonstrably inaccurate data which they use to make false claims about tax reform and the efficacy of education spending, writes David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute.

KCEG won’t document their false claims on education funding — again

By David Dorsey

The Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s latest scare tactic on education funding is filled with demonstrably inaccurate data which they use to make false claims about tax reform and the efficacy of education spending. KCEG has a long history of making inaccurate claims and declining requests for documentation (here, here, and here for example) and this time is no different.

In Kansas Prioritizes Tax Cuts Over Kids, KCEG says a reduction in state revenue has caused cuts to education and attempts to send the message that not making even bigger “investments” in education means the state doesn’t care about student outcomes. To solidify that contention by making it appear universal, KCEG points to Wisconsin as another state that cut taxes (income and property taxes) and likewise, aid to education. But as it turns out, the only thing these assertions have in common is that neither is based in reality. Here is how their false allegations stack up to the facts.

1. KCEG claim: Kansas general aid per pupil is down 2.6% (about $129) between 2013 and 2014, a percentage that is proportionate to reduction in state revenues.

Fact: According to the Kansas Department of Education website (official data) “General State Aid Per Pupil” (a KSDE definition) increased $13 between 2013 and 2014 as shown in the table below (and all aid per pupil increased $179).

2. KCEG claim: Wisconsin cut taxes which led to cuts in education spending. General aid per pupil was cut by $36 from 2013 to 2014.

Fact: A quick look at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website indicates that statewide revenue per pupil (the term in Wisconsin is “member”) shows an increase of $193 between 2013 and 2014 as shown in the table below.

And here is another fact that KCEG conveniently omitted: 2013-14 was the second consecutive year of record funding in Kansas K-12 education with $12,959 per pupil, which totals nearly $6 billion in revenue. That trend will continue with the new block grant education funding set to start next year. As KPI pointed out in this blog, total funding to education is poised to set yet another record in 2015-16.

So much for letting the truth get in the way of a highly charged contention.

KCEG relied on tax revenue data from the Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG) and education spending data from a study by the Center for Budget and Public Policy (CBPP) to make their claims. KPI reached out to KCEG, RIG, and CBPP to source and verify their data. We received no response from KCEG or CBPP, but the director of RIG stated the 2.6% reduction in revenues was likely a misinterpretation of their data. So, instead of citing original source data from Kansas state government agencies, KCEG chose to cherry-pick and manipulate data from outside sources in order to fit their narrative. And that narrative includes the false choice that lower government spending automatically precipitates a lower quality of service.  By the way, CBPP is also notorious for making false and unsubstantiated claims; see here and here for examples.

KCEG has even gone a step farther by turning this mantra into a scare tactic. They declare less money will lead to lower educational outcomes because there will be less money to the classroom. So why are the students/teachers/classroom always the targets of the fear mongers? Why always the threat of teacher layoffs? Why not administrators? Could it be that it’s not as emotionally compelling to say an assistant principal, or a curriculum director, or even a communications officer may be let go? It is well documented that schools choose not to operate efficiently, so it’s always the students who are made human budget shields.

The idea that more money leads to better outcomes simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Much has been written to discredit that claim. Perhaps this quote from a Heritage Foundation study says it best: “Continuous spending increases have not corresponded with equal improvement in American educational performance.” NAEP reading and math scores have remained flat, as have ACT scores, and quoting KCEG in a different context: “[W]e don’t have to go any further than our own backyard to see that.”

Perhaps it’s time KCEG just acknowledge their affinity for high taxes and ineffective spending and stop pretending to present data-driven conclusions.

KPI has a history of reaching out to KCEG to have a public discussion on the issues. We again welcome that chance to provide the facts about education spending so Kansans can come to their own conclusions. We invite and are willing to host KCEG to an open debate on this issue.

Figeac Aero economic development incentives

Wichita politicians, economic development officials, and civic leaders bemoan the lack of incentives Wichita can offer. A deal under consideration illustrates what is really available.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider a forgivable loan to Figeac Aero North America related to its expansion of its Wichita facility. Following is an explanation of the various incentives and benefits planned for this company.

Figeac will receive forgivable loans of $250,000 each from Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita, with the State of Kansas adding $500,00, although it is not clear if that is a grant or forgivable loan.

