Perspectives may differ, but the point is the same — more government transparency leads to more citizen engagement and better outcomes in communities, states, and nations.
In this podcast, Kansas Policy Institute Vice President James Franko discusses government transparency with Seth Etter and Bob Weeks. Etter is the organizer of Open Wichita, an initiative to bring the benefits of open data and civic hacking to Wichita. Weeks blogs at Voice for Liberty in Wichita where he advocates for government transparency and accountability and uses open records requests to access, analyze and publish state and local government data. KPI maintains KansasOpenGov.org, an online data portal for state and local government data.
Listen below, or click here for this and other Kansas Policy Institute podcasts.
(Note: Based on feedback from readers, I’ve made a change in the way the change in tax collections is reported. Instead of showing 179 percent, I now show 79 percent. This expresses the value as a percentage change rather than a change in index value from 100. The meaning of the data is the same, but now it is expressed in a manner that is easier to understand and consistent with other figures in this visualization.)
Here is an interactive visualization that holds property tax data for Kansas counties from 1997 to 2013.
There are several charts, including line charts of trends and maps of data and changes in data. On the line charts, click on any single county or more to highlight. (Use Ctrl+click to add counties.)
Click here to open the visualization in a new window.
A bill has been introduced in the Kansas Senate that would end or limit taxpayer-funded lobbying.
The heart of this bill, SB 109, is “No public funds may be used directly or indirectly for lobbying. No public funds may be used to pay membership dues to an association that is engaged in lobbying the state. Public funds shall not be used for the purpose of employing or contracting for the service of any person whose duty and responsibility includes lobbying.”
Taxpayer-funding lobbying is one of the worst excesses of government. Commenting on the revelation that TARP bailout funds were spent on lobbying, David Boaz wrote:
It’s bad enough to have our tax money taken and given to banks whose mistakes should have caused them to fail. It’s adding insult to injury when they use our money — or some “other” money; money is fungible — to lobby our representatives in Congress, perhaps for even more money.
Get taxpayers’ money, hire lobbyists, get more taxpayers’ money. Nice work if you can get it.
Later in the same article he wrote: “Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for the very lobbying that seeks to suck more dollars out of the taxpayers.”
Taxpayer-funded lobbying reform has been a part of AFP-Kansas’ legislative agenda for a number of years. Back in 2007, we conducted a statewide open records request to find out just how many government entities and associations were using tax dollars to lobby the legislature for more tax dollars. We had a hard time getting answers. Many local governments were part of such associations that regularly lobby, but few were willing to recognize that it was tax dollars paying for those memberships, and tax dollars helping fund the organizations’ lobbying efforts.
Fighting the endless cycle of taxpayer-funded lobbying has been a part of this organization’s mission for years, so we welcomed news this week that the Brownback Administration is trying to do something about it. The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services is changing language to its contracts in an effort to tighten restrictions on taxpayer-funded lobbying by state contractors.
This is certainly an important step, but more can be done. AFP-Kansas will continue to push for legislation restricting taxpayer-funded lobbying in all forms. Unless we are able to achieve serious reforms, the culture of “more is never enough” under the capitol dome is sure to continue.”
Taxpayer-funded lobbying can be very expensive in two ways: First, the cost of performing the lobbying, and secondly, the cost of the government spending that the lobbyists seek.
And that lobbying can be expensive, successful or not. The lobbyist for USD 259, the Wichita public school district is paid $99,588 per year, according to records at Kansas OpenGov. Since she spends much time in Topeka (that’s where the money is), there’s surely much additional travel and lodging expense.
Oh, and she’s not really a lobbyist. That’s a crude word to use to describe someone who’s only working for the kids, as the school district tells us. Instead, she’s Director of Governmental Affairs.
Either way, we’ll all be better off if we don’t have to pay for government lobbying government.
KPI highlighted some noteworthy expenses, such as $7,148.53 on retirement clocks by the Andover school district, $232,894.00 in early retirement incentives by the Haysville school district, $24,755.47 at a Holiday Inn in San Clemente by the Topeka school district, and $2,616.60 to a Hyatt Hotel in Boston by the Coffeyville school district.
