Tag Archives: Subsidy

Cash grants still in use

Wichita is moving away from the use of cash incentives for economic development, except for this.

We’ve been told that the city is not going to use cash incentives for economic development. But an item the Wichita City Council will consider this week includes a cash grant of $10,000.

125 N. Emporia, scheduled to receive economic development incentives.
125 N. Emporia, scheduled to receive economic development incentives. Courtesy Google.
This grant is part of the city’s facade improvement program. Under it, properties in certain parts of the city can apply to use special assessment financing to pay for the improvement of their outside appearance. The city borrows the funds and advances them to the property owner. The bonds are repaid through special assessment taxes that are added to the property’s tax bill.

This process is similar to the way the city finances improvements such as street, water, and sewer infrastructure in new neighborhoods or commercial developments. Except: The infrastructure in new development becomes the property of the city. For a facade improvement project, the improvements remain private property.

Are facade improvement cash grants an exception to the new era of economic development in Wichita? Or when will we start implementing these new policies? Some might say that the grants are not for the purposes of economic development. If not, then how does the city justify these grants?

There is perhaps an even more important question the city needs to recognize and answer, which is this: Why are incentives like this necessary? The city says that without the incentive the project is not economically feasible: “The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (gap) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives based on the current market.”

(In case council members make the argument that the facade improvement is not an incentive, remind them that city economic development officials disagree.)

What is it that makes this project economically unfeasible? Why is investment not possible without taxpayer assistance? These are the questions the city needs to answer before asking taxpayers to make a cash grant to this building’s owners.

Kansas cities force tax breaks on others

When Kansas cities grant economic development incentives, they may also unilaterally take action that affects overlapping jurisdictions such as counties, school districts, and the state itself. The legislature should end this.

When Kansas cities create tax increment financing (TIF) districts, the overlapping county and school district(s) have an opportunity to veto its creation.

But for some other forms of incentives, such as tax increment financing district redevelopment plans, property tax abatements, and sales tax abatements, overlapping jurisdictions have no ability to object. There seems to be no rational basis for not giving these jurisdictions a chance to object to the erosion of their tax base.

This is especially important for school districts, as they are often the largest tax consumer. As an example, when the City of Wichita offered tax abatements to a company in June 2014, 47 percent of the abated taxes would have gone to the Wichita school district. But the school district did not participate in this decision. State law gave it no voice.

Supporters of economic development incentives say that the school district benefits from the incentives. The argument is that even though the district gives up some tax revenue now, it will get more in the future. This is the basis for the benefit-cost ratios Wichita uses to justify incentives. For itself, the City of Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better, although there are many loopholes the city can use to grant incentives when this threshold is not met. For the June project, city documents reported these benefit-cost ratios for two overlapping jurisdictions:

Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one

In this case, the city forced a benefit-cost ratio on the county that the city would not accept for itself, unless it uses a loophole. For the school district, the net benefit is zero.

The Kansas Legislature should look at ways to make sure that overlapping jurisdictions are not harmed when economic development incentives are granted by cities. The best way would be to require formal approval of the incentives by counties, school districts, and any other affected jurisdictions.

Two examples

In June 2014 the City of Wichita granted tax abatements for a new warehouse. City documents gave the benefit-cost ratios for the city and overlapping jurisdictions:

City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to one
Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one
State of Kansas 12.11 to one

It is not known whether these ratios include the sales tax forgiveness.

While the City of Wichita insists that projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better (although there are many exceptions), it doesn’t apply that standard for overlapping jurisdictions. Here, Sedgwick County experiences a benefit-cost ratio of 1.18 to one, and the Wichita school district (USD 259) 1.00 to one. These two governmental bodies have no input on the decision the city is making on their behalf. The school district’s share of the forgiven taxes is 47.4 percent.

In November 2014 a project had these dollar amounts of property tax abatement shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts, according to city documents:

City $81,272
State $3,750
County $73,442
USD 259 $143,038

The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the subject properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:

City of Wichita 1.98 to one
General Fund 1.78 to one
Debt Service 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas 28.23 to one

Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses a loophole.

