Tag Archives: Richard Ranzau

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Election results, Kansas school employment and spending, and government planning of the economy

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges after the November election. Then, what is the trend in Kansas school employment and spending, and what do voters think has happened? Finally, do you know how to make a simple lead pencil? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 66, broadcast November 23, 2014.

Richard Ranzau campaign team 2014 primary election

Richard Ranzau, slayer of cronyism

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

Now that the result of the 2014 general election is official, Richard Ranzau has notched four consecutive election victories over candidates endorsed by the Wichita Eagle and often by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It’s interesting and useful to look back at what the Wichita Eagle wrote during each campaign as it endorsed Ranzau’s opponent.

In its endorsements for the 2010 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:

In a district reaching from downtown Wichita north to include Maize, Valley Center and Park City, Republican voters would do well to replace retiring Commissioner Kelly Parks with the commissioner he unseated in 2006, Lucy Burtnett. Her business experience and vast community involvement, as well as her understanding of the issues and thoughtful voting record during her two years on the commission, make her the pick in this primary. She would like to see a new life for the Kansas Coliseum site, perhaps including a year-round RV park, and favors the county’s continued role in Fair Fares and the National Center for Aviation Training.

The other candidate is Richard Ranzau , a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves who believes government is out of control, who would submit all tax increases to voters, and who opposes the county’s investments in air service and aviation training.

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce political action committee contributed to Burtnett.

In this election, Ranzau received 55 percent of the vote.

Then for the general election in November 2010, the Eagle editorial board wrote this:

State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, is by far the better choice in the race to replace Republican Kelly Parks, who is stepping down after one term representing the county’s north-central district. Her legislative experience, civic engagement and constituent service have prepared her for a seat on the county commission, where she wants to help attract businesses and jobs and would support efforts such as the new National Center for Aviation Training. “That’s a must,” she said. It’s a concern that Faust-Goudeau has been slow to address code violations at a house she owns, but the fact that neighbors have stepped up to help says a lot about her as a person and public servant. The first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate, Faust-Goudeau would make a hardworking and effective county commissioner.

Republican Richard Ranzau, a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves, holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views that would be disastrous for the county’s crucial efforts to support economic development and invest in affordable air service and aviation training.

In this election, Ranzau again earned 55 percent of the vote.

In the August 2014 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:

Carolyn McGinn is the clear choice to represent this district that includes part of north Wichita as well as Maize, Park City and Valley Center. McGinn served on the commission from 1998 through 2004. Since then, she has served in the Kansas Senate, including as past chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. As a result, McGinn knows state and local issues well and understands how they intersect. She is concerned about the region’s stagnant economic growth. In order to get businesses to come and grow here, the county needs a stable government structure that provides essential services, she argues. McGinn is a productive problem solver who could have an immediate positive impact on the commission.

Her opponent is incumbent Richard Ranzau, who is completing his first term. He has been a fierce advocate for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and for fiscal responsibility. But he also frequently badgers county staff and delivers monologues about federal government problems. He argued that a planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.”

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McGinn.

In this election, Ranzau received 54 percent of the vote.

For the 2014 general election, here’s what the Eagle editorial board had to say:

Democrat Melody McCray-Miller is the clear choice to represent District 4, which includes north Wichita, Maize, Park City and Valley Center. A former county commissioner and four-term state representative and a business owner, McCray-Miller understands government at both the state and local levels and how it affects communities, families and businesses. Her priorities include economic development and community livability and engagement. “I would like to put the public back in public policy,” she said, accusing her opponent of representing his ideological views and not the full district. McCray-Miller believes in a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people, focusing on “what’s best for the county.” She also would not turn down federal funds, as her opponent has voted to do, and supports using economic incentives to attract and retain businesses.

Republican incumbent Richard Ranzau is completing his first term, which has not been productive. Though he has done some good work watchdogging county spending, Ranzau frequently badgers county staff and other presenters at commission meetings. He also has used his position as an ideological platform to rant about the federal government, including by claiming that a federal planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.” McCray-Miller would be a better, more-constructive commissioner.

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McCray-Miller.

This election was closer, with Ranzau gathering 51 percent of the vote to McCray-Miller’s 49 percent.

As a private entity, the Wichita Eagle is free to print whatever it wants. So too is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce free to contribute to and endorse anyone.

But these two institutions appear to be out of touch with voters.

Do you sense a pattern? Ranzau’s opponents are thoughtful, would make hardworking and effective county commissioners, are productive problem solvers, understand government at both the state and local levels, and have a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people.

Ranzau, according to the Eagle, believes government is out of control and holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views. He frequently badgers county staff. (Believe me, they deserve scrutiny, which the Eagle calls “badgering.”) Oh, and he’s ideological, too. That simply means he has “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” As long as those ideals are oriented in favor of capitalism, economic freedom, and personal liberty, this is good. And that’s the way it is with Richard Ranzau. Would that the Wichita Eagle shared the same ideology.

I know what it is like to be on the losing side of issues year after year. Advocating for free markets and capitalism against the likes of the Wichita Eagle, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, most members of the Sedgwick County Commission, and all current members of the Wichita city council is a lonely job.

This makes it all the more remarkable that Richard Ranzau has won four consecutive elections running against not only his opponent, but also against the city’s entrenched establishment. Running against the crony establishment, that is, the establishment that campaigns against capitalism in favor of a “business-friendly” environment. The establishment that has presided over decades of sub-standard economic performance. The establishment that insisted on a sales tax that it hoped would gloss over the miserable results produced over the last two decades.

Thank goodness that defenders of capitalism are able to win an election now and then — or four in a row.

Sedgwick County Commission precinct map, November 4, 2014

Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage received by Republican candidates by precinct in the two Sedgwick County Commission districts that were contested. In district 4 (the northern district) the Republican Candidate was Richard Ranzau, with Melody McRae-Miller the Democratic Candidate. In district 5 (the southern district) the Republican and Democrat were Jim Howell and Richard Young, respectively.

To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.

Precinct Map, Sedgwick County Commission 4 and 5 2014-11-04

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Primary election results, and a look forward

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll take a look at some of the primary elections results this week. What did voters say, and what should we look for in the November general election and the future past that? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 54, broadcast August 10, 2014.

Sedgwick County Courthouse 2014-03-23

Sedgwick County elections: Commissioners

In Sedgwick County, two fiscally conservative commission candidates prevailed.

This year three of the five positions on the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners are up for election. Unlike the Wichita city Council, Sedgwick County commissioners run as members of a party, and compete in both primary and general elections. There can be independent and third-party candidates too. This year for one of the Sedgwick County commission districts the incumbent Republican ran unopposed. But in two other districts, there were spirited contests.

Sedgwick County Commission, district 4In district four, which covers north-central and northwest Wichita, Maize, Valley Center, and Park City, incumbent Richard Ranzau was challenged by Carolyn McGinn. She had held this position in the past, and then served in the Kansas Senate, an office she still holds. Ranzau is well known — notorious, we might say — for his tough line on spending taxpayer dollars. The McGinn campaign had about twice as much money to spend. A lot of that came from the people we know as Wichita’s crony capitalists, that is, people and companies who actively seek handouts from government. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed McGinn. Now, you may think of your local chamber of commerce as pro-business. And, the chamber is pro-business, no doubt about it. But pro-business is not the same as pro-capitalism. Being pro-business is not the same as being in favor of economic freedom. Being pro-business is not the same as supporting a limited, constitutional, government that protects our freedoms and property rights.

I want to stress this point. Just this week Wichita’s own Charles Koch wrote an op-ed for USA Today. After expressing concern for the weak economy and its effect on workers, he offered a plan forward. He wrote “First, we need to encourage principled entrepreneurship. Companies should earn profits by creating value for customers and acting with integrity, the opposite of today’s rampant cronyism.”

Concluding his article, Koch wrote: “Our government’s decades-long, top-down approach to job creation has failed. Its policies have made our problems worse, leaving tens of millions chronically un- or underemployed, millions of whom have given up ever finding meaningful work. In doing so, our government has not only thwarted real job creation, it also has reduced the supply and quality of goods and services that make people’s lives better and undermined the culture required to sustain a free society. When it comes to creating opportunities for all, we can do much better. It’s time to let people seek opportunities that best suit their talents, for businesses to forsake cronyism, and for government to get out of the way.”

While Charles Koch was writing primarily about the United States government, the same principles apply to local government. And Wichita’s cronies — those who seek profits through politicians and bureaucrats rather than customers — they lined up behind Carolyn McGinn in a big way. By using their generous funding, she ran a negative campaign against Richard Ranzau. He forcefully and truthfully responded to her negative ads, and I’m pleased to say that I helped in that effort.

What was the result of the election? Ranzau won with 54 percent of the vote. He now moves on to face Democrat Melody McRae-Miller in the November general election. She held this county commission seat before McGinn, and she also served in the Kansas legislature, in the House of Representatives.

Sedgwick County Commission, district 5There was also a contest in district 5, which is Derby and parts of southeast Wichita. The one-term incumbent Jim Skelton declined to run for re-election. The two Republican candidates were Jim Howell and Dion Avello. Howell has represented parts of Derby in the Kansas House of Representatives for four years. Avello has been mayor of Derby for many years. The Wichita Chamber endorsed Howell in this race. Campaign funds were close in this race, with Howell having a small edge. The result of the election was Howell winning with 63 percent of the vote. He moves on to face the Democrat in the general election, former Rose Hill Mayor Richard Young.

22-CommissionWhat do the results of these elections mean? First, there may be a shift of power on the Sedgwick County commission. Currently, commissioners Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn are often in a minority of two against the other three commissioners. It’s thought that it Howell is elected, he would often join Ranzau and Peterjohn to form a working majority of three. That could cause a change in policy at the County commission, and that’s something that the Wichita chamber and Wichita’s cronies don’t want. It will be interesting to see who the chamber and the cronies support in the general election, Ranzau or the Democrat. In 2008, when Peterjohn ran for his first term, the Wichita chamber campaigned against him, making it their most important priority in that election.

For this shift to materialize, both Ranzau and Howell must win their November elections.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004Ranzau’s victory is a defeat for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce. Besides endorsing McGinn, it made independent expenditures in her favor. This has broader implications than just one county commission district. This week the Wichita City Council voted in favor of placing a sales tax issue on the November ballot. The Wichita Chamber is strongly behind the sales tax in Wichita, and I would expect to see the chamber devote a lot of resources campaigning for its passage. Richard Ranzau is opposed to the sales tax increase. While his county commission district encompasses a lot of territory that is outside the City of Wichita, and it is only Wichita voters who will decide the sales tax issue, I think we can safely conclude that his victory paints a gloomy forecast for approval of a sales tax.

Looking even farther to the future. Ranzau’s county commission district overlaps part of Wichita city council district 5. That is currently represented by Jeff Longwell. He can’t run again because of term limits. Longwell is firmly in the grasp of Wichita’s cronies. Could Ranzau’s victory pave the way for a fiscally conservative city council candidate in district 5? That election will be next spring.

Also next spring Wichita will elect a new mayor. There are many names mentioned as candidates, including Longwell. What do the victories of Ranzau and Howell mean? What impact will the sales tax campaign and election result have on the spring elections?

24-Carolyn McGinn Key Construction 2014-07-02 01bThe Wichita Chamber and the Wichita cronies campaigned hard for Carolyn McGinn against Richard Ranzau. Well, I should clarify: They spent a lot of money on the campaign. Richard himself, his family, and his volunteers worked hard. The desire for economic freedom by Richard Ranzau and his volunteers was a more powerful force than the greed of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, Key Construction, David Burk, and Bill Warren.

Keep this in mind. The Sedgwick County Commission has very little power to initiate the type of economic development incentives that the Wichita Chamber and the cronies want. That power rests almost totally at the Wichita City Council and the Kansas Department of Commerce. Also, the county commission has limited power to stop or object to incentives. Their main voice is the ability to cancel the formation of a tax increment financing district.

So if the Wichita Chamber and the cronies are willing to intervene to such extent in the campaign for county commissioner, think what they will be willing to do in city council or mayoral contests, if they see that their grip on the really big cookie jar might be in doubt. Since the departure of Michael O’Donnell for the Kansas Senate there has been no one on the Wichita city council who questions anything the Chamber and the cronies want. Not in any serious manner, that is. We see council members making false displays of pretense now and then, but that’s all they do.

In Wichita, no difference between business and government?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences. That Wichita’s leaders in both government and business do not understand this is problematic. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. For more on this, see In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government.

Voice for Liberty radio logo for featured posts 01

Voice for Liberty Radio: Sedgwick County Commission Candidates

In this episode of Voice for Liberty Radio: Candidates for Republican party nominations in two districts for Sedgwick County Commission spoke at the Wichita Pachyderm Club on June 20, 2014.

In district 4, which is parts of northeast, north and northwest Wichita and the towns of Park City, Valley Center, and Maize, Kansas Senator Carolyn McGinn is challenging the incumbent Richard Ranzau. In district 5, which is parts of south and southeast Wichita and the town of Derby and surrounding area, Derby Mayor Dion Avello is facing Kansas Representative Jim Howell. The format of the meeting was an opening statement by each candidate followed by questions from the audience and a brief closing statement.