The data at KansasOpenGov is particularly welcome as it can be downloaded as csv or Excel files, which means it can be analyzed, sorted, printed, and archived in various ways. Some governmental agencies provide this data only in pdf files, which are difficult to convert to a format that can be analyzed.
While it’s good that school districts are releasing their expenditure data, there are still some transparency roadblocks. For example, in August the Wichita school district made a payment to “Commerce Bank Visa Businesscard” in the amount of $903,725.68, described as being for “Supplies.” That’s a lot of money spent under a vague and generic description.
Following is a press release from Kansas Policy Institute. It is important that citizens understand the issue of the unspent fund balances. It’s also important that they are aware of the refusal of school districts and school spending advocates to deal forthrightly with the public on this issue. It provides insight into the nature of our public schools, and why reform is so difficult. In July Dave Trabert, President of KPI, appeared before the Wichita school board to discuss these fund balances. For information on that appearance, see Wichita school district discusses unspent fund balances. For more articles on the fund balances, click on Kansas school fund balances.
Kansas Schools Start The New Year With Even More In The Bank — New Authority To Spend Now Exists
Operating Carryover Cash Reserves Increased 90% Since 2005
September 29, 2011 — Wichita — New data from the Kansas Department of Education show that Kansas public schools increased their operating carryover cash reserves by $93.7 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011. Operating cash reserves (not including capital, debt or federal funds) increased from $774.6 million to a record-high $868.3 million. The increase in operating reserves includes a first-time disclosure of $8 million in school activity funds, which are primarily used for school athletics.
“We continue to hear about schools choosing to cut classroom spending, but many districts are not spending all of their state and local tax income,” said KPI president Dave Trabert. “These funds operate much like personal checking accounts; the unencumbered balances only increase when income is greater than spending. It will be interesting to see how Kansas school districts use the new authority they have which makes it easier to spend down these balances.”
Effective July 1, 2011 school districts were permitted to transfer unencumbered carryover cash balances from a group of twelve funds to be used for any operating purpose. Some of these balances have always been available but, to the extent that restrictions existed, the new law (SB 111) expedites access by lifting all restrictions. SB 111 gives districts authority to access those funds to offset the $232 per-pupil decline in base state aid over the last two years.
Since 2005, Kansas schools have increased operating reserves by $410.1 million. The balances increased every year over that time frame, when a Kansas Supreme Court ruling forced legislators to increase school funding. Last year’s increase was the second-largest; the greatest annual increase of $112.1 million occurred in 2009. A complete, district by district breakdown is available at KansasOpenGov.org, a website operated by Kansas Policy Institute. As with all data on KansasOpenGov.org, the carryover balances were obtained through Kansas open records law from the appropriate government agency, in this case the Kansas Dept. of Education.
Trabert concluded, “As of July 1, the average Kansas school district had nearly four times the amount permitted to be transferred in the funds identified in SB 111. All but ten districts across the state could exercise the full authority of SB 111 and still have carryover cash balances. Of course, each district is faced with a unique situation but teachers and parents have a right to know that this option exists.”
Wichita downtown sites draw little interest.Wichita Business Journal: “Interest from developers in eight city-owned “catalyst” sites in downtown Wichita was minimal — unexpectedly so. ‘I was a little bit surprised how light the response was,’ says Scott Knebel, downtown revitalization manager for the city of Wichita.” With the city soliciting informal proposals for eight sites, only two proposals were received.
More flexibility for school funds.Kansas Watchdog reports that Kansas schools will now have more flexibility to spend funds that are presently stashed away in various funds. Of interest in the article is a chart showing the growth in these fund balances. School spending advocates protest that these funds are needed to because revenue doesn’t arrvie at the same time bills do, which is true. But these fund balances have been growing, because schools have not been spending all the money they’ve been given. While this bill is a good idea, schools have always been able to tap into these funds by simply contributing less to them, thereby spending down the balances. But schools have not wanted to to do this.
Growth in Kansas spending. Click for a larger view.