Historic preservation tax credits, or developer welfare?

A Wichita developer seeks to have taxpayers fund a large portion of his development costs, using a wasteful government program of dubious value.

When you hear of a program titled “historic preservation tax credits” you might find yourself in agreement. Preserving history: Who can be against that? And tax credits: Aren’t those just technical adjustments on someone’s tax form?

The Colorado-Derby Building, now renamed and used by the Wichita public school district.
The Colorado-Derby Building, now renamed and used by the Wichita public school district.
If you look closely, however, you’ll find that the historic preservation tax credits program can include buildings with only the slightest historic significance, and has great cost to taxpayers.

The Colorado-Derby Building at 201 N Water Street in Wichita has been nominated for placement on the Register of Historic Kansas Places. It’s a nondescript building which currently houses administrative offices for the Wichita public school district and is known by a different name. Still, it is eligible for placement on the register for being an “example of this private investment trend,” that being the building of office buildings midcentury. A laudable accomplishment, but hardly notable.

The real reason for seeking placement on the register of historic places is money. By using historic preservation tax credits the developer of this building can get taxpayers to pay for much of the costs of rehabilitation. Almost half, which will be millions in this case.

Under the program this building is entering, its owners will receive 25 percent of rehabilitation expenses. The federal government provides tax credits of 20 percent. It’s likely that the owners of this building will also seek these credits.

So with both tax credit programs, 45 percent of the cost of rehabilitating this building could be paid for by taxpayers. And, given the history of the developer, it’s likely he will find other ways to get taxpayers to pay for even more.

Tax credits

USD 259 Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center 2008-04-07 11Tax credits may be a mystery to many, but there is no doubt as to their harmful effect on state and federal budgets. When using tax credits, the government, conceptually, issues a slip of paper that says something like “The holder of this document may submit it instead of $500,000 when making a tax payment.” So instead of paying taxes with actual money, the holder of the credit pays with, well, a slip of paper worth nothing to the government treasury.

This is a direct cost to the government, according to both reason and the Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit. Last year, after conducting an audit of Kansas tax credit programs, auditors explained: “Tax credits, which the government offers to try to induce certain actions by the taxpayer, reduce income tax revenues because they are subtracted directly from the amount of taxes due.” (emphasis added)

The confusing nature of tax credits leads citizens to believe that they have no cost to the state or federal government. But tax credits are equivalent to government spending. The problem is that by mixing spending programs with taxation, some are lead to believe that tax credits are not cash handouts. But not everyone falls for this seductive trap. In an article in Cato Institutes’s Regulation magazine, Edward D. Kleinbard explains:

Specialists term these synthetic government spending programs “tax expenditures.” Tax expenditures are really spending programs, not tax rollbacks, because the missing tax revenues must be financed by more taxes on somebody else. … Tax expenditures dissolve the boundaries between government revenues and government spending. They reduce both the coherence of the tax law and our ability to conceptualize the very size and activities of our government. (The Hidden Hand of Government Spending, Fall 2010)

The use of tax credits to pay for economic development incentives leads many to believe that what government is doing is not a direct subsidy or payment. In order to clear things up, perhaps we should require that government write checks instead of issuing credits.

Back to Kansas: The audit of the historic preservation tax credits program found that in 2001, when the program was started, the anticipated cost to the state was about $1 million per year. By 2007, the actual cost to the state was reported at almost $8.5 million.

Further, the audit found what many already knew: tax credit aren’t an efficient way of transferring subsidy to developers. Most of the time, the developers sell the credits to someone else at a discount, as the audit explains: “The Historic Preservation Tax Credit isn’t cost-effective. That credit works differently than the other three because the amount of money a historic preservation project receives from the credit is dependent upon the amount of money it’s sold for. Our review showed that, on average, when Historic Preservation Credits were transferred to generate money for a project, they only generated 85 cents for the project for every dollar of potential tax revenue the State gave up.”

It would be more efficient for everyone if the state would simply write checks to the developers instead of issuing tax credits. But then the actual economic meaning of the transaction would be laid bare for all to see.