Here are candidates for Republican party nominations for Sedgwick County Commission at the Wichita Pachyderm Club on June 20, 2014.

Shownotes

Candidates in district 4:
Carolyn McGinn | Working For Kansas
Vote Richard Ranzau for County Commission

Candidates in district 5:
Dion Avello
State Representative Jim Howell for Sedgwick County Commissioner

Sedgwick County Kansas seal

In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government

Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences.

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition Chairman Gary Schmitt, who is also an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of GWEDC.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40″ that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”

Commissioner’s questions halt county’s plan to remove trees on private land

Sedgwick County Kansas seal

Good job, Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau. It’s always good to put the kibosh on unneeded government spending.

At stake was about $47,000, just less than the annual median household income in Sedgwick County.

County Manager William Buchanan had signed off on spending $46,685 to clear out trees on private property along Central Avenue from the entrance of housing development St. Andrew’s Place east to 143rd Street. Work was to start next week.

But questioning by County Commissioner Richard Ranzau put the kibosh on the project, and the Minneha Township now will have to pay the tab if it wants the trees gone.

“We got out in front of ourselves without doing much critical thinking, and I take full responsibility for that,” Buchanan said.

Continue reading at the Wichita Eagle.

Readers may remember my op-ed in that same newspaper from 2009:

Last year a political science professor who is a keen observer of Kansas politics told me that city or county managers shouldn’t be in their jobs more than four or five years. After that, he said, they gain too much power.

If managers are to serve their councils or commissions — instead of the other way around — sometimes a change needs to be made, just for the sake of change.

This alone is enough reason for change in the Sedgwick County manager’s office after 18 years of County Manager William Buchanan.

Continue reading this at Commission has cause to want a new manager.

Sedgwick County votes for harmful intervention

man-digging-coinsIt’s harmful when citizens are not armed with information and research. But when government officials and bureaucrats with the power to tax and plan our economies are uninformed, people suffer as our economy becomes less prosperous than it could be.

Today, in the name of creating jobs, the Sedgwick County Commission voted in favor of granting an economic development incentive to an expanding Wichita manufacturing firm. Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against the award.

The action taken today is in addition to an award by the State of Kansas, and another likely to be awarded by the Wichita City Council. See Why is business welfare necessary in Wichita? for more background.

Intervention in the economy such as this does more harm than good, as we’ll see in a moment. It’s important that we learn the facts about incentives like these, as the Wichita area has the potential to become even more dependent on incentives and subsidies as a way of economic development.

For example, the president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition recently broadcast an email with the subject heading “Investor Alert: WBJ outlines Mars Deal Development Incentives as one example of Aggressive Competition.” The email read as follows:

Dear Investors,

You are well aware of the Mars deal in Topeka and you are likely aware that no city outside the greater Kansas City Metro Area was given the opportunity to bid this project.

In my mind the take away from this Wichita Business Journal article is that our competition — local, state and international — have enormous tools to ensure economic development success.

The Mars project has the potential to receive $9.1 million in local incentives over the next five years not including the property tax abatement estimated at $10.0M.

Tim Chase

Messages like this — that we don’t have enough tools to compete — are common in Wichita. Politicians like Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer call for devoted revenue streams to fund economic development incentives.

What, though, is the track record of incentives? Those who, like myself, call for an end to their use: Don’t we want people to have jobs?

We need to decide what to believe. Should we believe our own eyes — that is, what we can easily see or are being told by our leaders — or something else?

Here’s a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Ambrosius (1989). National study of development incentives, 1969 — 1985.
Finding: No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment, thus suggesting that tax incentives were ineffective.

Trogan (1999). National study of state economic growth and development programs, 1979 — 1995.
Finding: General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).

Gabe and Kraybill (2002). 366 Ohio firms, 1993 — 1995.
Finding: Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives.

Fox and Murray (2004). Panel study of impacts of entry by 109 large firms in the 1980s.
Finding: No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy.

Edmiston (2004). Panel study of large firm entrance in Georgia, 1984 — 1998
Finding: Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%), and thus tax incentives are unlikely to be efficacious.

Hicks (2004). Panel study of gaming casinos in 15 counties (matched to 15 non-gambling counties).
Finding: No employment or income impacts associated with the opening of a large gambling facility. There is significant employment adjustment across industries.

LaFaive and Hicks (2005). Panel study of Michigan’s MEGA tax incentives, 1995 — 2004.
Finding: Tax incentives had no impact on targeted industries (wholesale and manufacturing), but did lead to a transient increase in construction employment at the cost of roughly $125,000 per job.

Hicks (2007a). Panel study of California’s EDA grants to Wal-Mart in the 1990s.
Finding: The receipt of a grant did increase the likelihood that Wal-Mart would locate within a county (about $1.2 million generated a 1% increase in the probability a county would receive a new Wal-Mart), but this had no effect on retail employment overall.

Hicks (2007b). Panel study of entry by large retailer (Cabela’s).
Finding: No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores from 1998 to 2003.

(Based on Figure 8.1: Empirical Studies of Large Firm Impacts and Tax Incentive Efficacy, in Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It, Russell S. Sobel, editor. Available here.)

In discussing this research, the authors of Unleashing Capitalism explained:

Two important empirical questions are at the heart of the debate over targeted tax incentives. The first is whether or not tax incentives actually influence firms’ location choices. The second, and perhaps more important question, is whether, in combination with firms’ location decisions, tax incentives actually lead to improved local economic performance.

We begin by noting that businesses do, in fact, seem to be responsive to state and local economic development incentives. … All of the aforementioned studies, which find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives, also conclude that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

So yes, business firms are influenced by incentives. But the cost of the incentives is greater than the benefit. This research shows, over and over, that the cost-benefit ratio analysis that decision makers use is not meaningful or reliable.

So why do we use incentives? Why do so few in government or the public understand? Continuing from Unleashing Capitalism:

Given serious doubts about the efficacy of tax incentives, why are they so popular? The answer is that businesses looking to expand their plants or to move to new locations have strong incentives to lobby for tax breaks and other subsidies that add to owners’ profits and, moreover, encouraging a bidding war between two or more state or local governments promises to increase the value of the incentives they can extract from any one of them. Politicians interested in re-election, in turn, have strong incentives to respond to private firms’ self-serving subsidy demands in order to take credit for enticing a high-profile company to town or to avoid blame for the jobs that would be lost if an existing employer moved to another location. The politicians will be supported on the tax-incentive issue by other groups having immediate financial stakes in the process, including local real estate developers, investment bankers (who float public bond issues and arrange financing for the incoming firm), and economic development officials whose livelihoods depend on success in chasing after ornaments to add to the local or state economy.

The special interests of subsidy-seeking private firms dominate the political process because voter-taxpayers are only weakly motivated to become informed about the costs of tax incentive programs and to organize in opposition to them. They see the jobs “created” at a new plant; they do not see the jobs that are lost elsewhere in the economy as a result of the higher tax burden imposed on other businesses and as a result of the economic resources reallocated from productive activities toward lobbying government to obtain these favors. Nor can they readily see the higher future tax bill they themselves will be required to pay in order to amortize and service the public debt issued to finance the subsidies diverted into the pockets of the owners of politically influential private companies.

“Politicians interested in re-election.” This describes almost all elected officials.

“Economic development officials whose livelihoods depend on success in chasing after ornaments.” This is Tim Chase and the other members of the economic development regime in Wichita.

Today, in explaining his vote in favor of granting a target economic development incentive, Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh recognized a “certain pragmatism that is required here.” He said we’re really concerned about jobs, and that jobs is the number one priority. Sometimes creating jobs requires us, he said, to compete in the practical world. It would be better if there were no incentives, he said. “But the truth of the matter is that we have to sometimes provide incentives, subsidies, abatements, whatever category it falls in, in order to compete and secure the jobs and company that we’re trying to win.”

This is the standard argument, even of politically liberal members of commissions and councils. Jobs, jobs, jobs. We don’t like to use incentives — they all say this, especially conservatives — but we learned that we must use incentives if we want jobs. This embrace of pragmatism is called “maturing in office.”

But I would ask these officials like Unruh this question: What about all the research that says incentives do more harm to jobs than good?

What do Commissioners Unruh, Skelton, and Norton believe phrases like these mean?

No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment”

Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives”

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores”

“Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%)”

These research programs illustrate the fallacy of the seen and the unseen. It is easy to see the jobs being created by economic development incentives. I do not deny that jobs are created at firms that receive incentives, at least most of the time. But these jobs are easy to see, and government makes sure we see them. We’re going to endure the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. It’s easy for news reporters to find the newly-hired and grateful workers, or to show video footage of a new manufacturing plant.

But it’s very difficult to find specific instances of the harm that government intervention produces. It is, generally, dispersed. People who lose their jobs usually don’t know the root cause of why they are now unemployed. Businesses whose sales decline often can’t figure out why.

But uncontroverted evidences tells us this is true: These incentives, along with other forms of government interventionism, do more harm than good.

We can understand the average citizen being susceptible to arguments make by the likes of GWEDC’s Chase and the three Sedgwick county commissioners that voted for this incentive. Citizens generally don’t have the education, the time, and the initiative to evaluate these matters.

But for economic development professionals and elected officials with the power to tax and spend? Not knowing this research is inexcusable, and ignoring it is deplorable.

Sedgwick County tower sale was not in citizens’ best interest

The sale of a radio tower owned by Sedgwick County reveals another case of local government not looking out for the interests of citizens and taxpayers, with the realization that the stain of cronyism is alive and well.

As a result of system upgrades, the county no longer needs a radio tower located near 77th Street North and Interstate 135. Pixius Communications, LLC made an offer to purchase the tower and the five acre tower site for $280,000. The county proceeded making arrangements for the sale, preparing a sales agreement contract between Sedgwick County and Pixius with a sales price of $280,000, along with several other legal documents necessary to support the sale. These documents are available at the agenda file for this item.

According to sources, County Manager William Buchanan supported the Pixius offer. So did commissioners Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton.

But commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn felt that the best way to sell the tower was through an auction.

Commission Chair Tim Norton, because of his receipt of campaign contributions from Pixius, Jay Maxwell (owner of Pixius), and Penny Maxwell (spouse of owner), was going to abstain from voting. (Skelton has accepted contributions from the Maxwells, but he was going to vote nonetheless.)

So there was not a majority of three votes to accept the Pixius offer. Buchanan suggested the auction. All commissioners agreed.

Now we know the results of the auction: A Florida company offered $610,000. After a sales commission ($55,000) and half of closing costs ($1,128), the county will net $553,872. That’s almost twice the price the county manager and two commissioners were willing to sell the tower for.

There’s something else: What will be the appraised value of the tower and site for tax purposes? The selling price of a property is strong evidence of its value. As a result of the auction, therefore, this property is likely to be appraised at $610,000 instead of $280,000. That’s good for those who think it’s good for government to bring in more tax revenue.

This episode is another instance where no-bid contracts and cronyism cost taxpayers. Maxwell, the almost-beneficiary of this sweetheart no-bid contract, has been the recipient of many benefits at taxpayer expense, such as tax increment financing and community improvement district taxes. He’s tried for more, but even the Wichita City Council has a limit to its cronyism, now and then. Although cronyism and no-bid contracts have been a problem at Wichita City Hall.

Interestingly, a recent KSN Television news story characterized Ranzau and Peterjohn as “hardline fiscal conservatives.” The story went on to report “Incumbent Democrat Tim Norton often sides with the two more moderate members of the commission with many votes being decided by a 3-2 margin.” Those moderate members are, of course, Unruh and Skelton.

Norton didn’t have to take sides — at least publicly — on this issue, but I’m confident that if this was not an election year for Norton, he would have voted for the original Pixius deal that we now see was a disaster for taxpayers.

In the KSN story Norton was quoted as saying “I’m a business man of many years in Wichita. I understand the business climate and job retention.”

Unruh and Skelton are also businessmen. I hope these commissioners look after their personal business with more care and concern than they have shown for the business of taxpayers.

Special interests will capture south-central Kansas planning

Special interest groups are likely to co-opt the government planning process started in south-central Kansas as these groups see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play over the next few years.

Sedgwick County has voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

The special interest groups that benefit from highway construction: They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and sphere of influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is now chairman of REAP? Special interest groups know how to play the political game.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.'”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Kansas counties decline sustainable communities planning

Two of the five Kansas counties that were asked to participate in a sustainable communities planning grant have decided not to join the effort. Of the five counties (Sedgwick, Butler, Reno, Harvey and Sumner), Butler and Sumner county commissioners voted against participation.

The REAP sustainable communities planning process is designed to, in the words of REAP, “create a long-term regional plan for ensuring the health and productivity of our local economy. The grant will support community engagement to identify common values and goals, followed by local and regional efforts to enhance economic development, connect people with jobs, reduce housing and transportation costs, ensure public safety, and use of limited public funds efficiently in the years ahead.”