Despite “cuts,” spending grows. For all the talk in Kansas of budget cuts, state spending still manages to grow year after year. Kansas Watchdog is again on top of this topic, noting “Each year various adjustments push state spending above the approved budget, but in 2010 that extra spending took a big jump that will require even more spending in the future.” Of particular interest is the chart showing spending rising every year.
Sandy Springs a model.Common Sense with Paul Jacob: “Local governments suffer from a big problem: bigness. Too often they expand their scope of services, and, in so doing, progressively fail to cover even the old, core set of services. You know, like fire and police and roads and such. The solution is obvious. Mimic Sandy Springs. This suburban community north of Atlanta, Georgia, had been ill-served by Fulton County. So a few years ago the area incorporated. And, to fend off all the problems associated with the ‘do-it-all-ourselves’ mentality, the city didn’t hire on a huge staff of civil servants. Instead, it contracted out the bulk of those services in chunks. Now, the roads get paved and the streets are cleaned and the waste is removed better as well as cheaper than ever. Reason Foundation, a think tank known for its privatization emphasis, has been on the story from the beginning. A 2005 appraisal predicted that the town would become a ‘model city.’ That prophecy seems to have been on the money, and a Reason TV video emphasizes this with the shocking fact that the town ‘has no long-term liabilities.’ As the rest of the nation’s cities, counties and states lurch into insolvency, Sandy Springs shows a way out.” … The City of Wichita has had success in outsourcing the mowing of parks. Currently, the city has several dozen pieces of commercial mowing equipment at auction.
States’ war for jobs.Bloomberg Businesweek: “State and local governments eager to recover some of the more than 8 million jobs lost during the recession are giving away $70 billion in annual subsidies to companies, according to calculations by Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. States have long relied on fiscal incentives to lure businesses, or keep existing employers from decamping to other locales. Such largesse is coming under renewed scrutiny during this time of strapped budgets. State deficits could reach a combined $112 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1. ‘The tragic irony of it is that in order to pay for these things, they’re cutting other areas that really are the building blocks of jobs and economic growth,’ says Jon Shure, director of state fiscal strategies for the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. … With the national unemployment rate at 8.8 percent, the threat of a company pulling up stakes is enough to open states’ wallets. ‘States and communities are afraid to play chicken,’ says Jeff Finkle, who heads the International Economic Development Council. … Kansas has offered movie theater chain AMC Entertainment a generous incentives package to move away from Kansas City, Mo., The New York Times reported in April. Officials in Missouri are considering making a counteroffer. Neither the company nor state officials would comment. The bidding war helped prompt an Apr. 5 letter signed by 17 corporate executives asking the governors of the two states to quit offering inducements to lure businesses across state lines. ‘At a time of severe fiscal constraint the effect to the states is that one state loses tax revenue, while the other forgives it,’ the letter said. ‘The only real winner is the business who is ‘incentive shopping’ to reduce costs.'” … Governor Brownback’s economic development plan speaks of “A more uniform business tax policy that treats all businesses equally rather than the current set of rules and laws that give great benefit to a few (through heavily bureaucratic programs) and zero benefit to many.” It will be a while before we know if the state is able to stick to this plan.
Shale gas to be topic in Wichita. This Friday (may 6) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Malcolm C. Harris, Sr., Ph.D., Professor of Finance, Division of Business and Information Technology, Friends University, speaking on the topic: “Shale gas: Our energy future?” Harris also blogs at Mammon Among Friends. … “Shale gas” refers to a relatively new method of extracting natural gas, as reported in the Wall Street Journal: “We’ve always known the potential of shale; we just didn’t have the technology to get to it at a low enough cost. Now new techniques have driven down the price tag — and set the stage for shale gas to become what will be the game-changing resource of the decade. I have been studying the energy markets for 30 years, and I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionize the industry — and change the world — in the coming decades. It will prevent the rise of any new cartels. It will alter geopolitics. And it will slow the transition to renewable energy.” … Critics like the Center for American Progress warn of the dangers: “The process, which involves injecting huge volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture rock formations and release trapped gas, is becoming increasingly controversial, with concerns about possible contamination of underground drinking water supplies alongside revelations of surface water contamination by the wastewater that is a byproduct of drilling.”