Then, what qualifies as historic can change as political conditions require. Earlier this year the Wichita city council reversed a decision by the Historic Preservation Board and allowed a property owner to proceed with the demolition of three formerly historic buildings in southern downtown Wichita.

The historic preservation tax credit program is a government handout mechanism we no longer need. Today, most of the money goes to wealthy developers or corporations that can afford to redevelop downtown hotels and lofts with their own money — instead of asking low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries to fund their tax credits.

Material from the Kansas State Historical Society
Nomination for listing on Register of Historic Kansas Places

Colorado-Derby Building – 201 N Water St., Wichita, Sedgwick County

Constructed in 1959-1960, the nine-story Colorado-Derby Building is an early example of a Modern Movement speculative office tower erected within a pattern of development that shaped Wichita’s downtown at midcentury. New buildings erected as icons on the skyline were intended to refresh, modernize, and revitalize the downtown core through public and private investment in civic and commercial improvements. Frank and Harvey Ablah recognized the onset of this trend and constructed the Colorado-Derby Building to provide speculative office space, redeveloping the site of the Ablah Hotel Supply Company. Named for its largest and most prominent tenant, the Colorado-Derby Building was fully occupied when it opened in 1960 and maintained high occupancy rates over the following decade. The construction and subsequent occupancy of this building illustrates the continuing importance of manufacturing industries to the economy of Wichita at midcentury and the ability of these industries to contribute to the economic and physical revitalization of downtown. The blocks immediately surrounding the building continued to develop in a similar fashion over the following decade with large-scale modern buildings and parking lots replacing smaller commercial and industrial buildings built a half-century earlier. All of this development activity culminated in a formal Urban Renewal project utilizing federal funds in the late 1960s. In Wichita, private investment focused on providing office space for industrial companies, rather than public funding initiated the revitalization that transformed downtown. The Colorado-Derby Building is nominated under Criterion A an important early example of this private investment trend.

Wichita to consider three tax abatements

When considering whether to grant three property tax abatements, the Wichita city council is unlikely to ask this question: Why can’t these companies expand if they have to pay the same taxes everyone else pays?

This week the Wichita City Council will consider property tax abatements for three different companies.

Wichita Urban DevelopmentOne is a new request for property tax relief under the city’s Economic Development Tax Exemption (EDX) program. The company is a supplier to the aerospace industry.

The second is a request for a five-year extension of a five-year property tax abatement. The company met the goals established five years ago. This company is a supplier to the aerospace industry.

The third is another request for a five-year extension of a five-year property tax abatement. The company met the goals established five years ago. This company is a supplier to the oil and gas industry.

To justify the cost of the tax abatements, the city presents benefit-cost ratio calculations. The city requires that the ratio be at least 1.3 to one, although there are exceptions. In each of these three cases the benefit-cost ratio for the school district is less than 1.3 to one. The city, in other words, is forcing school districts to accept investments that the city itself would not make, unless it invoked an exception. The school districts have no ability to limit their participation in these tax abatements other than lobbying the city.

For all the information provided in city documents, some important questions remain unanswered. Perhaps the most important question is this: Are these tax abatements necessary for these companies to carry out their expansion plans? City documents are silent on this question.

Was it a question of feasibility? Some economic development programs require that the applicant demonstrate the necessity of an incentive. Often the city presents a “gap” analysis that purportedly shows a gap between available financing and what is necessary to make the project feasible. But these arguments were not advanced. If they had — that is, if the companies say that if they have to pay property taxes then they can’t afford to expand — then we would be stuck with this question: Why are Wichita industrial property taxes so high that investments like this are not feasible?

The city presents a benefit-cost ratio showing that by giving up some property taxes, it gains even more tax revenue from other sources. But a positive benefit-cost ratio is not remarkable. Economic activity generally spawns more economic activity, which government then taxes. The question is: Did the city, county, school district, and state need to give up tax revenue in order to make this investment possible? (That’s right. The action by the city affected three other jurisdictions.)

