Tag Archives: Sedgwick county government

A David Dennis half-truth

Why would a candidate split sentences in order to create an untruthful claim about his opponent?

In a Facebook post on the David Dennis campaign page, this claim is presented regarding Karl Peterjohn: “Claims to be anti-tax yet calls for RAISING sales taxes.”1

David Dennis for Sedgwick County Commission, District 3 Facebook post
David Dennis for Sedgwick County Commission, District 3 Facebook post
For many years Karl Peterjohn has been calling for a raise in the county sales tax, yes. That’s the first part of the plan. The second part of the plan is to eliminate the county property tax.

Peterjohn headline sales tax 2014-06-07These two parts of the plan are so closely intertwined, so closely dependent on each other, that usually they appear in the same sentence, as in a Wichita Eagle op-ed: “Currently, the county imposes a 29.3 mill property tax countywide. This mill levy could be eliminated with about a 1.5-cent increase in the sales tax on a revenue-neutral basis.” 2

Why would a candidate split sentences in order to create an untruthful claim about his opponent? You’ll have to ask David Dennis.

  1. David Dennis for Sedgwick County Commission, District 3. Facebook. July 22, 2016. Available at www.facebook.com/vote4daviddennis/photos/a.885503861595816.1073741830.874272696052266/922554071224128/.
  2. Peterjohn, Karl. Swap sales tax for county property tax. Wichita Eagle, Jun3 7, 2014. Available here www.kansas.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/article1145426.html.

Candidate forum: Kansas Senate and Sedgwick County Commission

The Sedgwick County Republican Party held a candidate forum. Invited were candidates for Kansas Senate, district 27, and Sedgwick County Commission, district 3. Candidates are:

  • In Senate district 27: Lori Graham and Gene Suellentrop
  • In Sedgwick County Commission district 3: David Dennis and Karl Peterjohn.

This is an audio presentation recorded on July 14, 2016.

David Dennis, gleeful regulatory revisionist

David Dennis, candidate for Sedgwick County Commission, rewrites his history of service on the Kansas State Board of Education.

In 2012 the Lawrence Journal-World reported this regarding a meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education: “Board chairman David Dennis of Wichita said the state needs more information on home schools to ensure that children are being taught. … Dennis suggested perhaps the board should propose legislation to increase the state reporting requirements for home schoolers.”1 Other newspapers published similar reports.

Now, Dennis is a candidate for the Sedgwick County Commission. At a candidate forum held by the Wichita Pachyderm Club on June 10, I asked Dennis about regulation of homeschools. Was that representative of his stance towards homeschooling and regulation?

In his response, Dennis said the board never sent a recommendation to the Legislature. But that wasn’t the question that I asked. Here is a transcription of my question.

“This week the Wichita Eagle reported that as part of the effort to retain Cargill in Wichita that the City of Wichita will appoint an ombudsman to help shepherd Cargill through the labyrinth is the word they use of business processes and regulations in Wichita. Which seems to me to be tantamount that regulation in Wichita is burdensome. So for all candidates, I would ask, how do you feel about that? What can you do to streamline regulation? And for you, Mr. Dennis, I’m particularly concerned because as a member of the State Board of Education you proposed that the board recommend the Kansas Legislature pass regulations regarding the performance of home schools. So I’m wondering if that’s indicative of your philosophy toward a free market in education and regulation in general.”

In his response to this question, Dennis made a point of “correcting me,” contending that the Kansas State Board of Education never sent such a recommendation to the Legislature. He said it again for emphasis, thereby “correcting” me twice.

Initially, I was confused by his answer. I thought perhaps I had misstated the premise of my question. But after listening to the recording, I realized that I asked the question precisely as I had intended. I said that Dennis proposed that the board recommend regulation to the Legislature, not that the board actually made such a proposal to the Legislature.

Perhaps, I thought, David Dennis didn’t hear my question correctly. So I followed up by email, including a link to an audio recording of the exchange, the same recording that appears at the end of this article. He stood by his response.