Critics of government planing processes such as this are concerned that the planning process would subject us to additional control by the federal government. These are the so-called strings that are thought to accompany federal grants.

(For those who are interested in what strings look like, here’s an example of one that is relatively innocuous. A HUD document titled Program Policy Guidance OSHC-2012-01 explains “Applicants that reach a certain qualifying score under the Regional Planning Grant Program or the Community Challenge Grant Program will receive PSS designation. PSS designation provides your entity access to bonus points for selected other HUD grant programs, technical assistance, and other capacity building opportunities that will strengthen future efforts to apply to the program.” REAP has been awarded this status, as it complied with this “string.”)

When the Wichita City Council deliberated its endorsement of and participation in this program, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), asked a series of questions of Joe Yager, chief executive officer of REAP, as to whether these concerns were true. Yager said no, there are no strings accompanying the grant. But what about after the planning process is over in three years? Will the plan be forced upon us, Clendenin asked?

Yager answered no, that local governing bodies would have to vote to implement any of the ideas or programs that resulted from the plan. Nothing will be forced upon us, nothing is mandated, he said. We wold simply have a “toolkit” of things to use.

This view or attitude — that local elected officials will protect us from the harmful elements that will emerge from the plan — is dangerously naive. First, in his short time in office, Clendenin has regularly voted for expansions of government planning, power, and spending. He doesn’t stand out from most other council members, not even the Republican members (except for one), as they also regularly vote for these things.

Second, we know that after the plan is complete there will be the argument that since we have the plan, that since we spent three years and $2.2 million on the process, we might as well go ahead and implement it.

Then, there will be the future grants and undoubtedly increased local spending required to implement the plan. There is now research that looks at the effect of federal grants on future local spending. In their research paper titled Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes? Testing the Friedman-Sanford Hypothesis economists Russell S. Sobel and George R. Crowley concluded this: “Federal grants often result in states creating new programs and hiring new employees, and when the federal funding for that specific purpose is discontinued, these new state programs must either be discontinued or financed through increases in state own source taxes.”

The authors cautioned: “Far from always being an unintended consequence, some federal grants are made with the intention that states will pick up funding the program in the future.” See Federal grants increase future local spending.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau has researched the sustainable development movement, and has written a paper explaining what he found.

Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, has written extensively on government planning, especially regarding land use and transportation. His op-ed on this topic follows:

The vast majority of Americans, surveys say, aspire to live in a single-family home with a yard. The vast majority of American travel — around 85 percent — is by automobile. Yet the Obama administration thinks more Americans should live in apartments and travel on foot, bicycle, or mass transit.

To promote this idea, the administration wants to give the south central Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) the opportunity to apply for a $1.5 million grant to participate in “sustainable communities.” Also sometimes called “smart growth,” the ideas promoted by these programs are anything but sustainable or smart. (As members of REAP, the governing bodies for both Wichita and Sedgwick County endorsed this grant.)

The urban plans that come out of these kinds of programs typically call for:

  • Redesigning streets to increase traffic congestion in order to discourage people from driving;
  • Increasing subsidies to transit, bike paths, and other “alternative” forms of travel even though these alternatives are used by few people;
  • Denying owners of land on the urban fringes the right to develop their property in order to make single-family housing more expensive;
  • Subsidizing high-density, developments that combine housing with retail shops in the hope that people will walk to shopping rather than drive;
  • Rezoning neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments with zoning so strict that, if someone’s house burns down, they will have to replace it with an apartment.

My former hometown of Portland, Oregon has followed these policies for two decades, and the results have been a disaster. In their zeal to subsidize transit and high-density developments, the region’s officials have taken money from schools, libraries, fire, and police, leaving those programs starved and in disarray.

Since 1980, Portland has spent more than $3 billion building light-rail lines. Far from improving transit, the share of commuters taking transit to work has fallen from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 7.5 percent today, mainly because the region cut bus service to pay for the trains. Traffic congestion quadrupled between 1984 and 2004, which planners say was necessary to get people to ride transit.

The region’s housing policies made single-family homes so expensive that most families with children moved to distant suburbs where they can afford a house with a yard. Residents of subsidized high-density housing projects drive just about as much as anyone else in the Portland area, and developers have learned to their sorrow that if they follow planners’ guidelines in providing less parking for these projects, they will end up with high vacancy rates.

Despite these problems, Portland has received lots of positive publicity. The reason for this is simple: by forcing out families with children, inner Portland is left mainly with young singles and childless couples who eat out a lot, making Portland a Mecca for tourists who like exciting new restaurants. This makes Portland a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there unless you like noisy, congested streets.

The idea of “sustainable communities” is that planners can socially engineer people into changing their travel behavior by redesigning cities to favor pedestrians and transit over automobiles. Beyond the fact that this is an outrageous intrusion of government into people’s lives, it simply doesn’t work. Such experts as University of California economist David Brownstone and University of Southern California planning professor Genevieve Giuliano have shown that the link between urban design and driving is too weak to make a difference.

To protect livability and avoid unsustainable subsidies to transit and high-density development, Wichita, Sedgwick County, and other REAP members of south central Kansas should reject the $1.5 million grant offered by the federal government.

In Kansas, planning will be captured by special interests

The government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next few years.

This week the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot how to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Then once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

The special interest groups that benefit from highway construction: They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is a board member of REAP, and may become the next chairman? Special interest groups know how to play the political game, that’s for sure.

Sustainable development presented in Wichita

Next week the Sedgwick County Commission takes up the issue of whether to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. This is part of an initiative to replace personal freedom with government planning.

Today Tom DeWeese, President, American Policy Center, addressed members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on the topic “U.N. Agenda 21: Sustainable Development.” An audio presentation of his address is below.

An op-ed in this topic written by Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute is “Sustainable planning” not so sustainable.

An informational sheet from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation “Need to Know” series is available at Agenda 21, ICLEI, and “Sustainable Development.”

A paper on this topic written by Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau is available at Sustainable Development and U.N. Agenda 21: Economic Development or Economic Destruction?

Also, so that citizens may be informed on this issue, Americans for Prosperity, Kansas is holding an informational event on Monday April 2, from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at Spangles Restaurant, corner of Kellogg and Broadway. (If the Kansas Jayhawks make it to the NCAA basketball title game, the television broadcast doesn’t start until 8:00 pm, with tip off sometime later.) The meeting is described as follows: “On April 4, 2012 at 9:00 am on the 3rd floor of the Sedgwick County Courthouse, the Sedgwick County Commission will be holding a public hearing to consider approval of Sedgwick County’s participation as the fiscal agent on behalf of the Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Consortium with an ‘in-kind’ commitment of $120,707 to implement a Regional Plan for Sustainable Communities Grant for South Central Kansas. Public comment will be invited. Learn about the Sustainable Communities Plan for South Central Kansas. Find out how you can get involved in this issue as a citizen. Consider testifying before the County Commission. Consider attending the Commission meeting as an interested citizen.” … For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday March 29, 2012

Sustainable development. Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau writes that next week the commission will vote on the issue of sustainable development, and whether Sedgwick County should participate in a planning process. Writes Ranzau: “Sedgwick County will be voting on this issue next Wednesday, April 4th, 2012. Those of you that have concerns about this need to speak up now. Please email and call the commissioners and encourage them to vote NO on this. If you are a property owner, business owner, home owner, builder, developer, farmer, or taxpayer you should strongly oppose this agenda. Now is the time to stop this. This is President Obama’s plan to use HUD, DOT, and EPA to implement Sustainable Development/Smart Growth/UN Agenda 21.” Ranzau has written on this issue. His paper is at Sustainable Development and U.N. Agenda 21: Economic Development or Economic Destruction? Contact information for commissioners may be found at Board of County Commissioners. As of this writing the agenda and explanatory material for the April 4th meeting is not available. When it is, it can be found at the same page.

Pachyderms to feature talk on sustainable development. On a related matter, this Friday (March 30rd) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Tom DeWeese, President, American Policy Center, speaking on the topic “U.N. Agenda 21: Sustainable Development.” DeWeese is one of the nation’s leading advocates of individual liberty, free enterprise, private property rights, personal privacy, back-to-basics education and American sovereignty and independence. … The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Climate models. William Happer, professor of physics at Princeton, calls attention to the problems of modern climate science in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. He asks: “What is happening to global temperatures in reality? The answer is: almost nothing for more than 10 years. … The lack of any statistically significant warming for over a decade has made it more difficult for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its supporters to demonize the atmospheric gas CO2 which is released when fossil fuels are burned.” While there has been warming over the past two centuries, Happer warns of linking this to the activity of mankind: “There has indeed been some warming, perhaps about 0.8 degrees Celsius, since the end of the so-called Little Ice Age in the early 1800s. Some of that warming has probably come from increased amounts of CO2, but the timing of the warming — much of it before CO2 levels had increased appreciably — suggests that a substantial fraction of the warming is from natural causes that have nothing to do with mankind.” While we need high-quality science regarding the earth’s climate, the current climate models are not providing that: “It is easy to be confused about climate, because we are constantly being warned about the horrible things that will happen or are already happening as a result of mankind’s use of fossil fuels. But these ominous predictions are based on computer models. It is important to distinguish between what the climate is actually doing and what computer models predict. The observed response of the climate to more CO2 is not in good agreement with model predictions.” … The complete article in the Wall Street Journal (no subscription required) is Global Warming Models Are Wrong Again: The observed response of the climate to more CO2 is not in good agreement with predictions. … Some will discount this article because Happer’s specialty is modern optics, optical and radiofrequency spectroscopy of atoms and molecules, and spin-polarized atoms and nuclei — not climate science. But, we see the problems with modern climate science and its predictive abilities.

Shy regulators. The Obama administration is so out of touch with the public that it appears shy about publicity over its actions. The Hill reports: “The Obama administration announced landmark carbon emissions standards for new power plants Tuesday, but hardly shouted from the rooftops about them. The administration rolled out the proposal with relatively little fanfare, and President Obama — who was in South Korea at nuclear security summit — did not issue a statement about the regulation. In contrast, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued final rules to control power plant mercury emissions in December, Obama praised them as major public health protections while touting White House efforts to ensure they don’t affect power grid reliability.” … More at White House, rather quietly, advances climate change agenda.

Just say no to taxes. Those who reject tax increases under all conditions are often described unflatteringly. The New York Times house conservative David Brooks has called them “fanatics” with “no sense of moral decency.” William Voegeli, writing in City Journal explains why we should not consider higher taxes as a solution to problems. “In rejecting tax hikes, Republicans aren’t trading in fanaticism. Rather, they’re confronting a governing failure — an abiding lack of candor about what our welfare state costs — that voters grasp but Democrats refuse to admit.” … The problem is soaring spending, growing faster than the economy: “What we can say is that over the last 40 years, government revenues have kept pace with economic growth while government spending has run steadily ahead of it. … Gross Domestic Product and federal revenues, both expressed in per-capita terms and adjusted for inflation, were about two and a half times as large at the end of the period as at the beginning. Federal expenditures were three times as large.” It is welfare-state expenditures that have grown the fastest, and by far. … Voegeli lays the problem at the feet of the Democrats: “For years, the Democratic Party’s raison d’être has been to establish, defend, and expand the welfare state. The Democrats could have told us all along — forthrightly, scrupulously, and unambiguously — that their project would cost a lot of money and that, should economic growth be insufficient to pay for it, big tax increases would be necessary. Had they done so, they would be in a strong position to argue that the terms of the deal they struck with yesterday’s voters oblige today’s Americans to pay higher taxes. But that’s not what they did.” … Much more to read at Not a Penny More: The case for antitax absolutism.

Sedgwick County Commissioner to present on sustainable development

This Friday (February 17th) Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau will make a presentation regarding sustainable development, particularly the Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) and its participation in an agreement with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Sustainable Housing And Communities.

Sustainable development, sometimes called “smart growth,” is an effort to increase government’s ability to plan many areas of the economy and the personal lives of citizens. In a letter to commissioners, Sedgwick County Manager Bill Buchanan wrote that the grant will “consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

In his paper, Ranzau wrote: “Proponents of these grants often speak in general terms that make it difficult to disagree. But as they say, the devil is in the details. It is very important for you to know what they are not telling you. We all need to look beyond the fancy talk and find out what the agenda is really about. … The intent of this paper is to share information and insight about ‘sustainable development’ so that citizens and elected officials can have a more complete understanding of what the planning grants will entail and what possible consequences our communities may face if these policies are implemented.”

Ranzau’s written presentation on this topic may be found at Sustainable planning: The agenda and details.

Ranzau will present as part of the Wichita Pachyderm Club’s regular Friday luncheon meeting. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm Club meetings. The meeting starts at noon in the Wichita Petroleum Club on the top floor of the Bank of America Building at 100 N. Broadway (north side of Douglas between Topeka and Broadway). The cost of the meeting is $10, which includes a buffet lunch. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Sedgwick County commissioners vote Democratic

This morning the Sedgwick County Commission voted to select member Tim Norton of Haysville as chairman for the upcoming year. Norton, a Democrat, received the votes of two of the board’s four Republican members: Those of outgoing Chairman Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn nominated Richard Ranzau for the position, but he received only two votes.