Part of the cost of these companies’ 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. But we can’t identify which firms will be successful. So we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. The action the Wichita city council took this week works against entrepreneurial firms. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

The problem with these actions

A major reason why these tax abatements are harmful to the Wichita economy is its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As these companies and others escape paying taxes, others have to pay. This increases the burden of the cost of government on everyone else — in particular on the companies we need to nurture.

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. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Wichita economy.

These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies receiving grants or escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form. Young entrepreneurial companies are particularly vulnerable.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development PolicyProfessor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”

(For a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view, see Research on economic development incentives. A sample finding is “General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).”)

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates for everyone is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like the Wichita city council used this week is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

In explaining the importance of dynamism, Hall wrote: “Generally speaking, dynamism represents persistent, annual change in about one-third of Kansas jobs. Job creation may be a key goal of economic development policy but job creation is a residual economic outcome of business dynamism. The policy challenge centers on promoting dynamism by establishing a business environment that induces business birth and expansion without bias related to the size or type of business.”

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach, especially the policies that prop up our established companies to the detriment of dynamism. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.

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.)

Does Kansas have its own Solyndra?

Does Kansas have its own version of Solyndra, the politically-connected firm that failed and cost taxpayers some $535 million? We don’t know. But the Abengoa cellulosic ethanol plant near Hugoton received a $132.4 million loan guarantee under the same program that benefited Solyndra.

In January I requested documents regarding the Abengoa loan guarantee and risk assessment 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. But after nine months: nothing. Following, from October 2011, more information about this plant.

At this moment, we can’t say that Kansas has its own version of Solyndra, the subsidized and politically-connected solar energy firm that recently shut down its operations and declared bankruptcy. But as far as absorbing the important lessons from Solyndra, we may have another chance to learn them in Kansas.

Solyndra is a failure in several ways. Much money was lost. It may be that corrupt or criminal activity was involved; we don’t know that yet. It appears that Solyndra will be a useful political scandal for Republicans to exploit, especially in the upcoming election campaign against the president. We can be sure that Republicans will keep us informed on this.

But the largest and most important lesson from Solyndra is one that many politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — don’t want to recognize: Government intervention in the economy is wrong for the health of the country.

The problem is that when government intervenes in the economy, it almost always gets it wrong. It’s not that Obama and other politicians aren’t smart. It’s the problems inherent in government interventionism: There will be both routine and spectacular examples of waste, as people — politicians and bureaucrats, especially — are not spending their own money. Decisions will be made to benefit the well-connected and for political, not market-based reasons. Cronyism and corruption flourish, as many will find it easier to compete in the marketplace for politicians rather than in the free market where fickle consumers rule with their fleeting tastes and preferences.

But politicians and bureaucrats love to intervene. For bureaucrats, intervention — government programs, that is — provides jobs, and well-paid jobs, too. Since much government intervention in the economy is in the form of subsidies, it allows politicians to dispense other peoples’ money and take credit for having “created” jobs or having built a bridge, probably to be named for them later on.

Other government intervention is in the form of creating unneeded regulations or tax loopholes that favor politicians’ friends or harm their competition.

All of this means that economic activity is directed according to political, not economic, considerations. It’s wasteful. It’s harmful. It diminishes market-based investment, that is, investment made according to what people really want and need. It reduces the freedom, liberty, and prosperity of everyone.

Back to Kansas: Last week the Department of Energy announced the award of a $132.4 million loan guarantee to Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, LLC. This is the same federal agency and the same loan guarantee program involved in the Solyndra matter. The difference is that it’s an even newer so-called green energy technology involved: cellulosic ethanol production.

The plant in Kansas is to be at Hugoton, in southwest Kansas. The press release from DOE promotes the number of jobs that will be created.

Cellulosic ethanol is produced from plant material that is usually considered waste, such as corn stalks or wheat straw. That’s different from the usual input to ethanol production in America, which is corn that would otherwise be used as animal or human food. Because of this, cellulosic ethanol is thought of by many as the “silver bullet” that will dramatically improve the path of America’s energy future. That may be the case, or it may not be. Because of the reasons listed above, government is particularly unsuited to make that decision and to participate in the scientific and entrepreneurial experimentation that will produce the answer.