City documents don’t mention this, but a letter from the Kansas Department of Commerce indicates that Figeac will benefit from the Promoting Employment Across Kansas program, commonly known as PEAK. This program rebates 95 percent of the state withholding taxes back to the company. An investigation from earlier this year showed that PEAK incentive payments can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions who earns $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week (for weekly payroll), or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children earning the same salary, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

Briefcase with moneyWe don’t know how much withholding tax Figeac employees will generate. An estimate is that with 200 employees earning $40,000, averaging the two withholding scenarios illustrated above, Figeac would receive $1040 * 200 * 95% = $191,900 per year in PEAK payments.

The Department of Commerce also offers tax credits through the High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP). This rebates, in the form of tax credits, 10% of the capital investment above $1.0 million. City documents state Figeac will invest about $21,000,000, with capital investment of $7,000,000 in machinery and equipment, which should qualify for HPIP credits. This means the company would receive tax credits equal to ($7000000 – $1000000) * 10% or $600,000. It’s possible that other expenditures would qualify for these credits. Tax credits are economically equivalent to a cash grant for both the state and the recipient.

The letter from Commerce also says the state will “underwrite a portion of the company’s actual expenses for training new employees.” No dollar value is given for this.

Finally, the city is issuing Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount up to $20,680,000. The city does not lend this money to Figeac. Instead, the purpose of the IRBs is to enable property tax and sales tax forgiveness. City documents are sketchy as to the amount of tax that will be saved, but documents state “After the five year exemption period, the new improvements would generate an estimated $82,470 annually for the General Fund and $29,196 for the Debt Service Fund.” This means the city alone is forgiving $111,666 per year in taxes. City documents usually give the amount of tax that overlapping jurisdictions are abating, but this information is missing. Based on relative mill levies for the county, school district, and state, I estimate the total property tax benefit at $414,000 per year.

The IRBs also carry a sales tax exemption. The $7,000,000 in machinery and equipment would be exempt from sales tax, and possibly some of the property improvements. If Figeac spent $10,000,000 in expenditures subject to sales tax, the one-time benefit to Figeac is $715,000.

The following table summarizes the benefits.

Summary of benefits for Figeac Aero

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute Vice President and Policy Director James Franko

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute has produced a study of the effect of state and local regulation on business. James Franko of KPI discusses. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 80, broadcast April 5, 2015.

The complete study from KPI may be read here.

Study on state and local regulation released

This week Kansas Policy Institute released a study of regulation and its impact at the state and local level. This is different from most investigations of regulation, as most focus on federal regulations.

Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation coverThe study is titled “Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation.” It was conducted by the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University. Click here to view the entire document.

Following in an excerpt from the introduction by James Franko, Vice President and Policy Director at Kansas Policy Institute.

Surprising to some, the businesses interviewed did not have as much of a problem with the regulations themselves, or the need for regulations, but with their application and enforcement. Across industries and focus group sessions the key themes were clear — give businesses transparency in what regulations are being applied, how they are employed, provide flexibility in meeting those goals, and allow an opportunity for compliance.

Sometimes things can be said so often as to lose their punch and become little more than the platitudes referenced above. The findings from Hugo Wall are clear that businesses will adapt and comply with regulations if they are transparent and accountable. Many in the public can be forgiven for thinking this was already the case. Thankfully, local and state governments can ensure this happens with minimal additional expense.

A transparent and accountable regulatory regime should be considered the “low hanging fruit” of government. Individuals and communities will always land on different places along the continuum of appropriate regulation. And, a give and take will always exist between regulators and the regulated. Those two truisms, however, should do nothing to undermine the need for regulations to be applied equally, based on clear rules and interpretations, and to give each business an opportunity to comply.

School employment data shows gaps in reporting and wide variations among districts

Kansas school districts vary widely in employment ratios, and that’s not counting the unreported employees, writes David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute.

School employment data shows gaps in reporting and wide variations among districts

By David Dorsey

Kansas Policy Institute has created a state public education employment metrics report for FY 2014 and the file can be accessed here. The file contains employment totals and also five categories of pupil-per-employee ratios. Here are some highlights and analysis.

Pupils per classroom teacher

The employment metrics file shows considerable variation among the districts when it comes to the number of pupils per classroom teacher. Weskan, with an enrollment of just 92 students has a ratio of 6.2 pupils for every classroom teacher, while Spring Hill with 2,850 students has 20.5 students for every classroom teacher. Among the state’s largest districts, Shawnee Mission has the highest ratio at 17.9 and Salina is the lowest at 14.6. The state median is 13, while the mean is 15.4 pupils per classroom teacher. (KSDE excludes special education and reading specialists from their definition of classroom teaches.)