It may be remarkable that a board with a four to one majority in one party elected a member of the minority party to serve as chair, or it may simply be a reflection of the actual ideological makeup of the board. Peterjohn and Ranzau consistently take stances and make votes that favor limited government and free markets, while Unruh and Skelton generally join with the politically-liberal Norton on most issues. The chairman is more than just a ceremonial position, as the chairman presides over commission meetings. On many agenda items, the commission is not obligated to hear testimony from citizens, although it must when there are items that have public hearings required by law. It was the practice of Kelly Parks and Peterjohn, when they served as chair, to allow anyone who appeared at meetings to speak. In his term as chair, Unruh was seen as less accommodating, although I think that anyone who really cared to was allowed to speak, sometimes with a gentle admonition to hurry along. It is unknown in what manner Norton will run the meetings while he is chair. A hint: He’s objected to the term “ObamaCare” as pejorative, so I wouldn’t use that word around the courthouse.

For Chairman Pro Tem, the commissioners selected Skelton. Ranzau’s name was placed into nomination by Peterjohn, and he received the same two votes as he did for chairman. The votes for Skelton by Norton and Unruh are surprising. Skelton’s recent behavior has been erratic, even bizarre at times. His recent appearance at the Wichita City Council (video here) brought laughter and guffaws from both the bench and the public. I got the sense, however, the people were laughing at Skelton, not with him.

Unruh’s selection for 2011 Chairman’s award

Chairman Unruh selected Visioneering Wichita as the recipient of the annual Chairman’s award. This organization is in favor of government intervention into the economy — and people’s lives — on a large and increasing scale. Most of the items on its legislative agenda involve more government spending. While Visioneering — its chair Jon Rolph, anyway — denies advocating for increased taxes, Milton Friedman has taught us that it is the level of spending that is the true measure of the size of government. The size of that Visioneering seeks to expand.

Sustainable planning: The agenda and details

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau has produced a document that explains the dangers contained with the “sustainable development” movement that is spreading across the country. Recently both the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County voted to participate in a planning grant devoted to starting the implementation of this ideology that government can plan better than markets can.

In the document Ranzau writes: “Proponents of these grants often speak in general terms that make it difficult to disagree. But as they say, the devil is in the details. It is very important for you to know what they are not telling you. We all need to look beyond the fancy talk and find out what the agenda is really about. … The intent of this paper is to share information and insight about ‘sustainable development’ so that citizens and elected officials can have a more complete understanding of what the planning grants will entail and what possible consequences our communities may face if these policies are implemented.”

One of the concerns Ranzau identifies is the attack on the automobile-based suburban lifestyle that many in Wichita and the surrounding area prefer, based on their revealed choices: “One of the most important reasons to be concerned about the agenda behind these grants is the effect it could have on housing costs and property rights. Smart Growth supporters decry suburban development (single family home with a yard) as unsustainable and work to push people into high density housing (and government transportation).”

This attitude is creeping into Wichita. At a January 2010 presentation by Goody Clancy, the planning firm that developed the plan for downtown Wichita, I reported on the attitudes expressed by planners and how they believe they know what people should want, if only the people were as smart as the planners:

At a presentation in January, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.

David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division and was the principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core.

The document holds many links to valuable resources, a timeline of sustainable planning activities, and contact information for local officials.

Sustainable Planning Grants and UN Agenda 21

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday December 9, 2011

Ethanol subsidy. According to Wichita Eagle reporting, the head of an ethanol trade group says the subsidy for ethanol will likely disappear after January 1, but the change might be good for the industry. It has to do with image, said the speaker. The subsidy the speaker mentioned is in the form of a tax credit, and is one of the programs that would be eliminated by proposed legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita. His bill would end tax credits for all forms of energy. … The production tax credit is just one of three government interventions that benefit ethanol. Besides the tax credit, we should also ask for the end of mandates for ethanol use, and an end to the tariff on imported ethanol. We also need to ask for the end of interventions aimed at benefiting the cellulosic ethanol industry, like the $132.4 million loan guarantee for such a plant in Kansas.

Cronyist Warren Buffet. “Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings company has agreed to buy a giant, 550-megawatt photovoltaic farm currently under construction in San Luis Obispo County for $2 billion, giving a huge boost to the solar industry that could spur investment by other major players.” Concludes John Hinderaker of Powerline Blog: “Meanwhile, I am warming up to the idea that Warren Buffett should pay more in taxes. I would settle for just getting his federal subsidies back.” More at Crony Capitalism, Episode #…What Are We Up To Now?

Natural gas subsidies for Pickens. While on the topic of energy and harmful subsidies, Timothy P. Carney of the Washington Examiner provides an update on H.R. 1380: New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011, or NATGAS act. The bill provides a variety of subsidies, implemented through tax credits, to producers and users of natural gas. The goal is to promote the use of natural gas as the fuel the nation uses for transportation. … Carney explains the personal financial of the bill’s backer, energy investor T. Boone Pickens. He holds options on 15 million shares of a company known as Clean Energy Fuels. These options expire on December 28th, and their value would skyrocket if the NATGAS bill can pass by then. … Carney notes the opposition to this bill from Wichita-based Koch Industries. As a large producer of fertilizer, the price of a key input — natural gas — would likely increase if NATGAS passes. But we all ought to worry about increases in the price of fertilizer, which would like lead to higher grocery prices. These price increases harm low income families hardest.

Planning grant to be topic of meeting. On Monday December 12th Americans for Prosperity Foundation will feature Sedgwick County Commission Member Richard Ranzau speaking on the topic “The $1.5 million dollar Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) HUD Sustainable Development Planning Grant: Economic Development or Economic Destruction?” Some background on this item may be found at Sedgwick County considers a planning grant. This free event is from 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. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Tilting at wind turbines. “Switching from conventional sources of electricity like coal and natural gas to renewables like wind and solar, our elected leaders tell us, will reduce pollution, advance renewable technology and spark a green jobs revolution. Is renewable energy really a green pathway to a brighter economic future? Or is it nothing more than a heavily subsidized impossible dream?” Reason TV takes a look at wind energy in the video Tilting at Wind Turbines: Should the Government Subsidize Renewable Energy? Locally, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer promotes manufacturing of wind power machinery as good for Wichita’s economic development, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback supports renewable energy standards for Kansas.

Wichita’s political class

From June.

The discussion at yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting provided an opportunity for citizens to discover the difference in the thinking of the political class and those who value limited government and capitalism.

At issue was Mid-Continent Instruments, Inc., which asked the city for a forgivable loan of $10,000. It received the same last week from Sedgwick County. According to city documents, the State of Kansas through its Department of Commerce is also contributing $503,055 in forgivable loans, sales tax exemptions, training grants, and tax credits.

At the city council meeting Clinton Coen, a young man who ran for city council earlier this year, spoke against this measure, which he called corporate welfare.

In response to Coen, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked if we should ignore companies that want to do business here, or should we allow them to leave? Implicit in the question is that the threat dangled by Mid-Continent is real: that unless the city gives them $10,000, they will expand somewhere else. How citizens and council members feel about this issue largely depends on their perceived genuineness of this threat.

When Coen recommended that the city cut spending, Clendenin said “I can guarantee you, from what I have seen, this city government has cut a tremendous amount of spending.” When pressed by Coen for examples of cuts, he demurred. Clendenin also said that the $10,000 is needed to show the city’s commitment to the company.

Perhaps coming to the rescue of her younger and less experienced colleague, Council Member Janet Miller asked City Manager Bob Layton how much has been cut from the budget, and he replied “we’ve cut over $20 million in the general fund over three years.”

In saying that, Layton is using the language and mind-set of bureaucrats and politicians. In this world, it’s a cut if spending does not rise as fast as planned or hoped for. As you can see from the accompanying chart, Wichita general fund spending has not been cut in recent years. It has risen in each of the last three years, and plans are for it to keep rising.

Wichita general fund spending

This illustrates a divide between the thinking of the political class and regular people. Blurring the distinction between plans and reality lets politicians and bureaucrats present a fiscally responsible image — they cut the budget, after all — and increase spending at the same time. It’s a message that misinforms citizens about the important facts.

Miller also praised the return on investment the city receives for its spending on economic development, citing Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research and the cost-benefit calculations it performs. These calculations take the cost of providing the incentives and compare it to the returns the city and other governmental entities receive.

What is rarely mentioned, and what I think most people would be surprised to learn, is that the “returns” used in these calculations is manifested in the form of increased tax revenue. It’s not like in the private sector, where business firms attempt to increase their sales and profits by providing a product or service that people willingly buy. No, the city increases its revenue (we can’t call it profit) by collecting more taxes.

It’s another difference between the political class and everyone else: The political class craves tax revenue.

Aside from this, the cost-benefit calculations for the city don’t include the entire cost. The cost doesn’t include the county’s contribution, the majority of which comes from residents of its largest city, which is Wichita. Then, there’s the half-million in subsidy from the state, with a large portion of that paid for by the people of Wichita.

But even if you believe these calculations, there’s the problem of right-sizing the investment. If an investment of $10,000 has such glowing returns — last week Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton called the decision a “no-brainer” — why can’t we invest more? If we really believe this investment is good, we should wonder why the city council and county commission are so timid.

Since the applicant company is located in his district, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), praised the company and the state’s incentives, and made a motion to approve the forgivable loan. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted yes.

Going forward

While the political class praises these subsidies and the companies that apply for them, not many are willing to confront the reality of the system we’re creating. Some, like O’Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, have recognized that when government is seen as eager to grant these subsidies, it prompts other companies to apply. The lure of a subsidy may cause them to arrange their business affairs so as to conform — or appear to conform — to the guidelines government has for its various subsidy programs. Companies may do this without regard to underlying economic wisdom.

We also need to recognize that besides simple greed for public money, businesses have another reason to apply for these subsidies: If a publicly-traded company doesn’t seek them, its shareholders would wonder why the company didn’t exercise its fiduciary duty to do so. But this just perpetuates the system, and so increasing amounts of economic development fall under the direction of government programs.

While most people see this rise in corporate welfare as harmful — I call it a moral hazard — the political class is pleased with this arrangement. As Meitzner said in making his motion, he was proud that Wichita “won out” over the other city Mid-Continent Instruments considered moving to.

Another harmful effect of these actions is to create a reputation for having an uncompetitive business environment. Not only must businesses of all types pay for the cost of these subsidies, some face direct competition by a government-subsidized competitor. This is the situation Wichita-area hotels face as a result of the city granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.

Even those not in direct competition face increased costs as they attempt to hire labor, buy supplies, and seek access to capital in competition with government-subsidized firms. Could this uneven competitive landscape be a factor that business firms consider in deciding where to locate and invest?

We can expect to see more government intervention in economic development and more corporate welfare. Former council member Sue Schlapp in April took a job with the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job title is “senior constituent liaison,” which I think can be better described as “customer service agent for the corporate welfare state.” Her office is in Wichita city hall.

Increasingly we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions based on incorrect and misleading information, such as claiming that the city’s general fund budget has been cut when spending has increased. Sometimes they are fed incorrect information, as in the case of a presentation at Sedgwick County Commission that bordered on fraudulent.

Sometimes, I think, officeholders just don’t care. It’s easiest to go along with the flow and not raise ripples. They participate in groundbreakings and get their photograph in the newspaper and on television that way. Which brings up an important question: why do none of our city’s mainstream media outlets report on these matters?

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday November 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street. One of the most troubling things about OWS is the anti-semitism. FreedomWorks has a video which explains. Also from FreedomWorks, president Matt Kibbe contributes a piece for the Wall Street Journal (Occupying vs. Tea Partying: Freedom and the foundations of moral behavior.). In it, he concludes: “Progressives’ burning desire to create a tea party of the left may be clouding their judgment. Even Mr. Jones has grudgingly conceded that tea partiers have out-crowd-sourced, out-organized, and out-performed the most sophisticated community organizers on the left. ‘Here’s the irony,’ he said back in July. ‘They talk rugged individualist, but they act collectively.’ He and his colleagues don’t seem to understand that communities can’t exist without respect for individual freedom. They can’t imagine how it is that millions of people located in disparate places with unique knowledge of their communities and circumstances can voluntarily cooperate and coordinate, creating something far greater and more valuable than any one individual could have done alone. In the world of the contemporary Western left, someone needs to be in charge — a benevolent bureaucrat who knows better than you do. They can’t help but build hierarchical structures — a General Assembly perhaps — because they don’t understand how freedom works.”