Economics in one lesson this Monday. On Monday (May 9), four videos based on Henry Hazlitt’s classic work Economics in One Lesson will be shown in Wichita. The four topics included in Monday’s presentation will be The Curse of Machinery, Disbanding Troops & Bureaucrats, Who’s “Protected” by Tariffs?, and “Parity” Prices. The event is Monday (May 9) at 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. The event’s sponsor is Americans for Prosperity, Kansas. For more information on this event contact John Todd at email@example.com or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at firstname.lastname@example.org or 316-681-4415.
Voters favor cuts, not tax increases to balance budget. “A survey of Kansas voters conducted on behalf of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce found widespread support for cutting spending rather than raising taxes as the way to balance the Kansas budget. Support was also found for cutting state worker salaries, or reducing the number of state employees.” More at Kansas Chamber finds voters favor cuts, not tax increases to balance budget.
Here’s the Kansas data. “KansasOpenGov.org provides a repository of data about Kansas state and local governments, giving citizens the data they need to hold officials accountable.” More at Kansas OpenGov: Here’s the Kansas data.
ACLU leader to speak in Wichita. On Friday (February 11) the speaker at the meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club will be Doug Bonney, who is Chief Council and Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri. His topic will be “150 Years of Kansas Liberty.” This speaking invitation has caused a bit of controversy, with some Pachyderm Club members — and non-members — criticizing the selection of a speaker whose group is associated with liberal political causes. But the invitation is in line with the club’s mission of political education, as stated on the national Pachyderm website: “To promote practical political education and the dissemination of information on our political system.” Previous speakers who don’t fit the club’s Republican Party affinity have included Democrats WSU political science professor Dr. Mel Kahn and Kansas school board member Dr. Walt Chappell, and Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, whose mission is to end the war on drugs. All these speakers provided valuable information and education. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.
Information added to KansasOpenGov.org.KansasOpenGov.org, a government transparency initiative provided by the Kansas Policy Institute, has added new sections of data to its offerings. Added this week are checkbook and payroll registers for school districts in Topeka, Wichita, Great Bend, Colby, and Pittsburg. An interesting observation: Wichita has two union stewards on the payroll. The Wichita school district says the cost of compensation, benefits, etc. are reimbursed by the union, but while serving as union employees, they continue to build up seniority and earn credit towards their taxpayer-funded pensions. More information from KPI is at More districts added — taxpayers have new tools.
“The Citizen” launches. This week a new print newspaper launched covering Kansas City and the states of Kansas and Missouri. It’s available in an online version, too. Named the citizen, it describes itself as “We’re a new monthly newspaper for the Kansas City metro area. Our first issue is available right now. Are we biased? Yes — just like every other newspaper and magazine. Are we different? Yes — because we’re not afraid to admit that things like a love of freedom and a belief in personal responsibility matter, and they inform what we choose to cover. We’re free to readers and ad-supported.”
Limits on state agency advertising proposed. Kansas state treasurer Ron Estes has proposed a ban on appearances by elected officials in public service announcements using state resources 60 days before an election. This was an issue before last year’s election in November, mostly for the treasurer and secretary of state contests. Said Estes: “These public service announcements are intended to educate the citizens of Kansas on the programs available by the state to help serve their best interests. They are not intended to serve as a free campaign commercial for an incumbent before an election.” More information is here. After this issue is handled, I propose a next step: reigning in the agency websites, which functioned as campaign billboards for most elected state agency heads.
Wichita lame ducks to take junket.As The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman explains, Wichita city council members with less than a month left to serve should not be traveling to conferences whose nominal mission is to help them be better council members. But Paul Gray, Sue Schlapp and Roger Smith will do just that, based on action taken in yesterday’s council meeting. As Holman writes: “All governing boards should curb junkets for members approaching the exits. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize the air travel, hotel rooms and networking and schmoozing of elected officials whose service is all but over.”