I don’t like calling anyone a liar. I’m willing to allow that people misspoke, or didn’t understand the question, or had an episode of faulty recollection, or that they changed their position over time. So maybe this episode doesn’t represent David Dennis lying. Perhaps three newspaper reporters incorrectly reported what Dennis said during the board of education meeting.2 3

But David Dennis was gleeful in “correcting” me in public. Twice. And in a forum where debating the speakers is not part of the culture.

Maybe Dennis’s response wasn’t a lie. But it was deceptive. It was evasive. It was characteristic of someone who is supremely confident in himself, even when he is wrong.

Perhaps this confidence is useful when serving as a military officer, as Dennis did. But it isn’t evidence of humility, and that’s something we need in our public servants.

Following is an excerpt from the candidate forum containing my question and the response from the candidates. A recording of the entire meeting as available at From Pachyderm: Sedgwick County Commission candidates. The participating candidates were Dennis and his opponent Karl Peterjohn in district 3, and Michael O’Donnell, the Republican candidate in district 2. (Only Republican candidates were invited.)


Notes

  1. Rothschild, Scott. State board discusses home-schooling requirements. Lawrence Journal-World, August 14, 2012. Available at www2.ljworld.com/news/2012/aug/14/state-board-discusses-home-schooling-requirements/.
  2. Associated press in Topeka Capital-Journal. Kansas education board looks into home schooling concerns. August 14, 2012. Available at cjonline.com/news/2012-08-15/kansas-education-board-looks-home-schooling-concerns.
  3. Tobias, Suzanne Perez. Kansas education official’s comment riles home-schooling parents. Wichita Eagle, August 18, 2012. Available at www.kansas.com/news/article1097490.html.

From Pachyderm: Judicial candidates

Voice for Liberty radio logo square 02 155x116From the Wichita Pachyderm Club this week: Republican primary candidates participated in an 18th Judicial District Candidates’ Forum. This is an audio presentation recorded on June 24, 2016. Candidates included:

Division 3: Gregory D. Keith, Carl Maughan

Division 14: Linda Kirby, Patrick Walters

Division 21: Jeff Dewey, Robert A. Holubec, Quentin Pittman

Division 24: Shawn Elliott, Timothy H. Henderson, Tyler J. Roush

(For these offices, the divisions do not represent a geographical area. Everyone in Sedgwick County is able to vote for all judicial divisions.)

From Pachyderm: Sedgwick County Commission candidates

Voice for Liberty radio logo square 02 155x116From the Wichita Pachyderm Club this week: A forum featuring Republican primary election candidates for Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. This is an audio recording made on June 10, 2016.

In District 2 the candidate is Michael O’Donnell. In District 3 the candidates are Karl Peterjohn and David Dennis.

Sedgwick County Zoo

Since funding for and management of the Sedgwick County Zoo is in the news, here are some articles showing how generous the county has been with funding.

Sedgwick County Zoo funding

The Sedgwick County Commission has been generous with zoo funding, spending far more than agreed upon and granting a moratorium on loan payments and interest.

Sedgwick County Zoo funding from the county, planned and actual. Click for larger.
Sedgwick County Zoo funding from the county, planned and actual. Click for larger.
In September 2013 the Sedgwick County Commission agreed on a new funding plan with the Sedgwick County Zoo for years 2014 through 2018. For 2016 the recommended budget calls for keeping funding the same as the 2015 level instead of a 6.9 percent increase as indicated by the 2013 plan.

That’s the plan. What actually happened is quite different.

In September 2014 the commission voted to give the zoo $5.3 million to help pay for a new elephant exhibit. This contribution was not in any funding agreement, and the money was paid in January 2015. This extra funding is almost as large as the planned funding for 2015, which was about $5.6 million.

July 28, 2015. Click here for the full article.

For Sedgwick County Zoo, a moratorium on its commitment

As the Sedgwick County Zoo and its supporters criticize commissioners for failing to honor commitments, the Zoo is enjoying a deferral of loan payments and a break from accumulating interest charges.

What happened? The county loaned the zoo money to build a restaurant. But the zoo was not able to make the payments as agreed. So the county deferred the payments. I’ll be surprised if the zoo makes any payments after the deferral period ends.

July 28, 2015. Click here for the full article.