These ratios are considerably smaller than what is typically reported as classroom size. It is impossible to make an exact comparison because KSDE does not keep data on classroom size.

Administrative manager employment

As the table below shows, there is a wide range of pupils per manager* across the state. Manhattan-Ogden (USD 383) carries the distinction of having the most top-heavy administration among the state’s 20 largest districts with a ratio of 96.2 pupils per manager. Contrast that with Andover (USD 385), which has 238.7 pupils per manager. Put another way, USD 383 has 5 percent more students, but 160 percent more administrators than USD 385.

Among the biggest districts, Shawnee Mission is the most efficient with nearly twice as many pupils per manager than fellow Johnson County district Blue Valley and more than twice as many pupils per manager than Topeka. Shawnee Mission claims an even smaller administrative footprint in FY 2015 in favor of more money going toward instruction.

The following table summarizes the ranges among all districts on a per-pupil basis through the low, high, and median values for each metric.

Special Education Cooperatives and Interlocals Make Comparisons Difficult

Most school districts in Kansas enter into inter-district agreements to provide special education services in an effort to provide those services in a more cost-effective manner. According to the KSDE directory, 252 of the 286 schools districts in the state are part of what is called either a cooperative or an interlocal. Essentially, it means two or more school districts in an area pool their teaching resources to serve special education kids. This distorts the employment reporting for these two reasons:

  • About half the districts are in cooperatives that list all the employees of the cooperative in only the “home” district of that cooperative. Example: the East Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative consists of 8 districts. The home district, Paola USD 368, reports 60 special education teachers and 253 special education paraprofessionals. The other 7 districts report zero special education teachers and zero special education paraprofessionals.
  • The remaining cooperatives have been given a school district number (all in the 600s), but the number of special education teachers, paraprofessionals and other employees go unreported. According to the KSDE directory of schools there are 19 such “districts” that include 143 unified school districts. And, according to KSDE, these cooperatives have 5,284 employees, none of whom are included in state employment totals because KSDE only reports employment for unified school districts.

*”Manager” is a KPI defined category that combines the 17 KSDE administrative categories reported by all school districts (superintendents, asst. superintendents, principals, asst. principals, business managers, and directors of all other functions).

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute explains the block grants for Kansas school funding. Also: What did the school efficiency commission learn? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 79, broadcast March 22, 2015.

Kansas conservatives call for repeal of death penalty

From Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Kansas Conservatives Call for Repeal of Death Penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas 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.

Kansas slips in Tax Foundation business tax climate index

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

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

In 2014 Kansas ranked at position 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school funding still sets new record with block grant proposal

Kansas school funding is at a record high this year and is projected to rise next year, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

School funding still sets new record with block grant proposal

By Dave Trabert

You wouldn’t know it from media reports or school district newsletters, but school funding will still set another new record this year. Superintendents say they are dealing with budget cuts but that is largely government-speak for not getting as much of an increase as they would like — and media laps it up without asking how this year’s funding compares with last year.

The Kansas Department of Education (KDSE) says the proposed block grants for the current school year total $3.409 billion, but the block grants do not include state funding for Special Education or Bond and Interest aid. Including those amounts as listed in the Governor’s Budget Report puts total state aid at $3.985 billion. A few months ago, KSDE Deputy Superintendent of Finance Dale Dennis estimated Local aid at $1.652 billion and Federal aid at $510 million. That would put total taxpayer support at $6.147 billion this year and set a new funding record for the fourth consecutive year.

Funding per-pupil would be $13,262 (based on KSDE estimated enrollment of 463,500) and set a new record for the third consecutive year.

Total funding last year according to KSDE was $5.976 billion, so the revised estimate for this year represents a $171 million increase. Also of note, KSDE puts KPERS funding last year at $312 million and shows $315 million included in the block grant. That means — contrary to claims you might have heard — that almost all of the funding increase is not related to pension funding.

Here is a historical perspective on per-pupil school funding, adjusted upward for KPERS in the years prior to 2005 (when it wasn’t included in KSDE funding reports). The blue line shows actual funding and red line show what funding would have if adjusted for inflation each year. FYI, funding this year would be $1.503 billion less if it had just been increased for inflation and enrollment.