State GOP chief to speak in Wichita. This Friday (January 7th) Amanda Adkins, who is Chair of the Kansas Republican Party, will speak at the Wichita Pachyderm Club. The topic is “Conservative Leadership Now — 2020: Building Long-term Political Infrastructure for the State of Kansas.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. Upcoming speakers include Bob Lamke, Director of the Sedgwick County Division of Public Safety on January 14th, and Ed Flentje, Professor at the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University, will be discussing a book he co-authored titled “Kansas Politics and Government” on January 21.
Kansas budget under more stress. The gap in the Kansas budget for fiscal year 2012 is now estimated at $550 million. In context, the general fund budget is around $6 billion, so the gap is about none percent of the budget. Fiscal year 2012 starts on July 1, 2011, and is the budget year the legislature will be working on when the session starts next week — although usually the real work on the budget is delayed until near the end of the session. It’s important to remember that the gap is the difference between projected revenues and desired or forecast spending. There’s nothing that says we have to spend what past plans call for.
Education and Medicaid spending protected. Governor-elect Brownback said this week that education and Medicaid will be protected from budget cuts. Furthermore, there will be no tax increase. But these two budget items are such a huge portion of Kansas spending, it’s difficult to see where the governor will find room to create a balanced budget.
Low interest rates and saving. Thomas A. Page, President of Emprise Bank in Wichita, recently wrote a letter to the Wichita Eagle in which he explained how government intervention in the economy has negative — and surely unintended — consequences: “Much has been written about the efforts of various federal agencies, specifically the Federal Reserve, to maintain interest rates at unprecedented low levels. The most frequent argument for these rates is that they will cause consumers and businesses to borrow more money, which will stimulate the economy by increasing demand. It’s not working — for many reasons. What has been ignored is the impact on the economy of lowered incomes for America’s savers, particularly retirees. Their incomes have been devastated and, consequently, so has their purchasing power.”
The chart illustrates rising fund balances carried over to the next year. It’s money that wasn’t spent. Note that for the schools that are part of the Schools for Fair Funding group that is suing the state for more money: As a group, their carryover fund balances have increased.
The carryover fund balances have been increasing, and rapidly, too. From 2009 to 2010, for all school districts in Kansas, carryover funds increased from $699,150,812 to $774,648,615. That’s an increase of 9.7 percent. From 2005 to 2010, again for all Kansas school districts, the increase is 69 percent. These numbers exclude debt service and capital outlay funds. Those funds have been mostly increasing, too.
The increase in these carryover cash balances happened at the same time schools have laid off teachers and threatened to cut programs and close schools.
School spending advocates argue that these carryover funds are necessary for various reasons, and they’re correct. Most businesses or organizations need a cushion in the bank to pay bills before revenue comes in.
But the only way the balances in these funds can grow — year after year as they have — is that schools simply aren’t spending all the money they’ve been given.
Evidence tells us, however, that the funds have been used. For the last school year, by using fund balances, schools in Kansas were able to increase spending by an estimated $320 million. Revenue to Kansas school districts declined by about $50 million, but $370 in fund balances were used to boost total spending by $320 million.
KansasOpenGov.org provides an easy-to-access repository of data about Kansas state and local governments, giving citizens the data they need to hold officials accountable.
KansasOpenGov.org is a project of the Kansas Policy Institute. This week I spoke to KPI President Dave Trabert and received a demonstration of the website and some ways it can be used.
On its opening page, KansasOpenGov.org displays a map of Kansas, showing the county boundaries. As you roll the pointer over each county, data about taxes and population appears. Clicking on a county displays a table of tax and population data for the last 12 years.
Many subject areas of KansasOpenGov.org allow you to search the database in your own way, but also provide pre-defined reports and charts that can be accessed with one click. For example, under “Pay and Benefits” there are two such reports, showing state employees earning $100,000 or more, and another showing overtime pay.
The overtime pay report holds some interesting numbers, as shown in the accompanying video walkthrough. Some employees are earning a lot in overtime. Trabert said: “When government says we couldn’t possibly spend any less — as we heard from the governor and others in the last session in order to justify a tax increase — when you have people who sit behind desks such as planners and program consultants earning over $30,000 in overtime — it begs the question: How close are you looking?”