Johnson Controls. Rhonda Holman’s recent Wichita Eagle editorial criticized those who spoke against the award of a forgivable loan to Johnson Controls, specifically mentioning the claim by Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau that Johnson was going to move these jobs to Wichita “no matter what.” No one has disputed Ranzau. I specifically asked at the commission meeting that someone from Johnson address this assessment. The Johnson people in the audience chose not to answer. It would be helpful if someone at the newspaper or county at least pretended as through they cared about the truth of these matters. … At one time newspapers might have objected to Commission member Jim Skelton voting on this matter due to a family member working at Johnson. True, Kansas law says he was eligible to vote on the matter. Sedgwick County has no code of ethics that prohibited it, either. But Skelton could have acted as though the county had a code of ethics, and a model code of ethics says Skelton should not have voted on this matter.

Save-A-Lot store opens. Yesterday a Save-A-Lot grocery store opened in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood. This is a store that was said to be impossible to build without subsidy in the form of tax increment financing (TIF) and an extra community improvement district (CID) sales tax of two cents per dollar. The Sedgwick County Commission exercised its veto power over the TIF district, and developer developer Rob Snyder canceled his plans for the store. But someone else found a way. Said Snyder at the time to the Wichita City Council: “We have researched every possible way, how do we make this project work with the existing funding that’s available to us. … We might as well say if for some reason we can’t figure out how to get this funding to go through, there won’t be a shopping center over there.” As part of his presentation to the council Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development explained that to be eligible for TIF, developers must demonstrate a “gap,” that is, an analytical finding that conventional financing is not sufficient for the project, and public assistance is required: “We’ve done that. We know, for example, from the developer’s perspective in terms of how much they will make in lease payments from the Save-A-Lot operator, how much that is, and how much debt that will support, and how much funds the developer can raise personally for this project. That has, in fact, left a gap, and these numbers that you’ve seen today reflect what that gap is.” … This episode has severely harmed the credibility of those who plead for incentives and subsidies, and also of the city hall bureaucrats who plead their cases for them. For more see For Wichita, Save-A-Lot teaches a lesson.

Teacher pay. A look at public school teacher pay by American Enterprise Institute finds that — opposite of the myth spread by school spending advocates — teachers are paid much more than they could earn in the private sector. While teachers are paid less than private sector workers with similar college degree attainment, the course of study for teachers is less demanding than most other fields. Fringe benefits for teachers are much higher than for private sector workers. Job security, even in the face of recent layoffs, is much greater for teachers and has a value: “Consider that one-fifth of the highest-performing public school teachers in Washington, D.C., recently declined to give up even part of their job security in exchange for base salary increases of up to $20,000.” … The authors note the study is based on averages: “Our research is in terms of averages. The best public school teachers — especially those teaching difficult subjects such as math and science — may well be underpaid compared to counterparts in the private sector.” But teachers have formed unions that ensure that all teachers are paid the same without regard to ability. See Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid: Our research suggests that on average — counting salaries, benefits and job security — teachers receive about 52% more than they could in private business. … Naturally, the best way to set teacher salaries is through voluntary exchange in markets. That doesn’t happen with public school teachers.

Ranzau, Skelton to speak. This week’s meeting (November 11th) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Sedgwick County Commission Members Richard Ranzau and Jim Skelton, speaking on “What its like to be a new member of the Sedgwick County Board of County commissioners?” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. … Upcoming speakers: On November 18th: Delores Craig-Moreland, Ph.D., Wichita State University, speaking on “Systemic reasons why our country has one of the highest jail and prison incarceration rates in the world? Are all criminals created equal?” … On November 25th there will be no meeting.

Making economics come alive. On Monday November 14th Americans for Prosperity Foundation will show the video “Making Economics Come Alive” with John Stossel. Topics included in this presentation are Economics of Property Rights, Private Ownership and Conservation, Property Rights and the Status of Native Americans, Atlas Shrugged: Selfishness and the Economics of Exchange, Economics and the Military Draft, Regulation and Unintended Consequences, Regulation: Louisiana Florist, The Unintended Consequences of the Ethanol Subsidies, The Unintended Consequences of Minimum Wage Laws, Public Choice Economics and Crony Capitalism, Trade Restrictions and Crony Capitalism, Stimulus Spending and Crony Capitalism, and Political Versus Market Choices. This free event is from 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. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Economics in two minutes. In two minutes, Art Carden explains the important ideas of economics in Economics on One Foot: “Individuals strive to achieve their goals in the best ways possible, every action has a cost, incentives matter, value is determined on the margin, profits and losses help gauge value creation and destruction, and government interventions often have unintended and undesirable consequences.” … This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.

Sedgwick County considers a planning grant

This week the Sedgwick County Commission considered whether to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.

A letter from Sedgwick County Manager Bill Buchanan to commissioners said that the grant will “consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

The budget of the grant is $2,141,177 to fund the three-year plan development process, with $1,370,000 from federal funds and $771,177 of “leveraged resources” as a local match. These leveraged resources are in the form of in-kind contributions of staff time, plus $60,000 in cash.

While Sedgwick County will be the grant’s “fiscal agent,” the work will be done by Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), an umbrella organization with the mission of, according to its website: “Guide state and national actions that affect economic development in the region and adopt joint actions among member governments that enhance the regional economy.”

REAP’s members include city and county governments in a nine-county area in south-central Kansas. One of its duties is to administer the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program, the program that pays subsidies to airlines to provide service to the Wichita airport. In 2011, Sedgwick County paid $15,272 in “assessments” for its membership in REAP, while the City of Wichita paid $27,192. Governments pay smaller amounts as part of REAP’s water resources program.

The counties that are considering participating in this planning grant are Reno, Harvey, Sedgwick, Sumner, and Butler.

County documents specify the county’s in-kind contribution as $120,707. That consists of portions of the salary and benefits for four existing employees, plus $85,800 in “indirect administration costs.” There is no cash match at this time.

John Schlegel, Director of Planning for the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, told commissioners that the end product of this grant would be the development of a regional plan for sustainable development. He said that we don’t know what the plan would contain, but that the purpose of the grant program is to get regions to work together on sustainability issues. The target area of the grant is a five-county area around Sedgwick County.

He said that examples of issues would be economic development, workforce development, fiscal sustainability such as balanced budgets and spending priorities, and working together to create efficiencies in the region like joint purchasing and cost sharing.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked to see a copy of the completed application, but the application is not complete.

In his remarks, Ranzau described the application process, reading from the application document: “The applicant must show a clear connection between the need that they have identified within the region, the proposed approach to address those conditions, and the outcomes they anticipate the plan will produce.” He said that it appears that REAP will do these within the application, but the commission is being asked to approve and commit to these items without having seen them, which he described as irresponsible. He made a motion that action on the grant be delayed until these things are known.

Joe Yager, chief executive officer of REAP, said that last year’s grant application is available on the REAP website, and that is the closest thing to a draft application that is available today. This year’s application is a second year of the program. Last year the commission voted not to participate in the grant by a 3 to 2 vote.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn wondered if the new planning consortium is a duplication of existing regional authorities. He listed seven different groups, besides REAP, that are involved in planning for the region.

In further remarks, Peterjohn was concerned that smaller counties will have the same voting representation as Sedgwick County, which is many times larger than the small counties.

In response to a question from Peterjohn, Yager said that the current application is for category 1 funds only, which are for planning purposes. If REAP is successful in the application, it could apply for category 2 funds, which are for implementation of a plan.

Answering another question, Yager said that “livability principles,” which applicants must be committed to advance, are providing more transportation choices, promoting equitable and affordable housing, enhancing economic competitiveness, supporting existing communities, coordinating policies and leveraging investments, and valuing communities and neighborhoods. Peterjohn said these principles were not supplied in the information made available to commissioners.

Peterjohn said these principles sound innocuous on their face, but when details are examined, he said he could not support a “Washington-driven agenda” that could not pass the present Congress. He described this effort as part of an “administrative end-around,” baiting us with a federal grant, that will allow Washington, HUD, and EPA to “drive what we do in our community.”

The motion on deferring the item failed on a 2 to 3 vote, with Peterjohn and Ranzau voting for it.

The commission heard from three citizens. In his remarks, John Todd referenced a slide titled “Common Concerns” from a presentation given by REAP. Todd listed these concerns, which include: “A method of Social Engineering to restrict residence in the suburbs and rural areas and force Americans into city centers; a blueprint for the transformation of our society into total Federal control; will enforce Federal Sustainable Development zoning and control of local communities; will create a massive new ‘development’ bureaucracy; will drive up the cost of energy to heat and cool your home; will drive up the cost of gasoline as a way to get you out of your car; and will force you to spend thousands of dollars on your home in order to comply.”

Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity challenged the attitude of some commissioners, particularly Jim Skelton, which is that approving the planning grant does not commit us to implementing the plan. She told the commissioners “If you know you don’t like the federal government coming in and planning for you, say so now. Let’s get it over with and be upfront and honest to those involved,” referring to the other cities and counties that may participate in the grant and planning process.

She characterized the language that appears in the grant materials as meaning “more control and less liberty.”

In his remarks, Ranzau asked Schlegel what problem we will solve by participating in the grant. Schlegel answered that the purpose of the grant is to “build the greater regional capacity for regions to better compete in what is really becoming a global marketplace.” This is the end product, he said.

Ranzau said that we don’t need more planning, that we have more than enough planning at the present time. This grant, he said, would create another consortium that is unaccountable to the people, as no one is elected to them. The organizations receive tax dollars, and while some elected officials serve on these bodies, it is not the same as being directly accountable to the people. The fact that the grant requires a new consortium to be formed is evidence that the agenda is to circumvent the will of the people, he said.

Ranzau also said that Schlegel told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.” He said the grant will promote the “progressive agenda” of the Obama administration in this way.

Later Commission Chair Dave Unruh disputed the contention regarding the workload of REAP.

Ranzau also questioned whether we want the federal government to be a “source of solutions” for our local communities. He also questioned one of the stated goals of the program, which is to reduce cost to taxpayers. It’s a new program, he said, and would not reduce the cost to taxpayers.

He further questioned the ability of the grant program to help teach local communities to be fiscally responsible. With federal spending out of control, he said the federal government is not in a position to help in this regard.

He further said that talking in generalities sounds benign, and that he wanted to know what he is committing the county to this year. Repeating the concerns of Peterjohn, Ranzau said that accepting this grant would be accepting the policies of the Obama Administration as our own. He said that in the 2010 elections the people repudiated the agenda of the president, and this grant program is an example of the type of programs people have said they don’t want. It is concern with the agenda behind this grant program that is his greatest concern, he later explained.

Continuing, Ranzau questioned the ability of the federal government to create conditions for sustainable growth: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Look at the vision they now have for growth in this county. It’s a disaster. And now they want to take the same policies that have created and made our current economic situation worse — they want to bring them to our local communities by these sorts of grants.”

Both Ranzau and Peterjohn questioned the ability of this grant to produce affordable housing, citing the government’s role in the ongoing housing crisis.

Ranzau, who has voted against many grants, added that this is the “the worst and most troublesome grant” he’s seen in his time in office, adding that the grant is clearly an agenda created by President Obama. He said there are politicians who ran for office on platforms of limited government and fiscal responsibility, and this grant is an opportunity for them to “act on those values.”

In further discussion, it was brought out that each region makes its own definition of what sustainability means to it, but Yager provided this definition of sustainability: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In his remarks, Unruh said that Sedgwick County has been involved in sustainability thinking and planning for at least two years. He said this is a strategy that helps the county plan for the future. He asked manager Buchanan if the county had a definition of sustainability. Buchanan replied the County has taken a similar approach to the International City/County Management Association, which he said involves four factors: Economic stability — sufficient jobs and economic development; ensuring that local governments are fiscally healthy so that they can provide quality services; social equity, which he said ensures that the delivery of services in communities is equitable; and the environment, which he said was not about global warming, but rather making sure we’re not wasting natural resources.

Unruh said that we are not opposed to these principles, that these are reasonable activities for elected officials. He added that regionalism is the “whole measuring stick.” We must consider communities close to us when planning, he added. It is reasonable to get these people together on a voluntary and non-binding basis. While he said he didn’t like excess spending at the federal level, it is his money that the federal government is spending, and we should take advantage of this program, adding that we need to plan. If the plans are not acceptable, he said we could simply not adopt them. He disagreed with the contention of Ranzau and Peterjohn that this process causes the county to yield to any master plan developed by the federal government. He again mentioned that we are using our money to develop this plan, and asked our federal officeholders to stop spending money in this way.

He added that he believes in limited government and fiscal responsibility, and that accessing these resources does not make him “hypocritical, insincere, or untruthful.”

In rebuttal to Buchanan, Ranzau said that the grant funding document says that one of the goals is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are believed by many to be a cause of global warming or climate change. The document does mention helping regions “consider the interdependent challenges of … energy use and climate change.” This language was transmitted to commissioners in a letter from Buchanan. Ranzau again said it is important not to downplay the agenda that is associated with the grant funds. In earlier remarks, Ranzau had described how applications would be scored or ranked, and that winning applications would need to conform to the goals of HUD.

The commission voted to approve the grant, with Unruh, Norton, and Skelton voting in favor, and Ranzau and Peterjohn voting against.