Cost of restoring quality of life spending cuts in Sedgwick County: 43 deaths

An analysis of public health spending in Sedgwick County illuminates the consequences of public spending decisions. In particular, those calling for more spending on zoos and arts must consider the lives that could be saved by diverting this spending to public health, according to analysis from Kansas Health Institute.

August 11, 2015. Click here for the full article.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett

Voice for Liberty radio logo square 02 155x116Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett spoke to the Wichita Pachyderm Club, providing an update on the activities in his office. This audio presentation was recorded April 8, 2016. Bennett’s visual presentation is available here. Also, a year in review for 2015 is available here.

Sedgwick County economic development incentives status report for 2015

Sedgwick County has released its annual report on the performance and status of economic development incentives for 2015.

Section I, titled “Summary Totals for Loans & Grants Executed 2005 — 2015,” holds data that must be interpreted carefully. The report shows a total of $11,682,500 in loans and grants. Of that total, $5,000,000 was advanced to Cessna in 2008 to help with the Columbus jet program. But Cessna canceled that program and repaid the loan. It’s almost as though this activity never took place.

Of particular interest is Section III, titled “Individual Loan & Grant Incentive Results.” These programs are specifically designed to induce the creation of jobs, and in some cases capital investment. This section holds a number of evaluations that read “Not Meeting Commitment.” One example is NetApp. The county reports that “Company Commitment at Compliance Review” is 268 jobs, but the county found that “Company Performance at Compliance Review” is 124 jobs, which is 46 percent of the goal. NetApp is significant as it is one of the larger incentives offered, and the jobs have high salaries.

Another observation is the small amount of the incentives. The majority are for less than $50,000, with one being $10,000. Often these small amounts are promoted as responsible for — or at least enabling — investments of millions of dollars. These incentives come with large costs besides the cash value. Companies must apply for the incentive, county and other agency staff must evaluate the application, there is deliberation by commissioners and council members, and then effort spent producing the thoughtful and thorough report such as this produced by the Chief Financial Officer of Sedgwick County. (The City of Wichita produces no similar report, despite dangling its possibility if voters passed a sales tax. See Wichita can implement transparency, even though tax did not pass.)

Click here to access this report.

In Sedgwick County, choosing your own benchmarks

The Sedgwick County Commission makes a bid for accountability with an economic development agency, but will likely fall short of anything meaningful.

Greater Wichita Partnership 01The Greater Wichita Partnership is a reorganization of local economic development agencies. It has asked the Sedgwick County Commission for $300,000 to fund a portion of its activities this year. Those on the commission who are skeptical of GWP and its predecessors have asked for measurable outcomes of the progress GWP makes.

Here is a paragraph from the agreement with GWP that commissioners will consider this week:

9. Measurable Outcomes. GWP shall be subject to measureable outcomes as it shall determine, subject to review by the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. GWP shall present an annual report to the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners at a regularly-scheduled Commission meeting no later than December 31, 2016.

I appreciate the attempt by members of the county commission to ask for accountability. But this paragraph is so weak as to be meaningless. The nature of the measurable outcomes is not defined, even in broad strokes. Further, GWP gets to decide, at an unknown time, what constitutes the measurable outcomes. Then the county commission gets to “review” them, which is a weak — really, nonexistent — form of oversight. We ought to ask that the county commission “approve” them, and sooner rather than later.

Sedgwick County Courthouse 2014-03-23But there is a bit of good news. Paragraph 10 of the agreement calls for a separate accounting fund to be created for the money the taxpayers of Sedgwick County will give to GWP. Then: “GWP agrees and understands that, by entering into this funding Agreement, any and all of its records, documents, and other information related to the Fund and the activities financed thereby shall be open and made available to the public upon request, in accordance with the Kansas Open Records Act.”

That’s good news, and a move towards the type of transparency and accountability that local governments — especially the City of Wichita — promote but finds difficult to actually deliver. Although this provision applies to only the county-supplied funds, hopefully GWP will realize that being transparent is better than being secretive.

Ranzau petition to Kansas Supreme Court

A filing by a group seeking to recall a county commissioner declares “facts” that can’t possibly be known at this time.

