Tag Archives: Special interest politics

In Sedgwick County, special interest politics on display

Campaign finance reports reveal special interest groups working to elect candidates. Their efforts to mold a candidate’s thinking appear to be working.

Why do people make political campaign contributions? I try to be optimistic. I’m willing to believe that people have sincerely-held beliefs.

But when you look under the covers, I find myself in agreement with Lily Tomlin, who quipped “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

A few days ago I showed how the campaign finance report for David Dennis, a candidate for Sedgwick County Commission, was full of contributions from people who regularly ask government for special favors and subsidy, people who campaigned for the Wichita city sales tax, and Democrats who are ideologically presupposed to higher taxes.1 In other words, people who believe they know better than you how to spend your money, and believe David Dennis will give them more to spend.

But I didn’t go far enough. The Wichita Eagle’s Daniel Salazar found this: “He [Dennis] received at least $4,814 in direct donations from board members of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society.”2

This is classic and explicit special interest group behavior. The group members contribute a little bit to a candidate in expectation of reaping big benefits for their special interest.

Economists call this rent seeking, defined as “An attempt to obtain economic rent (i.e., the portion of income paid to a factor of production in excess of what is needed to keep it employed in its current use) by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth.”3 That obscure term has been partially supplanted by a term more readily understood: cronyism.

And it appears to be working. Salazar’s article quotes Dennis: “I don’t think it’s (funding) adequate based on what I’ve learned. I think we’re going to have to do a complete review of what’s required to run the zoo.”4

There it is. I wonder who David Dennis consulted for his research?


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. A look at a David Dennis campaign finance report. Available at wichitaliberty.org/sedgwick-county-government/look-david-dennis-campaign-finance-report/.
  2. Salazar, Daniel. Dennis draws more donations than Peterjohn, including from zoo board members. Wichita Eagle, July 27, 2016. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/election/article92135002.html.
  3. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent-seeking
  4. ibid.

Kansas highway spending

An op-ed by an advocate for more highway spending in Kansas needs context and correction.

An op-ed in the Wichita Eagle by Bob Totten, executive vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association, makes the case for more spending on Kansas roads and highways. (Bob Totten: State’s road and bridge work is underfunded, February 25, 2016)

Besides lamenting the purportedly poor condition of Kansas roads and bridges, Totten mentions — frequently — the diversion of money from the highway fund to the general fund. While opinions may differ on the wisdom of KDOT borrowing money by selling long-term bonds and transferring those funds to the state’s general fund, that activity is separate from spending money on roads. (The borrowing and transferring is not wise, for both Republican and Democratic administrations. See Kansas transportation bonds economics worse than told.)

KDOT spending on major road programs. Click for larger version.
KDOT spending on major road programs. Click for larger version.
When we look at actual spending on roads, we see something different from what is portrayed in this op-ed. KDOT’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report shows spending in the categories “Preservation” and “Expansion and Enhancement” has grown rapidly over the past five years. Spending in the category “Maintenance” has been level, while spending on “Modernization” has declined. For these four categories — which represent the major share of KDOT spending on roads — spending in fiscal 2015 totaled $932.666 million, up from a low of $698.770 million in fiscal 2010.

In light of this rising spending on roads, we have to wonder what is the point of Mr. Totten’s op-ed. That is self-evident. The purpose of the Kansas Contractors Association is to have the state spend as much as possible on projects that benefit its clients, which include contractors, construction companies, and material suppliers. It matters not whether the spending is needed, wise, or the proverbial “bridge to nowhere” — the goal of Mr. Totten is more spending by Kansas taxpayers to benefit his association’s members.

KDOT spending. Click for larger version.
KDOT spending. Click for larger version.

In Wichita, a campaign issue to watch for

As Wichita enters campaign season for mayor and city council, will any candidates call for implementing a reform that we desperately need in Wichita? Following, from 2012, explains.

In the wake of scandals some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws may prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, prohibit officeholders from voting on laws that will benefit their campaign donors, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates.

And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no common thread linking the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose political ideals they agree with. Instead, they’re donating so they can line their own pockets. These donors are opportunists.

An architect makes big contributions supporting a school bond issue campaign, and then wins a no-bid contract. Coincidence?
An architect makes big contributions supporting a school bond issue campaign, and then wins a no-bid contract. Coincidence?
As another example, for the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259 (Wichita public school district), my analysis found that 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 school construction. Do these companies have an especially keen interest in the education of children? I don’t think so. They are interested in themselves.

Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. The law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500, requiring that these contracts be awarded by a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding.

Cities, too, are passing pay-to-pay laws. Notably, a recently-passed law in Dallas was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers who are generous with campaign contributions to almost all council members. Not that this is new to Wichita, as the city has often done this in the past.

Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life.