School choice and state spending on schools

States like Kansas that are struggling to balance budgets could use school choice programs as a way to save money.

When states consider implementing school choice programs, a common objection is that the state can’t afford school choice. Public school spending interest groups will tell legislators that school choice programs drain money from already under-funded public schools. School choice, they will say, is a luxury the state can’t afford, much less local school districts.

Research shows, however, that school choice programs can be constructed in a way that does not harm local school districts. Simply: A typical Kansas school district has variable costs of $8,709 per student. If such a district loses a student and associated funding, as long as that funding is less than $8,709, the district’s fiscal situation is improved. Base state aid in Kansas is $3,852, although state spending per student is $7,088 (2013 to 2014 school year). So it’s quite likely that any student who leaves a public school for any reason, including attending a private school or home school, improves the fiscal standing of the district, on a per student basis.

At the state level, a similar dynamic applies, although the reasoning is easier to follow: If the state funds that follow the child are less than average state spending per student, the state has the opportunity to save. The savings can be large, if states are willing to embrace choice programs.

Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
In the report The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?, prepared for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the author finds that from 1991 to 2011, voucher programs alone have saved state governments a cumulative $1.7 billion. While representing just a small portion of total state spending, this total is from the ten states that had voucher programs in effect at the time of the study. In 2011 about 70,000 students were in these voucher programs.

The key understanding is that when student enrollment declines — for whatever reason — schools see reduced costs. For those who deny that, there is a corollary:

Opponents claim, simplistically, that school choice drains money from the public school system. That rhetoric obscures an important fact: A public school is also relieved of a cost burden for any student switching to private school. By not acknowledging such variable cost savings, opponents implicitly argue that all public school costs are “fixed.” By extension, they then conclude that the loss of funding for a student using a voucher to transfer to a private school harms all the remaining students at the affected public school. But that argument strains credulity: If there were no savings when a public school’s enrollment declines, logic dictates there would be no additional costs for schools when their enrollment grows.

It may be that costs do not decrease (or rise) smoothly as enrollment declines: “That phenomenon reflects the reality that schools must fund classrooms, not students.” Many businesses face this cost structure and are able to adapt, and it should be no different for schools.

An important note is that as students leave a school and its cost burden falls, the school must actually take steps to reduce spending in response to the reduced cost burden it experiences.

A problem is that critics of school choice may notice that no money has been saved after school choice programs are implemented. This is because “savings are typically reallocated to other spending, either directly or indirectly.” It is not uncommon for public schools to be held fiscally harmless for declining enrollments. The net effect is that public schools are paid for students that are no longer enrolled, and that absorbs the savings due to school choice. The cost savings are there; but are still spent on schools rather than spent elsewhere, saved, or returned to taxpayers.

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.

In Kansas, resolving school district spending variances could yield savings

From Kansas Policy Institute.

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

By Dave Trabert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better outcomes at a better price in Johnson County

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Better outcomes at a better price in Johnson County:

USD 232 De Soto and USD 231 Gardner-Edgerton

By Dave Trabert

The most recent performance and spending records of Johnson County school districts serves as a good reminder that there is no relationship between high spending and high achievement. In fact, the two districts that spend the least happen to have the best outcomes on state assessments.

Students who read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension and usually perform accurately on all grade-level math tasks are best positioned for success in college and career. Disparate demographic compositions and achievement gaps distort districts’ average scores, so student cohorts must be separately compared. De Soto and Gardner-Edgerton have the highest and second-highest percentages of income-based cohorts attaining these levels in Reading and Math and also spend the least per-pupil on current operations (no capital or debt included).

The achievement gap for low income students is common across Kansas and there are also large variances in student body compositions across districts. For example, only 8.4% of Blue Valley students are considered low income (based on eligibility for free / reduced lunch) whereas as Shawnee Mission has 37.8% who qualify as low income; eligibility for free/reduced lunch is the official metric of “income” via the Kansas Department of Education. Blue Valley’s average score benefits from having very few low income students and masks the fact that other districts do as well or better on individual student groups.