Those hoping to recall Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau have filed a petition with the Kansas Supreme Court seeking to overturn the finding of the Sedgwick County District Attorney. That finding was the petition did not meet the grounds and conditions proscribed in Kansas law.

(Many news headlines and reporting use phrases like “District Attorney blocks petition.” That’s not accurate. The DA simply ruled that the petition did not meet the legal requirements.)

In the filing, under a section title “Statement of Facts,” paragraph 2 starts with “It is the will of the electors of Sedgwick County’s District 4 to seek the removal of Richard Ranzau from office …”

I’d like to know how the petitioner knows the will of the electors (voters) of district 4, specifically that they want to remove Ranzau from office. Since August 2008, Ranzau has prevailed in all four elections regarding his current office. In each election the revealed preference — or “will” — of the voters is that they preferred Ranzau to the alternatives, both other Republicans in two primary elections, and Democrats in two general elections. Each election was contested by experienced politicians who had held offices including that of Sedgwick County Commissioner, Wichita City Council Member, Kansas State Representative, and Kansas State Senator.

The only fact we know so far is that there are 100 citizens of Sedgwick County (not just district 4 residents) who have signed up to become recall petition circulators. Should the recall petition be approved, these circulators would have to gather a large number of valid signatures in a short period of time. If that petitioning effort is successful, there will be an election. It is at that time — and only that time — that the electors (voters) of district 4 express their will regarding the recall of Richard Ranzau.

Bombardier can be a learning experience

The unfortunate news of the cancellation of a new aircraft program can be a learning opportunity for Wichita.

As Wichita seeks to grow its economy, the loss of a new aircraft program at one of the city’s major employers is unwelcome news. Now it is important that our leaders and officials seek to learn lessons from this loss. But first, we must acknowledge the loss. Wichita economic development officials are quick to trumpet successes, but so far there is no mention of this loss from the city or its economic development agencies.

The project received state, local and federal incentives. Lots of incentives. These incentives took the form of cash grants, forgiveness of taxes that would otherwise be due, and the ability to reroute its employee withholding taxes for the company’s exclusive benefit. So one lesson is that when local officials complain of the lack of money available for incentives, they are not being truthful.

A second lesson is the limited ability of incentives to overcome obstacles. In this case, the company said the incentives were necessary to make the project economically feasible. Incentives were awarded, but the project failed.

There are some important public policy issues that should be discussed:

Did the incentives induce Bombardier to take risks that it would not have taken had it been investing its own funds, or funds it had to raise from stockholders and debtholders?

Will the politicians that took credit for landing the Model 85 and its jobs now recognize the futility of their efforts?

Will the government agencies that took credit for creating jobs adjust their records?

Incentives like these are often justified using a benefit-cost ratio. This incident reminds us that these calculations are valid only if the investment works as planned. Will local governments recalculate the benefit-cost ratios based on the new information we now have?

Perhaps most important: Who has to pay the costs of these incentives? Part of the cost of this company’s investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. This action — the award of incentives to an established company — is harmful to the Wichita economy for its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As this company and others receive incentives and escape paying taxes, others have to pay.

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. But as we see in the unfortunate news from Bombardier, this is not the case. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Sedgwick County delinquent property tax

Here is an interactive version of the list of delinquent property taxes in Sedgwick County. This list is printed in a local newspaper three times each summer.

The Sedgwick County Treasurer issues a disclaimer regarding this list, which is that some of the taxes may have been paid, or are waiting the result of a grievance or protest.

Click here to open the interactive list in a new window. As shown in the illustration below, you may click to expand the addresses of properties for an owner, and sort by any column.

Sedgwick County delinquent tax list instructions 2015-10

Where are our documents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.

But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.

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

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

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

Sedgwick County financial document archive

Sedgwick County Working for YouSedgwick County Kansas doesn’t make available online budgets for more than two years, so I’ve obtained both recommended and adopted budgets and deposited them here. There are also other documents such as comprehensive annual financial reports.

The documents are also available through DocumentCloud below.



Richard Ranzau on core American values in Sedgwick County

Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau spoke on the topic “Returning Core American Values to Sedgwick County” before a luncheon audience of the Wichita Pachyderm Club Friday, August 28, 2015. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Videography by Paul Soutar.