Commentary

Discussions such as these, where the role of government and the nature of the proper relationship between the federal government and states, counties, and cities, are a regular feature at Sedgwick County Commission meetings, due to the concerns of Peterjohn and Ranzau. These discussion do not often take place at the Wichita City Council, unless initiated by citizens whose testify on matters.

The remarks of chairman Unruh illustrated one of the important conundrums of our day. Many are opposed to the level of federal (and other government) spending. Polls indicate that more and more people are concerned about this issue. Yet, it is difficult to stop the spending.

In particular, the grant process is thorny. The principled stand of Ranzau, and sometimes Peterjohn, is that we should simply refuse to participate in the spending — both federal and local — that grants imply, and in the process also accepting the strings attached to them. Others, Unruh and Skelton in particular, have what they believe is a pragmatic view, arguing that it is our money that paid for these grant programs, and so by participating in grants we are getting back some of the tax funds we send to Washington. This reasoning allows Unruh to profess belief in limited government and fiscal responsibility while at the same time participating in this spending.

But there is no doubt that accepting federal money such as these grant funds means buying in to at least parts of the progressive Obama agenda, something that I think conservatives like Unruh and Skelton would not do on a stand-alone basis. This is an example of the power and temptation of what appears to be “free” federal money, and Ranzau and Peterjohn are correctly concerned and appropriately wary.

It is even more troublesome to realize that this power over us is exercised using our own money, as Skelton and Unruh rightly recognize, but nonetheless go along.

There may be a legislative solution someday. First, we can elect federal officials who will stop these programs. But the temptation to bring money back to the home district, either through grant programs or old-fashioned pork barrel spending, is overwhelming. Just this week U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, who voted against raising the debt ceiling in August, pledged to find more federal funds to pay for Wichita’s aquifer storage and recovery program.

An example of legislation that may work is a bill recently introduced by U. S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita and others. The bill is H. R. 2961: To amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to have Early Innovator grant funds returned by States apply towards deficit reduction. The purpose of the bill is to direct the early innovator grant funds that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback returned towards deficit reduction, rather than being spent somewhere else.

The fiscal conservatives who vote to accept federal grant funds should be aware of research that indicates that these grants cause future tax increases. In my reporting on such a study I wrote: This is important because, in their words, “Federal grants often result in states creating new programs and hiring new employees, and when the federal funding for that specific purpose is discontinued, these new state programs must either be discontinued or financed through increases in state own source taxes.” … The authors caution: “Far from always being an unintended consequence, some federal grants are made with the intention that states will pick up funding the program in the future.”

The conclusion to this research paper (Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes?) states:

Our results clearly demonstrate that grant funding to state and local governments results in higher own source revenue and taxes in the future to support the programs initiated with the federal grant monies. … Most importantly, our results suggest that the recent large increase in federal grants to state and local governments that has occurred as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will have significant future tax implications at the state and local level as these governments raise revenue to continue these newly funded programs into the future. Federal grants to state and local governments have risen from $461 billion in 2008 to $654 billion in 2010. Based on our estimates, future state taxes will rise by between 33 and 42 cents for every dollar in federal grants states received today, while local revenues will rise by between 23 and 46 cents for every dollar in federal (or state) grants received today. Using our estimates, this increase of $200 billion in federal grants will eventually result in roughly $80 billion in future state and local tax and own source revenue increases. This suggests the true cost of fiscal stimulus is underestimated when the costs of future state and local tax increases are overlooked.

The situation in which we find ourselves was accurately described by economist Walter E. Williams in his recent visit to Wichita. As I reported: “The essence of our relationship with government is coercion,” Williams told the audience. This, he said, represents our major problem as a nation today: We’ve come to accept the idea of government taking from one to give to another. But the blame, Williams said, does not belong with politicians — “at least not very much.” Instead, he said that the blame lies with us, the people who elect them to office in order to get things for us. A candidate who said he would do only the things that the Constitution authorizes would not have much of a chance at being elected.

The further problem is that if Kansans don’t elect officials who will bring federal dollars to Kansas, it doesn’t mean that Kansans will pay lower federal taxes. The money, taken from Kansans, will go to other states, leading to this conundrum: “That is, once legalized theft begins, it pays for everybody to participate.”

We face a moral dilemma, then. Williams listed several great empires that declined for doing precisely what we’re doing: “Bread and circuses,” or big government spending.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday August 5, 2011

More jobs, but … Today’s jobs reports shows more jobs created than the small number many feared would be reported. Commenting on this is Americans for Limited Government President Bill Wilson: “Today the Labor Department’s announcement of the unemployment report showing 117,000 new jobs created is a testimony to America’s job creators who are fighting hard against the economic headwinds created by Obama’s bullheaded adherence to a failed 1930s economic philosophy. … The drop in the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent though is a false signal as the drop is largely attributable to even more Americans giving up hope of getting a job and dropping out of the workforce. Since Obama has become president, Americans have been leaving the workforce in droves. For them, and the almost 14 million unemployed, Obama’s change has robbed them of hope.”

Sedgwick County budget. Wednesday’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission featured some actual legislative action as two fiscally conservative commissioners sought to reign in some county spending as the commissioners considered the 2012 budget. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn offered an amendment that would have reduced county spending by almost $500,000 in net spending reduction by eliminating one county center in health data, eliminating the new county lobbyist position, cutting $125,000 in airline subsidies as well as other business incentive spending, and several smaller categories of county spending. This amendment failed with only Commissioner Richard Ranzau voting with Peterjohn. A second amendment by Peterjohn deleted the new county lobbyist position to save $83,546. This amendment failed by the same vote as the first.

There are emergencies, and then there aren’t. KAKE Television reports that during Wednesday evening’s storm, about 65 percent of the calls handled by the 911 system operators were for non-emergency reasons. “A majority of the calls from the storm were people requesting to be transferred to the electric company,” the station reports. Story and video at Majority Of Emergency Calls Were Non-Emergencies .

Debt ceiling bill seen as feckless. The Cato Institute’s Jagadeesh Gokhale sums it up quite colorfully: “It’s been a frustrating two months watching politicians alternately squirm and spin only to achieve a damp squib of a deal.” He also writes that “The President and leaders in Congress have basically thrown in the towel.” The problems, he writes are “far too little by way of spending cuts, keeps open the possibility of new taxes, and hikes the debt ceiling substantially.” The major problems of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were not addressed, he adds. More from Gokhale at The Debt Deal: Failures of Leadership and Resolve. … His colleague Daniel J. Mitchell notes the path American is taking: “America is on a path to becoming a Greek-style welfare state. Thanks to the Bush-Obama spending binge, the burden of federal spending has climbed to about 25% of national economic output, up from only 18.2% of GDP when Bill Clinton left office.” Of the spending cuts, he writes “federal spending will actually be higher every year and that the cuts were based on Washington math (a spending increase becomes a spending cut if outlays don’t climb as fast as some artificial benchmark).” It is thought that spending cuts amount to only $22 billion next year. Out of likely $3.6 trillion budget, that’s 0.6 percent. Mitchell concludes: “One group of people, however, unambiguously got the short end of the stick in this budget deal. Ordinary Americans are caught in the middle. They’re not poor enough to benefit from the federal government’s plethora of income-redistribution programs. But they’re not rich enough to have the clever lobbyists and insider connections needed to benefit from the high-dollar handouts like ethanol subsidies and bank bailouts. Instead, middle-class Americans play by the rules, pay ever-higher taxes, and struggle to make ends meet while the establishment of both parties engages in posturing as America slowly drifts toward a Greek-style fiscal meltdown.” More from Mitchell at Debt Deal: Politicians Win, Middle Class Loses.

Higher fuel standards mean higher death toll. It’s simple physics, writes the Washington Examiner. Weight is the main enemy of fuel economy, so higher fuel economy standards from the government mean lighter cars. This lighter weight translates directly into highway deaths: “In 2003, for example, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study estimated that for every 100 pounds of weight taken out of a car weighing under 3,000 pounds, the death rate goes up more than 5 percent; the increase is slightly less than 5 percent for those weighing more than 3,000 pounds. Two years before that, a National Academy of Sciences study estimated that the lighter vehicles required to satisfy CAFE were responsible for as many as 2,600 highway deaths in one year alone. And in 1999, a comprehensive multiple regression analysis by USA Today of the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data concluded that 7,700 people died for every one additional mpg attributable to CAFE regulation.” … Thomas Sowell warned us of this in 2005 when he wrote “Many of the same people who cry ‘No blood for oil!’ also want higher gas mileage standards for cars. But higher mileage standards have meant lighter and more flimsy cars, leading to more injuries and deaths in accidents — in other words, trading blood for oil.” … This is another example of the unintended consequences of regulation, although many times the consequences are intended.

Myths about markets. Tom G. Palmer has a wonderful paper that tackles the criticisms of free markets that have evolved into myths. For example, the first myth is that markets are immoral or amoral. Palmer states the myth: Markets make people think only about the calculation of advantage, pure and simple. There’s no morality in market exchange, no commitment to what makes us distinct as humans: our ability to think not only about what’s advantageous to us, but about what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral. His destruction of the myth: “A more false claim would be hard to imagine. For there to be exchange there has to be respect for justice. People who exchange differ from people who merely take; exchangers show respect for the rightful claims of other people. The reason that people engage in exchange in the first place is that they want what others have but are constrained by morality and law from simply taking it. An exchange is a change from one allocation of resources to another; that means that any exchange is measured against a baseline, such that if no exchange takes place, the parties keep what they already have. The framework for exchange requires a sound foundation in justice. Without such moral and legal foundations, there can be no exchange. Markets are not merely founded on respect for justice, however. They are also founded on the ability of humans to take into account, not only their own desires, but the desires of others, to put themselves in the places of others. A restaurateur who didn’t care what his diners wanted would not be in business long. If the guests are made sick by the food, they won’t come back. If the food fails to please them, they won’t come back. He will be out of business. Markets provide incentives for participants to put themselves in the position of others, to consider what their desires are, and to try to see things as they see them. Markets are the alternative to violence. Markets make us social. Markets remind us that other people matter, too.” … The entire paper is at Twenty Myths about Markets.

What are rights? “Individuals have rights. But are they natural? And how do they compare and contrast with legal or constitutional rights? Are legal or constitutional rights similar to those inalienable rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence? Professor Aeon Skoble distinguishes such constitutional rights, such as the right to vote, from the rights protected by governments and constitutions — natural rights not actually granted by governments themselves. He concludes that legal systems should create rights that are compatible with natural rights.” This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.

Job creation at young firms declines

A new report by the Kauffman Foundation holds unsettling information for the future of job growth in the United States. Kauffman has been at the forefront of research regarding entrepreneurship and job formation.

Previous Kauffman research has emphasized the importance of young firms in productivity growth. Research by Art Hall found that for the period 2000 to 2005, young firms created nearly all the net job growth in Kansas.

So young firms — these are new firms, and while usually small, the category is not the same as small businesses in general — are important drivers of productivity and job growth. That’s why the recent conclusion from Kauffman in its report Starting Smaller; Staying Smaller: America’s Slow Leak in Job Creation is troubling: “The United States appears to be suffering from a long-term leak in job creation that pre-dates the recession and has the potential to persist for an unknown time. The heart of the problem is a pullback by newly created businesses, the economy’s most critical source of job creation, which are generating substantially fewer jobs than one would expect based on past experience. … This trend has only worsened since the onset of the most recent recession. The cohort of firms started in 2009, for example, is on track to contribute close to a million jobs less in its first five to ten years than historical averages.”

The report mentions two assumptions that are commonly made regarding employment that the authors believe are incorrect:

First, policymakers’ focus on big changes in employment because of events such as a new manufacturing plant or the recruitment of a business to a community ignore the more important fact that our jobs outlook will be driven more by the collective decisions of the millions of young and small businesses whose changing employment patterns are not as easy to see or influence. Second, it is just as easy to be deluded into thinking that the jobs problem will be solved by growth in the number of the self-employed.

The importance of young firms is vital to formulating Kansas economic development policy. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has incorporated some of the ideas of economic dynamism in his economic plan released in February. The idea of dynamism, as developed by Dr. Art Hall, is that economic development is best pursued by creating a level playing field where as much business experimentation as possible can take place. The marketplace will sort out the best firms. The idea that government economic development agencies can select which firms should receive special treatment is sure to fail. It is failing.

While the governor’s plan promotes the idea of economic dynamism, some of his actual policies, such as retaining a multi-million dollar slush fund for economic development, are contrary to the free marketplace of business experimentation and letting markets pick winning firms.

At the City of Wichita, economic development policy is tracking on an even worse direction. Among city hall bureaucrats and city council members, there is not a single person who appears to understand the importance of free markets and capitalism except for one: council member Michael O’Donnell, who represents district 4 (south and southwest Wichita).

The policy of Wichita is that of explicit crony capitalism, with city leaders believing they have the wisdom to develop policies that recognize which firms are worthy of taxpayer support. And if they want to grant subsidies to firms that don’t meet policies, they find exceptions or write new policies. Elected officials like Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and city council member Jeff Longwell lust for more tools in the economic development toolbox.