In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens. But many politicians don’t want campaign contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract without an open bidding process. The contractor the city wanted to give the contract to was Key Construction, a firm that actively makes political contributions to city council members, both conservative and liberal.

For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer.

Here’s what’s interesting: Brewer and city council members say the campaign contributions don’t affect their votes. Those who regularly make contributions say they don’t do it to influence the council. Therefore, it seems that there should be no opposition to a pay-to-play law in Wichita — or the entire state — like the one in Santa Ana.

But until we get such a law, I can understand how Wichita city council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to vote to give money to. It’s not about supporting political ideologies — liberal, moderate, or conservative. It’s about opportunists seeking money from government.

The practice stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow at the expense of taxpayers. Pay-to-play laws can help reverse these trends.

You may download a printable copy of this article at Kansas Needs Pay-to-Play Laws.

‘Public Choice’ explains much of government and politics

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

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

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

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

Here is the executive summary of the book:

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

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

American Hospital Association supports Kansas Sen. Roberts

When the American Hospital Association decided to support one of the candidates for United States Senator from Kansas, the chosen candidate, Pat Roberts, took pride in the endorsement. And, who wouldn’t be proud? American hospitals? Who isn’t in favor of good hospitals for Americans?

As it turns out, AHA is a special interest group. It is a major spender on lobbying and campaign contributions. It is a major supporter of Obamacare.

Through 2013, AHA has spent $259,067,349 on lobbying. It lobbies in favor of its members and against potential competitors, such as doctor-owned hospitals. Reporting on an aspect of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that prevents doctor-owned hospitals from participating in Medicaid if they expand, the Weekly Standard remarked: “This little-noticed but particularly egregious aspect of Obamacare is, by all accounts, a concession to the powerful American Hospital Association (AHA), a supporter of Obamacare, which prefers to have its member hospitals operate without competition from hospitals owned by doctors.”

That’s right. The American Hospital Association also supported Obamacare. Anti-competitive measures like this were part of the price to get AHA’s support. Now, AHA has decided that Pat Roberts will best represent its interests in Washington.

AHA also makes contributions directly to candidates. Interestingly, the largest recipient of AHA campaign funds is Rod R. Blagojevich. He used to be the governor of Illinois, but he recently relocated to Littleton, Colorado. There he’s also known as inmate number 40892-424, with an anticipated release date of May 23, 2024.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Newspaper editorial writers on how democracy works, Kansas school test scores.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: An editorial in a Kansas newspaper exposes a dangerously uninformed and simplistic view of politics and democracy. Then, will Kansas school leaders and newspapers tell us the hidden truths about Kansas school test scores? Episode 41, broadcast May 4, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Rural Kansans’ billion-dollar subsidy of wind farms

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Rural Kansans’ Billion-Dollar Subsidy of Wind Farms

By Dave Trabert

Kansas wind turbinesNo, I’m not talking about any federal tax subsidies or mandates to buy high-cost wind energy that have forced higher taxes and electricity prices on every citizen. This billion-dollar gift comes in the form of local property tax exemptions. In some ways, this handout is even more insidious because the cost is borne by a relatively small number of Kansas homeowners and employers in the rural counties where wind farms exist.

Under current law, renewable energy producers enjoy a lifetime exemption from property taxes in Kansas. I testified last week in support of SB 435 to limit their property tax exemption to ten years.  As shown on an attachment to my testimony, the Kansas Legislative Research Department says there is a $108.4 million annual difference between the small fees paid in lieu of taxes and the taxes that would be due if taxed at the regular rates within each county. So technically, the legislation would only “limit” the property tax gift to $1.1 billion over ten years on existing wind farms; more tax gifts would still be done on new wind farms and other renewable energy facilities.

And while renewable energy producers were basically getting a free ride, property taxes on everyone else where going through the roof!

Giving property tax exemptions to private companies, regardless of the rationale, only increases everyone else’s property tax. Local government spending is not curtailed to absorb the exemption; cities and counties just raise taxes on everyone else. We encouraged the Legislature to also require that local mill rates be reduced proportionately if these property tax gifts are limited to ten years so that the new revenue from renewable energy producers’ property tax is used to reduce the burden on everyone else. (You should have seen the stink-eye this produced from the tax-and-spend crowd.)

Predictably, wind farm lobbyists lined up to protest that this legislation would increase their property taxes and send a bad message to the wind industry. Even local governments are opposed to taking away the exemption — after all, they can get their money from everyone else and take credit for bringing jobs and investment to their communities. They refuse to acknowledge that any economic benefit enjoyed by the green energy industry (and their own political benefit) comes out of the pockets of everyone else.

P.S. Remember this billion-dollar gift the next time you’re angered by cronyism in Washington, DC. Bad players in Washington often learn their craft at the state level; fending off bad policy at the state level has many long term benefits.