Wichita Chamber speaks on county spending and taxes

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce urges spending over fiscally sound policies and tax restraint in Sedgwick County.

Today the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce issued a “key vote” alert. This procedure, used by political groups of all persuasions, alerts elected officials that the Chamber prefers a certain outcome on an issue. Those who vote in harmony with the Chamber are likely to receive support in their next election, while the noncompliant are implicitly threatened with opponents the Chamber will support.

Here’s what the Chamber sent to commissioners:

From: Barby Jobe
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 2:47 PM

TO: SEDGWICK COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

FROM: WALTER BERRY, Vice Chair, Wichita Metro Chamber Government Relations Committee

RE: KEY VOTE ALERT

While we have not recently had many “key votes” at the local level, the Wichita Metro Chamber would like to alert you that we will be key voting the 2016 Budget.

The Chamber would like to encourage the Commission to consider a compromise by leaving the property tax rate as it is currently and reducing the amount of cash-funded roads thus allowing a reallocation of funds for economic development and education, culture and recreation, city partnerships, and health and human services.

Thank you for your consideration.

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
It’s unclear precisely what the Wichita Chamber is asking commissioners to do. It seems likely the Chamber is asking for support of “Plan C.” That is the plan drafted by commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, which proposes deferring road maintenance in order to free funds for current spending. That plan sets the county on the course chosen by the city of Wichita some years ago. That is, defer maintenance on streets and other infrastructure to support current spending. That policy lead to declining quality of streets and a large backlog of other maintenance, with a recent report from the city finding that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This deferral of maintenance needs is a form of deficit spending. It’s curious that a purportedly conservative organization like the Wichita Chamber of Commerce would support that.

Well, it’s not really surprising. The Wichita Chamber has long advocated for more taxation and spending, taking the lead in promoting the one cent per dollar sales tax proposal in Wichita last year. The Chamber has supported big-spending Republicans over fiscal conservatives for office at several levels.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsIn Wichita, and across the country, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

That may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes, more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.

Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore — formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with Heritage Foundation — explains the decline of the local chamber of commerce:

The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.

“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The complete article is here.

Cost of restoring quality of life spending cuts in Sedgwick County: 43 deaths

An analysis of public health spending in Sedgwick County illuminates the consequences of public spending decisions. In particular, those calling for more spending on zoos and arts must consider the lives that could be saved by diverting this spending to public health, according to analysis from Kansas Health Institute.

Kansas Health Institute is concerned about proposed reductions in public health spending in Sedgwick County. Sunday it released a fact sheet titled Decreases in Public Health Spending Associated with More Deaths from Preventable Causes, subtitled “Analysis of how proposed public health funding reductions in Sedgwick County could lead to more preventable deaths over time.”

Kansas Health Institute infographic
Kansas Health Institute infographic
KHI’s analysis is based on the paper “Evidence Links Increases In Public Health Spending To Declines In Preventable Deaths,” Glen P. Mays and Sharla A. Smith, Health Affairs, 30, no.8 (2011):1585-1593, available here. Excerpts from the paper are below. KHI summarizes the findings of the paper as: “In short, the research showed that increased spending by local public health agencies over the thirteen-year period studied was linked to statistically significant declines in deaths from some preventable causes such as infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

KHI developed a model based on the paper’s findings to conclude that the proposed reductions in spending on public health in Sedgwick County would result in the deaths show in the nearby table from their fact sheet. The total of these numbers is an additional 65 deaths per year.

Perhaps in response to these findings, two Sedgwick County Commissioners have proposed eliminating the proposed cuts. To help understand the effects of this spending, I duplicated the analysis performed by KHI. I took the proposed increases in spending (or reductions in cuts) and subtracted the spending for public health, leaving $1,019,499 in spending that loosely qualifies as “quality of life” spending. It’s for things like the zoo, Exploration Place, economic development, and the like.

Sedgwick County spending analysis based on Kansas Health Institute model. Click for larger version.
Sedgwick County spending analysis based on Kansas Health Institute model. Click for larger version.
As can be seen in the nearby illustration, if this quality of life spending was instead spent on public health, we could save 43 lives per year. Based on the methodology used by KHI, this is the human cost of restoring only the proposed cuts to quality of life spending in Sedgwick County. If we were to use the totality of quality of life spending, or even just a subset like the $5.3 million spent on an elephant exhibit, the cost in human lives is large. This, of course, assumes that the KHI methodology is valid and reliable.