De Soto’s and Gardner-Edgerton’s superior performance has great significance for taxpayers. In fact, if the other five Johnson County districts operated at the per-pupil cost of De Soto, the burden on taxpayers could be reduced by $127.1 million! Of course, while De Soto has the lowest operating cost per-student, that doesn’t mean that the district is efficient; savings across the county would be even greater if De Soto’s costs were reduced through consolidation of non-instruction services across district lines and other efficiency opportunities.

FY 2014 per-pupil spending for each Johnson County district is shown below by cost center. Click here to download these blog tables and per-pupil spending comparisons of all Johnson County school districts, showing how spending has changed since FY 2005.

STAR bonds in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas must get serious about spending

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas Streamlining Government Act

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

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

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

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

Privatization and public-private partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practically: Should you display signs in your yard?

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

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

The Kansas statute

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: That piano, the effect of school choice on school districts, and making Wichita inviting.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The purchase of a piano by a Kansas school district is a teachable moment. Then, how do school choice programs affect budgets and performance of school districts? Finally, making Wichita an inclusive and attractive community. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 75, broadcast February 15, 2015.

As lawmakers, Kansas judges should be selected democratically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, Ware writes:

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

Prospects for Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complete paper may be downloaded at no charge here.

How do school choice programs affect budgets and performance of school districts?

Opponents of school choice programs argue the programs harm school districts, both financially and in their ability to serve their remaining students. Evidence does not support this position.

If school choice programs — charter schools, vouchers, or tax credit scholarships — harmed the existing public schools, it would be a reasonable argument against school choice. Especially if the students who remain in public schools had less of an opportunity to learn.

The prevalent argument is that charter schools and other public school alternatives drain funds from public schools. That is, if a public school student chooses a charter or private school, and if the money follows the student to the other school, the public school district loses money that it otherwise would have received. Therefore, the public school district is worse off, and so too are its students.

A rebuttal is that since a public school has shed the responsibility for schooling the student, its costs should fall correspondingly. This would be true if all the costs of a public school are variable. Some costs are fixed, however, meaning they can’t be adjusted quickly — in the short run, that is. An example is the cost to maintain a classroom. If a school has one less student than the year before, it still requires the same support for utilities. One or several fewer students doesn’t mean that fewer teachers are needed.

Public schools and their lobbyists, therefore, argue that school choice programs are a financial burden to public schools. Under school choice programs, they say, public schools lose students and their accompanying funding, but the public schools retain their fixed costs.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts (cover)The question, then, is what portion of a school’s costs are variable, meaning costs that schools can adjust quickly, and what portion are fixed, meaning they can’t be adjusted quickly? Benjamin Scafidi, professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, has examined schools looking for the answer to this question. His paper The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts, published by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, holds answers to these questions.

The first question is this: What is the relation of school choice programs to school districts’ variable costs? Scafidi has endeavored to determine the breakdown between variable and fixed costs in each state. In Kansas, for the 2008 – 2009 school year, total spending per student was $11,441. Of that, Scafidi estimates $3,749, or 32.8 percent, were fixed costs. Variable costs were $7,692, or 67.2 percent. Since then spending has risen, but there’s no reason to think the allocation of costs between fixed and variable has changed materially. For the school year ending in 2014 total spending per student was $12,960. That implies fixed costs per student of $4,251 and variable costs per student of $8,709.

Now, how much money would a public school lose if a student chose, say, a private voucher school under a voucher program? In Kansas we don’t have vouchers for school choice, so we can’t answer the question directly. We do know that base state aid per pupil in Kansas is $3,852. That is the starting point for state spending per student.

In a recent presentation on this topic, Scafidi said: “Any school choice program where about $8,000 per student or less, on average, follows the child to the school of his or her choice, improves the fiscal situation of the public school district, on average, and students who remain in public schools have more resources available for their education.”

A typical Kansas school district, therefore, with variable costs of $8,709 per student, has its fiscal situation improved when it loses a student and its $3,852 in state funding.

Kansas School Finance Formula, from Kansas Policy Institute, August 2014
Kansas School Finance Formula, from Kansas Policy Institute, August 2014
Many Kansas students, however, trigger much more funding due to weightings that compensate for the purported higher costs of some situations. The largest weighting in Kansas, based on numeric magnitude, is the at-risk weighting. It adds 45.6 percent to base state aid. So if a Kansas public school loses such a student and weighting, it loses $5,608 in funding. That is far less than its variable costs of $8,709. State funding for Kansas schools in the 2013 to 2014 school year was $7,088 per student, still less than school districts’ variable costs.