At one time President George W. Bush praised the potential of this fuel. A Reuters analysis from July opens with: “The great promise of a car fuel made from cheap, clean-burning prairie grass or wood chips — and not from expensive corn that feeds the world — is more mirage than reality. Despite years of research, testing and some hype, the next-generation ethanol industry is far from the commercial success envisioned by President George W. Bush in 2006, when he pledged so-called cellulosic biofuels would be ‘practical and competitive’ by 2012.”

That hints at the problem: despite much effort, scientists haven’t been able to demonstrate cellulosic ethanol production on a commercially-successful scale. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of this summer, no commercial cellulosic ethanol has been produced.

The loan guarantee is not the only form of government subsidy and boost ethanol producers received. There is a tax credit for each gallon produced and a tariff that protects producers from cheaper imported ethanol.

Despite these very large measures of government intervention, cellulosic ethanol backers blame the government for lack of progress in the industry, citing the government’s failure to mandate production levels and provide assurances that the industry would receive subsidies. And the loan guarantees are not made fast enough, they add to the list of complaints. An analysis by ClimateWire that appeared in the New York Times in January had industry boosters blaming the federal Department of Energy for its slow pace in issuing loan guarantees.

We won’t know the success or failure of the Abengoa plant in Kansas for some time, and now we taxpayers are placed in the position of hoping that it succeeds. But it has the pedigree of a government plan to correct a perceived market failure, and that’s a danger sign.

Both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have spoken approvingly of this plant despite the government intervention involved; Moran in a statement after the announcement, and Roberts in previous years as plans were being made. U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who represents the district where the plant is located, has not commented on this plant, and offered no comment for this story.

In search of a level playing field

A national survey finds that small business leaders overwhelmingly believe that state economic development incentives favor big businesses, that states are overspending on large individual deals, and that state incentive programs are not effectively meeting the needs of small businesses seeking to grow. From Good Jobs First.

Survey: Small Business Group Leaders Say States Favor Big Businesses at the Expense of Small Firms Seeking to Grow

Washington, DC, September 29, 2015 — A national survey of 41 leaders of small business organizations representing 24,000 member businesses in 25 states reveals that they overwhelmingly believe that state economic development incentives favor big businesses, that states are overspending on large individual deals, and that state incentive programs are not effectively meeting the needs of small businesses seeking to grow.

In Search of a Level Playing Field coverA large majority also say small businesses interests in economic development are not well represented in their state capitols. The credit crunch is a critical problem, and many also emphasize that public goods that benefit all employers-such as job training, education, and transportation-deserve to be a higher priority.

The study was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. It is available on the Good Jobs First website here.

“Our findings are absolutely consistent with what we have heard for years from small business leaders,” said Good Jobs First executive director Greg LeRoy. “Despite their pro-small business rhetoric, state officials’ programs are perceived as biased in favor of large companies that receive big tax-break packages.”

Specifically:

  • 92 percent believe that the spending balance on incentives between small and large businesses in their state is biased toward big businesses (69 percent strongly believe).
  • 79 percent believe that their state is overspending on big incentive deals, hurting state finances (56 percent strongly).
  • 87 percent say that small business interests in economic development issues are not effectively represented in their state’s capital (36 percent strongly).
  • 85 percent believe that economic development incentives in their state are not effectively addressing the current needs of small businesses that are seeking to grow (36 percent strongly).
  • 72 percent do not believe their state’s current incentive policies are effective in promoting economic growth (23 percent strongly).

The respondents lead groups from 25 states, including all but one of the 15 most-populous. They belong to networks formed in the past 15 years, many with economic development missions. None is contracted by state or local governments to perform economic development functions such as outside-firm recruitment.

“Our next study will examine in great detail how well or poorly state incentive programs treat small, local and/or entrepreneurial businesses versus large, multistate companies” added LeRoy.

Good Jobs First is a non-profit, non-partisan resource center on economic development. Founded in 1998, it is based in Washington DC.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Lack of information sharing by government, community improvement districts, and the last episode of “Love Gov”

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do our governmental agencies really want to share data and documents with us? Community Improvement Districts and homeowners compared. And, the last episode of “Love Gov” from the Independent Institute. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Episode 95, broadcast September 20, 2015.