At the Sedgwick County Commission, two of the five members — Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau understand the importance of free markets for economic development. But the city has a much larger role in targeted incentives for economic development, as it is the source of tax increment financing districts, industrial revenue bonds, economic development exemptions, community improvement districts, and other harmful forms on economic interventionism.

Wichita and its political class

The discussion at yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting provided an opportunity for citizens to discover the difference in the thinking of the political class and those who value limited government and capitalism.

At issue was Mid-Continent Instruments, Inc., which asked the city for a forgivable loan of $10,000. It received the same last week from Sedgwick County. According to city documents, the State of Kansas through its Department of Commerce is also contributing $503,055 in forgivable loans, sales tax exemptions, training grants, and tax credits.

At the city council meeting Clinton Coen, a young man who ran for city council earlier this year, spoke against this measure, which he called corporate welfare.

In response to Coen, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked if we should ignore companies that want to do business here, or should we allow them to leave? Implicit in the question is that the threat dangled by Mid-Continent is real: that unless the city gives them $10,000, they will expand somewhere else. How citizens and council members feel about this issue largely depends on their perceived genuineness of this threat.

When Coen recommended that the city cut spending, Clendenin said “I can guarantee you, from what I have seen, this city government has cut a tremendous amount of spending.” When pressed by Coen for examples of cuts, he demurred. Clendenin also said that the $10,000 is needed to show the city’s commitment to the company.

Perhaps coming to the rescue of her younger and less experienced colleague, Council Member Janet Miller asked City Manager Bob Layton how much has been cut from the budget, and he replied “we’ve cut over $20 million in the general fund over three years.”

In saying that, Layton is using the language and mind-set of bureaucrats and politicians. In this world, it’s a cut if spending does not rise as fast as planned or hoped for. As you can see from the accompanying chart, Wichita general fund spending has not been cut in recent years. It has risen in each of the last three years, and plans are for it to keep rising.

Wichita general fund spending

This illustrates a divide between the thinking of the political class and regular people. Blurring the distinction between plans and reality lets politicians and bureaucrats present a fiscally responsible image — they cut the budget, after all — and increase spending at the same time. It’s a message that misinforms citizens about the important facts.

Miller also praised the return on investment the city receives for its spending on economic development, citing Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research and the cost-benefit calculations it performs. These calculations take the cost of providing the incentives and compare it to the returns the city and other governmental entities receive.

What is rarely mentioned, and what I think most people would be surprised to learn, is that the “returns” used in these calculations is manifested in the form of increased tax revenue. It’s not like in the private sector, where business firms attempt to increase their sales and profits by providing a product or service that people willingly buy. No, the city increases its revenue (we can’t call it profit) by collecting more taxes.

It’s another difference between the political class and everyone else: The political class craves tax revenue.

Aside from this, the cost-benefit calculations for the city don’t include the entire cost. The cost doesn’t include the county’s contribution, the majority of which comes from residents of its largest city, which is Wichita. Then, there’s the half-million in subsidy from the state, with a large portion of that paid for by the people of Wichita.

But even if you believe these calculations, there’s the problem of right-sizing the investment. If an investment of $10,000 has such glowing returns — last week Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton called the decision a “no-brainer” — why can’t we invest more? If we really believe this investment is good, we should wonder why the city council and county commission are so timid.

Since the applicant company is located in his district, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), praised the company and the state’s incentives, and made a motion to approve the forgivable loan. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted yes.

Going forward

While the political class praises these subsidies and the companies that apply for them, not many are willing to confront the reality of the system we’re creating. Some, like O’Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, have recognized that when government is seen as eager to grant these subsidies, it prompts other companies to apply. The lure of a subsidy may cause them to arrange their business affairs so as to conform — or appear to conform — to the guidelines government has for its various subsidy programs. Companies may do this without regard to underlying economic wisdom.

We also need to recognize that besides simple greed for public money, businesses have another reason to apply for these subsidies: If a publicly-traded company doesn’t seek them, its shareholders would wonder why the company didn’t exercise its fiduciary duty to do so. But this just perpetuates the system, and so increasing amounts of economic development fall under the direction of government programs.

While most people see this rise in corporate welfare as harmful — I call it a moral hazard — the political class is pleased with this arrangement. As Meitzner said in making his motion, he was proud that Wichita “won out” over the other city Mid-Continent Instruments considered moving to.

Another harmful effect of these actions is to create a reputation for having an uncompetitive business environment. Not only must businesses of all types pay for the cost of these subsidies, some face direct competition by a government-subsidized competitor. This is the situation Wichita-area hotels face as a result of the city granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.

Even those not in direct competition face increased costs as they attempt to hire labor, buy supplies, and seek access to capital in competition with government-subsidized firms. Could this uneven competitive landscape be a factor that business firms consider in deciding where to locate and invest?

We can expect to see more government intervention in economic development and more corporate welfare. Former council member Sue Schlapp in April took a job with the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job title is “senior constituent liaison,” which I think can be better described as “customer service agent for the corporate welfare state.” Her office is in Wichita city hall.

Increasingly we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions based on incorrect and misleading information, such as claiming that the city’s general fund budget has been cut when spending has increased. Sometimes they are fed incorrect information, as in the case of a presentation at Sedgwick County Commission that bordered on fraudulent.

Sometimes, I think, officeholders just don’t care. It’s easiest to go along with the flow and not raise ripples. They participate in groundbreakings and get their photograph in the newspaper and on television that way. Which brings up an important question: why do none of our city’s mainstream media outlets report on these matters?

Sedgwick County, Golf Warehouse, reveal shortcomings in procedure

Wednesday’s decision by the Sedgwick County Commission to grant a forgivable loan of $48,000 to The Golf Warehouse is yet another example of local government relying on corporate welfare as economic development, and exposes how little deliberation is given to making these decisions.

This subsidy was promoted by the county and TGW’s consultant as necessary to persuade the applicant company to expand its operations in Wichita rather than Indiana, where the company has other operations and had also received an offer of subsidy. The same argument had been made to the Wichita City Council in May 10th, and it was successful in persuading all council members but one to vote in favor of granting a forgivable loan of the same amount as the county.

At the county commission meeting, commissioners received a presentation by Leslie Wagner, Director of Project Management and Development for Ginovus, an economic development and site location advisory services firm working on behalf of TGW.

While The Golf Warehouse was started in Wichita by entrepreneurs, Wagner told commissioners that the company is now owned by Redcats, a Paris, France company. That acquisition took place in 2006, she said.

A focus of Wagner’s presentation was how large and successful an enterprise Redcats is, with $4.8 billion in annual sales revenue and over 14,000 employees. As to TGW specifically, Wagner said it offers the largest and broadest selection of golf products in the world, and has expanded to included baseball, softball, and soccer products.

Right away some might be inclined to ask why, with the company so large and successful, local governments find it necessary to prop up this company with public assistance.

According to Wagner, TGW will add 105 new employees by 2015, and the company’s average annual payroll by then will be $9,995,000.

The argument for subsidy

In her presentation, Wagner listed the incentives offered to TGW by both Indiana and Kansas. But she did not supply the value of each incentive, which makes the comparison largely meaningless. Additionally, the list of the incentives and subsidies offered by the State of Kansas was not complete. Further, some of the incentives offered by Indiana are already present in Kansas.

For example, one incentive offered by Indiana was an abatement on personal property tax, which Wagner indicated was a factor in favor of that state. But Kansas does not tax business personal property, that is, business machinery and equipment newly purchased, leased, or moved into Kansas. This ranges from desks, computers, and copiers to large pieces of machinery and equipment. The incentive offered by Indiana, therefore, is already in place in Kansas without companies needing to ask for it, and Wagner should not have included this as a distinguishing factor between Indiana and Kansas.

In addition, Kansas has added “expensing,” which allows businesses to depreciate purchases in one year instead of several, which reduces Kansas state income tax. As TGW expands and makes these purchases, it will be able to take advantage of this new provision in the Kansas tax code.

Wagner also mentioned an Indiana program called EDGE (Economic Development for a Growing Economy), which rebates employees’ state income tax withholding back to the company. We have that in Kansas, too. It’s called Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), and the range of situations where this program can be applied has been expanded by this year’s legislature. This, again, is an example where an incentive offered by Indiana and promoted by Wagner as a reason as to why the county must grant a subsidy of its own to TGW is already present in Kansas.

Another part of Wagner’s presentation that deserves a second look is her analysis of the economic impact of TGW. Wagner said that over ten years the payroll — the wages paid to its employees in Wichita — of TGW would be $100,623,437, with a “conservative” apportionment to the county of $50,311,718.

She then showed the commission a slide where she computed the return on the county’s investment. For the “return,” she used the $50,311,718 figure of payroll that she attributed to the county. For the “investment,” she used $96,000, which is the sum of the forgivable loans from both Wichita and Sedgwick County. (Why she used both entity’s investment but only county payroll, I don’t know.)

Her calculations from these numbers produced a return on investment of 524 percent. “If I were making an investment, that’s a phenomenal return, and I’d make that one all day long,” she told commissioners.

But her actual calculation should have been as follows ($50,311,718 – $96,000) / $96,000 * 100 = 52,308 percent for the rate of return, if she was looking to fluff up her numbers as much as possible.

But even that calculation wouldn’t make economic or financial sense. The $50,311,718 is returned over a period of 10 years, so the receipt of that money needs to be spread over that time. Then, since long time periods are involved, the returns in future years need to be discounted, because a dollar expected to be received in ten years is not worth as much as a dollar received this year. I made a few other assumptions and used Excel’s internal rate of return function to compute a rate of return of 5,241 percent.

This tremendous rate of return, of course, makes no economic sense either. The $50,311,718 used as the “return” to the county is not that at all. This money is wages paid to workers. It belongs to them, not to the county. True, the county will get some of that in the form of sales taxes these workers pay as they make purchases within the county, and perhaps in other forms of taxes. Using an estimate of that number would make sense on some level, and that is the type of reasoning the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research uses to compute the cost-benefit figures the city and county often rely upon in making decisions.

But the figures and calculations Wagner used to make the case for TGW make absolutely no economic or financial sense. Worse than being merely absurd, they are deceptive. Compounding the error, elected officials such as commission chair Dave Unruh cited them as a factor in making his vote in favor of granting the forgivable loan.

Completing her presentation, Wagner said “Perhaps as important, it’s goodwill. … Does the state want us to stay, does the community want us to stay, and are they willing to help us grow?” Brad Wolansky, CEO of TGW, said the loan is part of the “element of partnership” between the county and TGW, which he said was indicative of the county’s support. This is the same attitude expressed at the Wichita City Council meeting: Many of these companies requesting incentives and subsidies believe they deserve some sort of reward for investing in Wichita and creating jobs. The profits of entrepreneurs or capitalists are no longer sufficient, it seems, for some companies.

In remarks from the bench, Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau questioned the need for this incentive, citing the recent example of a Save-A-Lot store which will be built by a developer without incentives, after the original developer failed to acquire all the incentive he asked for. Video of his remarks and an exchange with Wagner is below.

In his remarks, Commissioner Jim Skelton said this decision is a “no-brainer,” and that he was proud to do this for the community. Chairman Unruh said “we’re competing with someone else for this company.” He referenced the “great return” on the county’s investment, and that he could not find a reason not to support it.

All commissioners except Ranzau voted to grant the forgivable loan, with Karl Peterjohn absent.

City and county information not complete

The forgivable loan subsidy granted by both Wichita and Sedgwick County is not the only subsidy TGW will receive. An inquiry to the Kansas Department of Commerce indicates that from the state of Kansas, TGW will receive $125,000 from the Kansas Economic Opportunity Initiatives Fund, $125,000 in Kansas Industrial Retraining, $50,000 in Kansas Industrial Training, $96,000 in sales tax savings, $315,918 in personal property tax savings, and $623,796 from the High Performance Incentive Program, for total incentives from the state of $1,310,714.

These state incentives were not mentioned by the county. The value is also much higher than the City of Wichita reported in its material for its May 10th meeting when the city approved its forgivable loan to TGW. At that time, city documents reported the value of state subsidies at $275,000, a figure just 21 percent of the value reported by the Department of Commerce.

Corporate welfare, again

This episode, where subsidy is heaped on a company who presents a threat — real or imagined — of leaving Wichita or expanding elsewhere, represents local officials not grounding a decision on actual facts. The wild claims of return on investment made by the company’s representative simply can’t be believed. Her information about the incentives offered and available, as well as that from the City of Wichita, is incomplete or misleading.

With some time to analyze the claims made by Wagner (and others who appear in similar situations), we can expose them for what they are. But commissioners — city council members too — often don’t have time or expertise to examine the facts. Commissioner Ranzau told me that he did not receive Wagner’s slides before the meeting. The information delivered to the council by Sherdeill Breathett, Economic Development Specialist for the county, did not appear in the new agenda system the county recently implemented. During meetings there is not time to analyze calculations or examine the claims made by presenters.