I asked Scafidi what is the dividing line between variable and fixed costs? The answer is that within two or three years, schools should be able to adjust their fixed costs to be in line with their needs. This is in line with the economic and accounting reality that says in the long run, all costs are variable.

Can school districts adjust their costs quickly in response to changing enrollments? This may be a problem for the very smallest districts, those with just one or two teachers per grade, Scadifi concedes. In his paper, Scafidi illustrates two examples of districts in Georgia with just over 1,000 students making adjustments. In Kansas, there are 286 school districts. Of these, 207 have enrollment of less than 1,000 students, but only 20 percent if the state’s students are in these small districts.

School districts often dispute the contention that they are able to reduce their variable costs rapidly in response to enrollment changes. Scafidi notes that if school districts say they cannot reduce costs when they lose students, the implication is that all of their costs are fixed. If true, then schools should not receive additional funding when enrollment rises. After all, if all their costs are fixed, costs do not change with enrollment — either up or down.

We have seen that school choice programs do not harm the finances of local school districts. The second question concerns the quality of education for the students who remain in public schools.

To answer this question, we must recognize the wide variation of teacher efficacy. Some are very good, and some very poor. Further, the difference between good and bad is large. Eric A. Hanushek and others have found that very good teachers routinely produce 1.5 years of gain in achievement during an academic year. Bad teachers produce 0.5 years of gain. If a student is unfortunate enough to experience ineffective teachers two or three years in a row, the student may be so far behind as to never catch up.

What does this have to do with school choice programs? If public schools have to downsize due to students lost for any reason — including school choice programs — this gives public schools an opportunity to shed their least effective teachers. This means that students who remain in public schools have a higher likelihood of experiencing the most effective teachers.

Kansas spring elections should be moved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas school employment and spending

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: What is the trend in Kansas school employment? Then, what do citizens know about Kansas school spending? Finally, what did Milton Friedman have to say about private vs. government spending? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally boradcast November 23, 2014.

Mentioned in this excerpt:
Are Kansas classroom sizes growing?, Kansans still uninformed on school spending, and Friedman: The fallacy of the welfare state

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

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

Kansas school funding controversy is about entitlement, not need

From Kansas Policy Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas legislative resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transparency in the Kansas House of Representatives: Some success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is how much the Kansas Legislature wants Kansans to know

Not much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interns can do this.

But the Kansas Legislature doesn’t do this.

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

Ray Merrick on the gotcha factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Present but not voting: None.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin-tax or vice-tax?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lysander Spooner wrote long ago:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kansas calamity, at $15,399 per pupil

If things are so bad in Kansas schools at this level of spending, will any amount of spending satisfy school districts?

The Washington Post has presented a letter written by a schoolteacher in Wamego. Reading it, one might be excused for concluding that a massive calamity has befallen Kansas and Wamego specifically.

The letter is full of complaints: “Resources and staff are limited.” “Due to budget cuts, again, we are not able to have a full-time librarian, art teacher, technology teacher or music teacher.” “Schools are already struggling because of underfunding so adding more fiscal responsibility will only further cut programs.”

Click for larger version.
Click for larger version.
Given these complaints, we might look at the statistics for this district. Total spending for the school year that ended in 2014 was $15,399 per pupil. That’s lower than 2009, when spending was $16,154 (inflation-adjusted dollars). Spending in 2014 was up from the year before. See Kansas school teacher cuts, student ratios.

Spending supported by the state was $7,359 last year, down from $8,609 in 2009 (inflation-adjusted).

School Employment, USD 320 WamegoEmployment in this district has risen. Both the number of teachers and the number of certified employees is much higher than the 2009 — 2011 years. Correspondingly, the ratios of these employees to students has declined since then, although the pupil-teacher ratio has risen the past two years. See Kansas school spending visualization updated.

School Employment ratios, USD 320 WamegoThis school district has one certified employee for every eight pupils.

So: Some numbers are up, others are down, and some mostly unchanged. Taxpayers have to wonder, though: If a school district receives well over $15,000 per pupil each year, how much more does it want?

Kansas Democratic Party income tax reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see a few issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unemployment insurance for school bus drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Property tax for state universities proposed to increase four-fold

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the bill passes, the calculation is

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

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