Sales tax exemptions in Kansas

Can eliminating sales tax exemptions in Kansas generate a pot of gold?

Advocates of eliminating sales tax exemptions in Kansas point to the great amount of revenue that could be raised if Kansas eliminated these exemptions, estimated at some $5.9 billion per year. Analysis of the nature of the exemptions and the amounts of money involved, however, leads us to realize that the additional tax revenue that could be raised is much less than spending advocates claim, unless Kansas was to adopt a severely uncompetitive, and in some cases, unproductive and harshly regressive tax policy.

A recent advocate for eliminating some sales tax exemptions is Phillip Brownlee of the Wichita Eagle editorial board. In a previous op-ed on this topic he wrote ” And with each added exemption, the state is losing out on more revenue — $5.9 billion this fiscal year, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue. That’s money the state could be using to cover its budget shortfalls, increase funding to public schools or further reduce its income-tax rates.” At least he mentioned reducing other tax rates. Usually advocates of closing sales tax exemptions simply want more tax money to spend.

Kansas sales tax exemptions, simplified. Click for larger version.
Kansas sales tax exemptions, simplified. Click for larger version.
$5.9 billion dollars, by the way, is a lot of money, almost as much as the state’s general fund spending. But we need to look at the nature of these exemptions. I’ve prepared a simplified table based on data from the Kansas Department of Revenue. I simplified because there are many deductions that probably should be eliminated, but they represent very small amounts of money.

Some sales tax exemptions are for categories of business activity that shouldn’t be taxed, at least if we want to constrain the state to a retail sales tax only. An example is exemption 79-3606 (m), described as “Property which becomes an ingredient or component part of property or services produced or manufactured for ultimate sale at retail.” The tax that could be collected, should the state eliminate this exemption, is given as $3,083.24 million ($3,083,240,000).

But this exemption isn’t really an “exemption,” at least if the sales tax is a retail sales tax designed to be levied as the final tax on consumption. That’s because these goods aren’t being sold at retail. They’re sold to manufacturers who use them as inputs to products that, when finished, will be sold at retail. Most states don’t tax this type of sales. If Kansas decided to tax these transactions, it would place our state’s manufacturers at a severe disadvantage compared to almost all other states.

There are two other exemptions that fall in this category of inputs to production processes, totaling an estimated $632 million in lost revenue. Another similar exemption is “Machinery and equipment used directly and primarily in the manufacture, assemblage, processing, finishing, storing, warehousing or distributing of property for resale by the plant or facility.” Its value is nearly $159 million.

Together, these exemptions account for $3,874 million of the $5,900 million in total exemptions.

Another big-dollar exemption is “items already taxed” such as motor fuel. This is an estimated $318.90 million loss in revenue. Other exemptions are purchases made by government, or purchase made by contractors on behalf of government. These account for an estimated $624.90 million in lost revenue. If these two exemptions were eliminated, the government would be taxing itself.

Not taxing prescription drugs means lost revenue estimated at $96.49 million. If the state started taxing residential and agricultural use utilities, it could gain an estimated $169.98 million. These taxes, like the sales tax on food and the motor fuel tax, fall hardest on low-income families. As Kansas is one of the few states to tax food, do we want to make life even more difficult for low-income households?

Adding these exemptions comes to about $5,084 million. There are other exemptions for which we could make similar arguments for their retention. What’s left over — the exemptions that really should not exist — isn’t much at all. The entire category of “Exemptions to Charitable Organizations by Name.” amounts to $3.05 million in exempted sales tax. These represent the organizations where a lawmaker has crafted an exemption like “Property and services purchased by Jazz in the Woods and sales made by or on behalf of such organization.”

So when the Eagle’s Brownlee writes “As is, favored groups are saving billions of dollars a year, worsening the tax burden for everybody else” he must be including broad categories of business like “All Kansas manufacturing companies” as a “favored group.” Or maybe he means prescription drug users are a “favored group.” Or families struggling to pay utility bills.

