Tag Archives: Public choice

Efficiency has not come to Kansas government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A simple path forward

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

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

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

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

The bills that did not pass

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

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

Kansas Streamlining Government Act

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

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

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

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

Privatization and public-private partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Public Choice’ explains much of government and politics

Public Choice - A PrimerIf you’ve wondered why government is as it is, the school of public choice economics offers insight and explanation. The Institute of Economic Affairs, a London think tank, has published Public Choice — A Primer. This short book explains the topic of public choice. By understanding it, we can learn more about how government and its actors operate.

Here’s a description of public choice from the book’s web page:

“Market failure” is a term widely used by politicians, journalists and university and A-level economics students and teachers. However, those who use the term often lack any sense of proportion about the ability of government to correct market failures. This arises from the lack of general knowledge — and the lack of coverage in economics syllabuses — of Public Choice economics.

Public Choice economics applies realistic insights about human behaviour to the process of government, and is extremely helpful for all those who have an interest in — or work in — public policy to understand this discipline. If we assumes that at least some of those involved in the political process — whether elected representatives, bureaucrats, regulators, public sector workers or electors — will act in their own self-interest rather than in the general public interest, it should give us much less confidence that the government can “correct” market failure.”

Here is the executive summary of the book:

  • Public Choice applies the methods of economics to the theory and practice of politics and government. This approach has given us important insights into the nature of democratic decision-making.
  • Just as self-interest motivates people’s private commercial choices, it also affects their communal decisions. People also “economise” as voters, lobby groups, politicians and officials, aiming to maximise the outcome they personally desire, for minimum effort. Consequently the well-developed tools of economics — such as profit and loss, price and efficiency — can be used to analyse politics too.
  • Collective decision-making is necessary in some areas. However, the fact that the market may fail to provide adequately in such areas does not necessarily mean that government can do things better. There is “government failure” too. Political decision-making is not a dispassionate pursuit of the “public interest,” but can involve a struggle between different personal and group interests.
  • There is no single “public interest” anyway. We live in a world of value-pluralism: different people have different values and different interests. Competition between competing interests is inevitable. This makes it vital to study how such competing interests and demands are resolved by the political process.
  • The self-interest of political parties lies in getting the votes they need to win power and position. They may pursue the “median voter” — the position at the centre, where voters bunch. Government officials will also have their own interests, which may include maximising their budgets.
  • In this struggle between interests, small groups with sharply focused interests have more influence in decision-making than much larger groups with more diffused concerns, such as consumers and taxpayers. The influence of interest groups may be further increased because electors are “rationally ignorant” of the political debate, knowing that their single vote is unlikely to make a difference, and that the future effects of any policy are unpredictable.
  • Because of the enormous benefits that can be won from the political process, it is rational for interest groups to spend large sums on lobbying for special privileges — an activity known as “rent seeking.”
  • Interest groups can increase their effect still further by “logrolling” — agreeing to trade votes and support each other’s favoured initiatives. These factors make interest group minorities particularly powerful in systems of representative democracy, such as legislatures.
  • In direct democracy, using mechanisms such as referenda, the majority voting rule that is commonly adopted allows just 51 per cent of the population to exploit the other 49 per cent — as in the old joke that “democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding who shall eat whom for dinner.” In representative democracies, much smaller proportions of the electorate can have undue influence.
  • Because of the problem of minorities being exploited — or minorities exploiting majorities — many Public Choice theorists argue that political decision-making needs to be constrained by constitutional rules.

The book may be purchased, or downloaded at no cost in several formats.

Again, Wichita policies are fluid

Wichita city hall promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, except when they’re not.

On July 22, 2104, a presentation to the Wichita City Council sought to assure the council and public that a proposed jobs fund created with money collected by the proposed sales tax would have policies that govern the spending of funds: “GWEDC – Finds businesses to expand, recruit, follows established policies for retention/recruitment.”

But there’s a problem. It’s difficult for governments to establish policies that will satisfy everyone. How do we know today what we’ll need five or ten years down the road? When governments change policies to fit particular circumstances, taxpayers are rightfully concerned that the alterations are to suit the needs of special people — the cronies that feed from the city hall trough of taxpayer money. When you couple in what public choice theory tells us, which is that the cronies who want money from government have a much stronger motive to succeed than the bureaucrats are motivated to protect citizens and taxpayers, we can have trouble.

This has happened before in Wichita. Last year when a project didn’t meet the (supposedly) required benefit-cost ratio, the city simply said that it didn’t apply in that case. See Wichita’s policymaking on display.

Now, Wichita seeks to modify its policies again in response to the wants and desires of one person.

Here’s the background you need to know. When the city passed a downtown development incentives policy in 2011, here’s what the city said was its goal: “The business plan recommends the development of a prudent public investment policy that is clear, predictable and transparent, maximizes public investment and enhances market-driven development.” (emphasis added)

The meeting minutes contained further elucidation: “Scott Kneibel Planning Department stated the purpose of the policy is to put in place something that is clear and predictable in terms of how the public would invest in downtown projects through partnership with the private sector. Stated that sort of statement by this governing body has not been made to date. Stated that is the purpose of this policy so that developers will know what types of investments the City of Wichita is interested in making and how the City of Wichita will make those decisions.” (emphasis added)

But as in the past, we find city proposing the change the standards in the middle of the game. Here’s an excerpt from the agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting, in which a large incentive package for the redevelopment of Union Station may be considered: “In the opinion of the evaluation team, the established criteria do not adequately address projects such as Union Station where the requested incentives do not involve City debt.”