In its summary, the KHI report states: “Budget decisions have real consequences.” Those supporting spending on quality of life issues instead of public health have some explaining to do.

Excerpts from Mays et al.

“On balance, there is very little empirical evidence about the extent to which differences in public health spending levels contribute to differences in population health. Several cross-national studies have found weak and conflicting associations between spending and health outcomes at a national level.”

In a section titled “Limitations” the authors note “Several limitations of this analysis are worthy of emphasis. Although we used strong statistical controls to address possible sources of bias, it remains possible that factors distinct from, but closely correlated with, public health spending may explain some of the observed associations between spending and mortality.”

Also, “Local public health activities may have important and perhaps more immediate effects on these other indicators of health … this analysis may underestimate the health consequences of changes in local public health spending.”

In conclusion, the authors write: “Our analysis supports the contention that spending on local public health activities is a wise health investment. Increasing such investments in communities with historically low levels of spending may provide an effective way of reducing geographic disparities in population health. However, more money by itself is unlikely to generate significant and sustainable health gains.”

In Sedgwick County, a moral crusade

In Sedgwick County the debate over the budget has the dimension of a moral crusade, except for one thing.

As Sedgwick County debates next year’s budget, the arguments against a three percent cut in spending have been heated. Proponents of spending say the commissioners are not honoring commitments (see here and here), the commissioners are being short-sighted and foolish for proposing cuts, the county has a moral obligation to use taxes to care for the needy, and that county spending has a great economic benefit.

But what isn’t often mentioned is the nature of taxation and government spending. A new video from Learn Liberty offers a perspective on the morality of government that seems to be totally missing in the debate. View the video below, or click here.

In summary, the video poses these questions:

1. Is it moral for you to donate your money and time to (the zoo, Exploration Place, arts, health care for the poor, vocational education, payments to companies so they remain in the county instead of moving, a livestock show, the river festival, the sports commission, etc.)?

2. Is it moral for you to force other people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?

3. Is it moral for government to force people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?

If you answer “no” to question two, then how do you justify answering “yes” to question three? All sorts of rationalizations are available to support these two answers, such as:

1. Society is like a club, and taxes are the dues.
2. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
3. Government owns the nation (state, county, city, school district), and if you want to live or do business there, you must pay rent.
4. Government gives (most) people back more in services and benefits than they pay in taxes.
5. Government makes investments with our taxes that earn it even more tax revenue.

Some of these have a grain of truth, such as taxes providing for the national defense and a justice system. These two things make it possible for us to be safe from foreign aggressors and to have our rights and property protected. It doesn’t take a whole lot — comparatively speaking — to provide these functions, but government goes way beyond.

In fact, the truth behind number four leads to a most uncivil society, where people spend vast amounts of time and money lobbying for government to take even more time and money away from others and give it to them — or to the things they think your money should be spent on. We end up fighting over things like zoos and arts, instead of cooperating to attain these desirable amenities.

And fight we do. The techniques are known in advance. The book Economics In One Lesson, first published in 1946 and available to read at the Foundation for Economic Education, explains fallacies (false or mistaken ideas) that are particularly common in the field of economics and public policy. At the very start of the book the author Henry Hazlitt explains:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

An example of using the “best buyable minds” is the promotion of government spending on arts as having some magic power not present in other spending. These buyable minds have produced an impressive document titled Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in the State of Kansas. It explains that when a theater company (presumably operating with a government grant) buys a gallon of paint, it sets off a chain of economic activity that benefits many people. True enough. It’s called commerce. But anyone buying the paint sets off the same chain of activity. The same, that is, except that homeowners spending their own money on paint are doing so voluntarily, while the government-subsidized theater company has used the force of government to take money from others.

That’s a big difference, and one lost on most residents of Sedgwick County. I’m hopeful that the people pleading for more taxation and spending are simply unaware of these considerations, as if so, their minds can change. The alternative is much more bleak.