But there are more problems. Brownlee describes these sales tax exemptions as a “cost in lost revenue of $5.9 billion last fiscal year.” The only way this makes sense is if one thinks that our property (our money) first belongs to the state, and that in order to spend it, we have to give the state its cut. That’s an opinion — ideology, if you will — that you may agree with, or you may oppose. What’s remarkable — shocking, really — is that in his previous career Brownlee was a Certified Public Accountant. He ought to understand the nature of sales taxes meant to be applied to retail sales, not components of manufactured goods.

Another week in Wichita, more CID sprawl

Shoppers in west Wichita should prepare to pay higher taxes, if the city approves a Community Improvement District at Kellogg and West Streets.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider the formation of a Community Improvement District (CID) surrounding the intersection of Kellogg and West Streets.

CIDs are a relatively recent creation of the Kansas Legislature. In a CID, merchants may charge additional sales tax, up to an extra two cents per dollar. For more about their mechanism, see Community improvement districts in Kansas. In the present case, the developer proposes to charge an extra one cent per dollar in tax. This extra sales tax, minus a handling fee, will be periodically remitted to the developer. It’s important to note that CID proceeds do not flow to the merchants who collect them.

This CID is “pay-as-you-go,” meaning the city is not issuing bonds or loaning money.

This CID, should the council approve, will contribute to CID sprawl. This is a condition in which more and more of the city is overtaken by CIDs and their higher taxes. In effect, a sales tax increase is taking effect. Because of the city’s weak protection of shoppers from these CID taxes, many Wichitans and visitors will pay higher taxes than they expected. This harms the reputation of Wichita.

(Of note, Kansas raised the statewide sales tax this year. Because Kansas is one of the few states that tax groceries at the full rate, low-income families are harmed most by the higher sales and CID taxes. See Kansas sales tax has disproportionate harmful effects for analysis.)

This CID is likely to be sold to citizens as contributing to public infrastructure. It’s true that a traffic signal on West Street and widening of that street are listed as uses of CID funds. But the amount budgeted is $350,000, which means that the improvements will not be substantial. This inclusion of public infrastructure is likely part of a strategy of sweetening the deal. It’s not all about greedy developers, the city will say. Some of the funds are going to public infrastructure. This strategy was used to justify the Cabela’s CID, in which part of the CID funds are paying for improvements to the intersection of K-96 and Greenwich Road.

This CID proposal contains two new provisions that may help blunt some of the criticism of CIDs as harmful to other business firms in the city. First is this condition: “Allow the City to review and approve or deny the relocation of any business within three miles of the district, for the first three years, on any property in which the developer requests reimbursement for the land acquisition.” This seems designed to restrict “poaching” of merchants from other nearby landlords who are not being subsidized by a CID. Whether this condition has any real meaning is unknown. In practice, the city has been reluctant to enforce restrictions similar to this.

Some of the first buildings to be demolished on West Street, according to a city schedule of milestones. Click for larger.
Some of the first buildings to be demolished on West Street, according to a city schedule of milestones. Click for larger.
Also there is this condition: “Demolition or rehabilitation of three identified structures and additional investment within the district within the timeframe below.” Following this is a schedule of milestones. This may be in response to instances where the city has authorized a subsidy program, but nothing happened, or happened slowly. The Exchange Place project at Douglas and Market is one example. Another is the CID at Central and Oliver. Principals of the Kellogg and West CID are also involved in the Central and Oliver CID, and little has happened there since its formation.

Another important public policy issue regarding CIDs is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? We can easily see their rationalization: It’s better for us that unwitting customers pay higher sales taxes rather than higher prices. We can blame government for the taxes, but we get the money. 1

Customers of merchants in CIDS ought to know in advance that an extra tax is charged. Some have recommended warning signage that protects customers from unknowingly shopping in stores, restaurants, and hotels that will be adding extra sales tax to purchases. Developers who want to benefit from CID money say that merchants object to signage, fearing it will drive away customers.