High overtime expenses may mean that agencies should look to hire additional employees rather than paying expensive overtime. Some jobs, such as highway patrol officers, are stressful, and high overtime earnings may mean employees are working long hours. This may be unfair to them as well as unproductive.
Another subject area of KansasOpenGov.org is school district revenue and spending. This data is supplied by the Kansas State Department of Education, which in turn gets data from school districts. The “District Comparison Tool” displays two charts, side-by-side, and visitors can select different districts to be shown in each chart.
KansasOpenGov.org has added some additional data, such as an indication for each school district as to whether it has joined Schools for Fair Funding, the organization that is suing the state for more funding. This allows users to compare these schools with all schools. Interestingly, the SFFF schools receive substantially more state and federal funding (on a per-pupil basis) than the statewide average for all Kansas schools. The SFFF schools receive less local funding, however. But overall, they received more funding than the average school district.
Other insight that can be found at KansasOpenGov.org is the fact that schools increased their contingency fund balances last year at the same time they laid off teachers and other staff. Again, this lead Trabert to question the claims of spenders, this time the schools: “What we want to show is that when people say we can’t spend any less, you’re hurting the kids, and they’re asking for a tax increase: taxpayers have the right to know the facts. … The state has the right to justify the spending, but people don’t get a chance to ask for the justification if they don’t know the facts.”
Growth in Kansas property taxes. Click for a larger view.
The section on property taxes lets visitors create charts for each county showing the growth in taxes, inflation, and population. For most counties, and for the state as a whole, taxes increase much faster than inflation or population.
Some of the data the system makes available requires additional explanation. For example, looking at the state’s checkbook shows a check written by the treasurer for $269,940,000.00 with the notation “DEFEASED DEBT – PRINCIPAL PAYMENTS.” This language — provided to KansasOpenGov.org by the state — certainly needs explanation.
In other cases, some of the data the state supplies may be misleading at first glance. For example, a look at employees of the Legislature and their pay shows one member of the Kansas House of Representatives being paid over $106,000 in one year — way more than legislators actually earn. But this person also has another state job, and the two pay sources are combined in the data the state supplies.
KansasOpenGov.org lets users download most data to spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel, which means that the data can be further analyzed and presented.
Going forward, the system is built and operating, and Trabert said that new data will be added to the database as it becomes available from the state. He also plans to add more data about individual school districts. The state refused to provide benefits costs for state employees, and Trabert hopes the state will provide this data in addition to base pay and overtime data.
According to an Associated Press article as printed in the Wichita Eagle, Kansas schools cut 816 certified staff this year, including 653 teachers. The article cites school spending advocates who warn that without additional revenue for schools, further cuts — even school closings — may happen.
But in spite of this dreary picture, Kansas schools have failed to spend all the funds at their disposal.
Kansas school carryover funds. Click for a larger view.
From 2009 to 2010, for all school districts in Kansas, carryover funds increased from $699,150,812 to $774,648,615. That’s an increase of 9.7 percent. These numbers exclude debt service and capital outlay funds. Those funds have been mostly increasing, too.
School spending advocates argue that these carryover, or unencumbered, funds are necessary for various reasons, and they’re correct. Most businesses or organizations need a cushion in the bank to pay bills before revenue comes in.
But the only way the balances in these funds can grow — year after year as they have — is that schools simply aren’t spending all the money they’ve been given. (Schools did spend some of these funds, however, in spite of claiming these funds couldn’t be spent.)
If that’s true, we have to wonder how the Wichita Eagle editorial board can claim to understand Kansas school finance. And how can journalists, legislators, the governor, school board members, parents, and taxpayers understand well enough to provide oversight and accountability?
Instead, we are to be left at the mercy of a handful of experts who are the only people who understand Kansas school finance. All of them, of course, employed by the public school bureaucracy, with a vested interest in seeing it grow at the exclusion of everything else.
That’s nonsense. But it’s the way schools like it. The less that ordinary Kansans know about schools, their financing, and their operations, the better for school spending advocates.