We have to ask, however, if local government officials have the desire to examine these presentations and claims. Once the veneer of economic development hucksterism — thin as it is — is stripped away, we are left with what Ranzau has stated several times from his position on the commission bench: a simple transfer of one person’s money to another using the force of government as the agent. This reality of corporate welfare is something that officials would rather not recognize, and it’s not economic development in my book.

Wichita on corporate welfare, again

Yesterday’s award of $2.5 million by the City of Wichita to aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft to ward off a threatened move to Louisiana stands out as an example of corporate welfare given for its own sake, and not in response to any real threat.

Hawker will also ask Sedgwick County for the same amount, in addition to receiving $40 million in credits and incentives from the State of Kansas.

It was widely reported that Hawker had received an offer, said by some to be worth as much as $400 million, to move to Louisiana. But that offer was not a valid threat of Hawker leaving Kansas, as in a December 2010 television news report, Louisiana’s governor said “they couldn’t guarantee the number of jobs that would have been required for them to come here.”

Further evidence of the payment being corporate welfare for its own sake is lack of a cost-benefit analysis that usually accompanies such matters. Generally, the city justifies spending on economic development by citing a cost-benefit analysis performed by Wichita State University. By giving up some tax revenue or making a payment, the city feels it will gain even more tax revenue in the future. But no such numbers were cited as justification for this payment to Hawker Beechcraft.

Speaking from the bench, new council member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) said “At the end of 10 years, I don’t think anyone wants to have to go this process again.” He asked economic development director Allen Bell if there was a process in place so that we wouldn’t be blindsided, so that we could “come up with solutions ahead of time.” A streamlining of the corporate welfare, so to speak. Bell said there is such an effort: IDEA (Industrial Development and Expansion Assistance), plus informal discussions between high level city officials and businesses.

Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) brought out the fact that although it has been widely reported that the agreement requires Hawker to keep employment at 4,000 or more, it’s not until employment falls below 3,600 that clawback provisions become triggered. O’Donnell said he wanted to protect these 400 jobs, but Bell said the agreement was negotiated between Hawker and the State of Kansas (under former governor Mark Parkinson), and that O’Donnell was correct. O’Donnell expressed his concern: “I think that we definitely need to get the word out that we’re voting for something that could be 3,601 jobs and not 4,000 jobs like’s been sold to us and the public. … I think that’s problematic when we’re dealing with multi-millions of dollars.”

Two members of the public addressed the council on this matter, including myself based on my remarks in Hawker Beechcraft to receive subsidy from Wichita City Council.

In a lecture delivered to Clinton Coen, a young man who spoke against the Hawker incentive, Mayor Brewer spoke of the “employment rate [sic] before the recession” at Cessna, which the mayor cited as 12,000 employees, noting that there are only 6,000 today. The mayor said “That’s part of what contributed to this,” but did not make a connection between the decline in employment at Cessna and requirement of the subsidy being offered to Hawker. Cessna, by the way, received approval of similar incentives from the state and local governments for an expansion to be made in Wichita, but the declining aviation market led Cessna to cancel the expansion and the incentives.

The mayor also mentioned how we lost 1,500 jobs from one company because another state paid the company $1 million per job. The mayor did not mention the company, and inquiries to the mayor’s office and the city’s information office and staffers could not produce an answer. The mayor might have been referring to a 2008 offer by North Carolina to Spirit Aerosystems to build a plant there. That deal, as reported by the Triangle Business Journal, was an offer worth up to $250 million for employment expected to reach 1,031 within six years. That’s about $242,000 per job — a long way from a million. Furthermore, the report listed Jacksonville, not Wichita, as the main competition for the plant, even through Spirit is headquartered in Wichita.

The mayor also lectured Coen, as he has to others, about “philosophies or a theory” one may have concerning economic development, and how it is easy to say the things Coen did “if you really truly don’t know.” He also mentioned the threat of losing the entire company, not only to Louisiana, which he said is not the only competition, but the entire world.

All council members except O’Donnell voted for the measure.

Hawker as Wichita corporate citizen

At the city council meeting, I noted that the Hawker Beechcraft campus, although entirely surrounded by the city of Wichita, is not itself within the city limits. Apparently this does not limit the ability of Wichita to spend its citizens’ money on Hawker, but no one on the council or staff wanted to tackle that issue at the meeting.

Being outside the city limits of Wichita, Hawker pays no property tax to the city, as confirmed by examining tax records maintained by the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s Office.

Aviation summit

In his lecture to Coen, the mayor mentioned the recent aviation summit held by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in Wichita. At that event, the attitude of the industry towards government assistance was clear: much is demanded.

Lynn Nichols, who is President of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and also owner of an aviation service business, answered several questions, including one asking which state incentives and tax and regulatory polices are important?

Nichols listed the sales tax exemption on aircraft service, repair, and modification; business expensing on capital expenditures; and reasonable and practical compliance policies from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Then, he added: “And of course, we can’t wait for Secretary [of Commerce Pat] George’s new cookie jar with his proposed economic development discretionary deal-closing fund. So we support you on that one, Secretary.”

The choice of language by Nichols — “cookie jar” — was found to be offensive by Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, and he commented on that at a recent commission meeting:

Overall, the tone of the summit was that the Kansas aviation industry is dependent on support and incentives from state and local governments. Without that, industry leaders said it will be difficult to survive or resist offers to move to other states.

But as we saw yesterday at the Wichita City Council, perceived threats need not be credible in order to extract taxpayer funds in the form of corporate welfare. The taxpayer-funded cookie jar is open for business.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday February 28, 2011

Elections tomorrow. On Tuesday voters across Kansas will vote in city and school board primary elections. Well, at least a few will vote, as it is thought that only nine percent of eligible voters will actually vote. Many of those may have already voted by now, as advance voting is popular. For those who haven’t yet decided, here’s the Wichita Eagle voter guide.

Kansas schools can transfer funds? A recent legislative update by Kansas Representative Bob Brookens, a Republican from Marion, tells readers this about Kansas school finance: “Most school districts in our area braced for this possibility by taking advantage of a law passed last year by the legislature; the new provision allowed schools this one time to transfer funds from certain other areas to their contingency reserve fund, just in case the state had a budget hole in fiscal year 2011; and most of the school districts around here moved all they were allowed to.” Thing is, no one can seem to remember the law Brookens refers to. There were several such laws proposed, but none made their way through the legislature to become law.

Ranzau stand on federal funds profiled. New Sedgwick County Commission member Richard Ranzau has taken a consistent stand against accepting federal grant funds, as explained in a Wichita Eagle story. While his efforts won’t presently reduce federal spending or debt, as explained in the article by H. Edward Flentje, Professor at the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University (“Those funds are authorized, they’re budgeted, they’re appropriated, and (a) federal agency will commit the funds elsewhere.”), someone, somewhere, has to take a stand. While we usually think about the federal — and state — spending problem requiring a solution from the top, spending can also be controlled from the bottom up. Those federal elected officials who represent Sedgwick County and are concerned about federal spending — that would be Representative Mike Pompeo and Senators Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts — need to take notice and support Ranzau. Those serving in the Kansas legislature should take notice, too.

Kansas legislative chambers don’t agree. Kansas Reporter details the problems conferees from the House of Representatives and Senate face coming to agreement on the rescission bill. Funding for special education seems the problem. The rescission bill makes cuts to spending so that the current year’s budget balances. More at House, Senate can’t agree how to fund special ed.

Citizens, not taxpayers. A column in the McPherson Sentinel argues that we should think of ourselves as “citizens,” not merely “taxpayers.” The difference, as I read the article, is that a citizen is involved in government and public policy: “It takes work, hard work, to make this system work.” Taxpayers, on the other hand, just pay and expect something back: “‘Look at how much I paid,’ these people cry. ‘Give me my money’s worth!'” The writer makes the case that government “is not a simplistic fiscal transaction” and that citizens must participate to make sure that government does good things with taxes. … The writer gets one thing right. Meeting the needs of the country is complex. Where I don’t agree with the writer is that government is the best way — or even a feasible way — to meet the needs of the country. A method already exists: people trading voluntarily in free markets, guided by profit and loss, with information conveyed by an unfettered price system. Government, with its central planning, its lack of ability to calculate profit and loss, and inevitable tendency to become captured by special interests, is not equipped for this task.

Kansas Economic Freedom Index. This week I produced the first version of the Kansas Economic Freedom Index: Who votes for and against economic freedom in Kansas? for the 2011 legislative session. Currently I have a version only for the House of Representatives, as the Senate hasn’t made many votes that affect economic freedom. The index now has its own site, kansaseconomicfreedom.com.

Increasing taxes not seen as solution. “Leaving aside the moral objection to tax increases, raising taxes won’t in fact solve the problem. For one thing, our public servants always seem to find something new on which to spend the additional money, and it isn’t deficit reduction. But more to the point, tax policy can go only so far, given the natural brick wall it has run into for the past fifty years. Economist Jeffrey Rogers Hummel points out that federal tax revenue ‘has bumped up against 20 percent of GDP for well over half a century. That is quite an astonishing statistic when you think about all the changes in the tax code over the intervening years. Tax rates go up, tax rates go down, and the total bite out of the economy remains relatively constant. This suggests that 20 percent is some kind of structural-political limit for federal taxes in the United States.'” From Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Hummel’s article may be read at Why Default on U.S. Treasuries is Likely.

In Wichita, start of a solution to federal spending

At the Sedgwick County Commission, newly-elected commissioner Richard Ranzau voted three times against the county applying for grants of federal funds, showing a possible way that federal spending might be brought under control.

During the meeting, Ranzau asked staff questions about where the funding for the grant programs was coming from, which, of course, is the federal government, sometimes routed through the Kansas Department of Commerce. Sometimes local spending is required by these grants.

In opposing the programs, Ranzau said that federal government spending is too high. Also, our level of debt is too high, and that the cost of these spending programs is passed on to future generations. He also didn’t see where the U.S. Constitution authorizes activity like the commission — in partnership with the federal government — is considering undertaking.

Ranzau offered an alternative: if the commission believes these projects are important to us as a community, we could pay for them ourselves and pay for them now.

Commissioner Jim Skelton argued that if we don’t apply for and receive this money, the federal government will spend it anyway, and someone else will receive it. “I think we can end up screwing our constituency by opposing this on the philosophy that our government is too big.”

He said he doesn’t agree with the “rampant spending of stimulus money” and would like to see it end, but he didn’t see how refusing this money would make a difference.

Constitutional basis questioned

During discussion, Skelton asked county counselor Richard Euson a question: “Can you tell me about the constitutionality of this issue? How on earth can this happen if it’s not constitutional?”

Euson was flummoxed by the question, and admitted that he was not prepared to answer the question. This is not to be held against the county’s attorney, as questions like this are rarely asked — an indication of the novelty of Ranzau’s position and how infrequently elected officials and staff consider questions such as the fundamental role of government and its level of involvement.

The job of a commissioner, according to Norton

In discussion about one grant program, Commissioner Tim Norton asked a question designed to make sure that Ranzau knew that the project was located in his district. On a grant for a transportation plan, Norton again asked a question designed to make sure that Ranzau knew whose district this plan would serve, referring to former commissioner Kelly Parks’ support of the program.

These questions by Norton highlight the problem with district-based representation, where representatives of districts are expected to bring as much government largess as possible back to their districts. At the federal level this problem is illustrated by the earmarking process. Locally, we see that Sedgwick County Commissioners are assumed to be in favor of any project that benefits their districts, regardless of the overall worth of the project or its cost.

A bottom-up solution to federal spending?

At a town hall meeting on Saturday, I asked Kansas fourth district Congressman Mike Pompeo, who represents all of Sedgwick County, about his opinion of ground-up opposition to federal spending and debt, rather than waiting for Congress and the President to solve the problem from the top down.

Pompeo didn’t answer the question directly, but said that from now on, each law passed by Congress will have a section that states the constitutional authority for the legislation. He also said that the federal government is involved in many areas that it should not be involved in, adding “So many times the question is ‘should we reduce this agency’s budget by three percent,’ and the proper question is ‘why does this agency exist?'”

While the new U.S. House of Representatives is full of enthusiasm for cutting spending, here we see an example of just how difficult cutting spending will be. Local governments are addicted to grants like the three discussed above. A congressman who voted to cut programs like these will hear from the affected constituents, and would also likely hear from the Sedgwick County staff who are advocates for these projects and spending. If more elected officials would vote against these programs, that would make it easier for Congress to cut off the flow of spending.

We should also remember that Ranzau offered an alternative: fund the programs ourselves. The problem is that we are funding them ourselves, through the roundabout trip of tax dollars going to Washington, which then sends them back, in this case in the form of grants with many conditions and restrictions on the way the money can be spent. So Skelton is correct: the federal government will spend the money anyway. But to go along means that the hole is dug deeper. More crudely, the federal government says: implement this program in our way, because you’ve already paid for it, and you don’t want to piss away your taxes somewhere else.

Perhaps a coalition of forward-thinking local government officeholders like Ranzau and U.S. Congressmen like Pompeo can join together to bring the spending under control. It will take courage, especially from the local officeholders.