For this project we see that city policy is being modified on the fly to meet the circumstances of a particular project. This is not necessarily bad. Entrepreneurship demands flexibility. But the city promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, and city officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government.

Can you imagine conscientious developers who want to invest in downtown Wichita, but after studying the city’s policies, realize their projects don’t conform to the city’s published standards? How many moved on to other cities, not realizing that our standards can be altered and waived?

As Wichita voters consider the value to give to promises from city hall, they should consider these episodes when the city promises there will be “established policies” for the spending of economic development funds generated by the proposed sales tax.

Wichita seeks to form entertainment district

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

Wichita Old TownThis week the Wichita City Council will consider forming an entertainment district covering greater Old Town. The purpose of the new law, according to city documents, is to help control crime in the area. Current law enforcement efforts are not effective, declares the proposed statute: “WHEREAS, the occurrence of criminal activity in the Old Town Entertainment District and areas adjacent thereto continues to occur despite law enforcement’s increased efforts and presence within this district.”

Some of the features of the proposed law are a mandatory fine of $500 for certain crimes if they occur within the Old Town Entertainment District, and the ability to “map” or prohibit offenders from entering the Old Town Entertainment District. The punishment for repeat offenses escalates rapidly. To be able to control the behavior of Wichitans with fine granularity, the proposed ordinance contains definitions of “art,” “fine art,” and “art gallery.” The capacity of a coffee shop cannot be over 100 people. An “Entertainment Establishment” is not a place that holds book readings and storytelling. (Well, I’ve been to a few book readings that were certainly not entertaining.)

While Wichita civic leaders proclaim this ordinance as a step forward, let’s examine some points.

Costs and subsidy

Recall that Old Town was built using millions in taxpayer subsidy, both on and off the books. Although the tax increment financing district has ended, subsidy still flows to Old Town. An example of off-the-books subsidy is the large police presence required to keep Old Town safe. City documents hint at this, as in this excerpt from the agenda report for Tuesday’s city council meeting: “Crime statistics reveal that crime overall has decreased in Old Town due to higher police presence.”

In 2008 Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams was quoted as saying “As Old Town changed from a warehouse district to an entertainment district, it has presented a ‘tremendous challenge’ to public safety.”

In 2006 the Wichita Eagle reported on the level of policing required in Old Town, noting “Beginning Friday night, police will put two officers on horseback in Old Town and have as many as six more officers walking through the entertainment district, he said. Currently, around the bars’ 2 a.m. closing time, about a dozen officers patrol the area.”

The challenges of policing entertainment districts are well known and not unique to Wichita’s Old Town. See Policing Entertainment Districts for a research report. The extra costs of the policing are known, too. Two examples — others are easy to find — are these:

Policing costs exceed Scottsdale bar district’s revenue. “The annual cost for policing downtown Scottsdale’s entertainment district far exceeds the amount of revenue generated from the high concentration of bars in the area, according to city figures.”

Police Asking Bars To Pay Extra For Security. “Faced with a budget deficit, the Hartford Police Department is asking some downtown bars and restaurants to help pay the overtime costs for police officers assigned to maintain order in the city’s entertainment district during the busiest nights of the week, when large crowds of partygoers pose the most risk for public safety threats.”

Despite the extra costs of policing Old Town, at least one of its property owners who has received millions in taxpayer subsidy still thought his taxes were too high. Another Old Town merchant sought and received a no-interest and low-interest loan from the city when his business was failing, despite having already received taxpayer subsidy.

Potential loss of liberties

Special districts like that proposed for Old Town give police more power. With that comes increased potential for abuse. In Kansas City, the Power & Light District has been Power and Light District Kansas City 2009-09-16 39involved in lawsuits alleging racial discrimination as reported in Class-action lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at Power & Light. The dress code there is alleged to be targeted against young urban black men.

In Wichita’s Old Town, Mike Shatz has covered past incidents. On the proposed ordinance, he notes that “Like most of the laws in Old Town that govern the behavior of the patrons, it is expected that these new ordinances, if passed, would be primarily enforced outside the few bars that still cater to a primarily minority crowd.”

On the potential for racially discriminatory application of laws, Shatz writes “Anyone familiar with police activity in [this] district knows it will be the black men who are targeted by these new laws, and the arrest statistics will prove it.” Also: “White people, on the other hand, can actually get into full-on fist fights in front of police officers without repercussion, as I and other activists witnessed outside the Pumphouse (a bar in the district) while investigating Old Town policing activities last year.” See Old Town Association seeks to drive minorities out of the district with new laws

What have we done?

Does the need for special police power and special penalties in Old Town demonstrate that we’ve created something we really don’t want? Will Wichitans across the city be forced to pay for extra police that benefit a concentrated area of town, and it alone?

Along with the establishment of the entertainment district with its special laws, we could also ask that the property owners in that district absorb its extra costs. The district is defined in the proposed statute. It would be a simple matter to identify the properties in the district and add something extra to the property tax bills. Something like this is done to support the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation with funds to promote economic development. If that can be done, it’s not unreasonable for Wichitans to ask that Old Town tax itself to pay for its unique costs.

Public Choice - A PrimerBut laws like the entertainment district ordinance are usually tied to powerful economic interests who lobby the government for special protections. It is a problem identified and studied in public choice economics. As the Wichita City Council routinely votes in favor of special interests as opposed to the public good, we can expect that the council will fully embrace this new exemplar of special laws created for special people and special interest groups.