State law is silent on this. The City of Wichita requires a sign indicating that CID financing made the project possible, with no hint that customers will pay additional tax. The city also maintains a website showing CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless, but this was the decision the city council made. 2

CIDs allow property owners to establish their own private taxing district for their exclusive benefit. This goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually thought of. Generally, we use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from participating in — benefiting from — police protection.

But CIDs allow taxes to be collected for the benefit of one specific entity. This goes against the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. But in this case, the people who benefit from the CID are quite easy to identify: the property owners in the district. We shouldn’t let private parties use a government function for their exclusive benefit.

  1. The premise of this question is not accurate, as it is not the merchants who receive CID funds. Landlords do. The more accurate question is why don’t landlords raise their rents?
  2. Weeks, B. (2014). Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-city-council-fails-support-informing-taxed/ Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.

Wichita CID illustrates pitfalls of government intervention

A proposed special tax district in Wichita holds the potential to harm consumers, the city’s reputation, and the business prospects of competitors. Besides, we shouldn’t let private parties use a government function for their exclusive benefit.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider the formation of a Community Improvement Districts to benefit a proposed hotel in west Wichita.

CIDs are a relatively recent creation of the Kansas Legislature. In a CID, merchants may charge additional sales tax, up to an extra two cents per dollar. For more about their mechanism, see Community improvement districts in Kansas. In the present case, the developer proposes to charge hotel guests an extra two cents per dollar in tax. If retail stores are developed, their customers will pay the CID tax too. This extra sales tax, minus a handling fee, will be periodically remitted to the developer.

From Google Earth, a view of the restaurant and hotel on the subject property. If a house this blighted had been owned by a poor inner-city resident, the city would have long ago condemned and demolished the building, at the homeowner's expense.
From Google Earth, a view of the restaurant and hotel on the subject property. If a house this blighted had been owned by a poor inner-city resident, the city would have long ago condemned and demolished the building, at the homeowner’s expense.
One reason to oppose the formation of this CID is it contributes to Wichita’s reputation as a city of high taxes. The nearby table gives an example of what a hotel bill will look like. There’s the existing guest tax of 6 percent. The city started collecting the 2.75 percent “tourism fee” this year. 1 (How many cities charge visitors a fee for visiting?) There’s the combined state and county sales tax of 7.5 percent, and then the CID tax of 2 percent. The total of these taxes is 18.25 percent.

A sample hotel bill in Wichita.
A sample hotel bill in Wichita.
The mayor and city council members note that these taxes are paid by people from out of town. They think it’s a smart strategy. But some significant fraction of these taxes are paid by Wichitans, particularly the many companies that have their scattered employees travel to Wichita. And, has anyone ever paid a hotel bill for visiting friends and relatives?

Welcome to Wichita Tourism Fee billboardBesides this, do we really want to punish our guests with these taxes? A city tourism fee? Welcome to Wichita, indeed.

Another important public policy issue regarding CIDs is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? We can easily see their rationalization: It’s better for us that unwitting customers pay higher sales taxes rather than higher prices. We can blame government for the taxes, but we get the money. 2

There is the competitive effect on other hotels in the area to consider. Some hotel owners feel the ability of one hotel to collect the CID tax for its own benefit gives an unfair competitive advantage.

Customers of merchants in CIDS ought to know in advance that an extra tax is charged. Some have recommended warning signage that protects customers from unknowingly shopping in stores, restaurants, and hotels that will be adding extra sales tax to purchases. Developers who want to benefit from CID money say that merchants object to signage, fearing it will drive away customers.

State law is silent on this. The City of Wichita requires a sign indicating that CID financing made the project possible, with no hint that customers will pay additional tax. The city also maintains a website showing CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless, but this was the decision the city council made. 3

CIDs allow property owners to establish their own private taxing district for their exclusive benefit. This goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually thought of. Generally, we use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from participating in — benefiting from — police protection.

But CIDs allow taxes to be collected for the benefit of one specific entity. This goes against the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. But in this case, the people who benefit from the CID are quite easy to identify: the property owners in the district. We shouldn’t let private parties use a government function for their exclusive benefit.

  1. Weeks, B. (2014). Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-seeks-add-tax-hotel-bills/ Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.
  2. The premise of this question is not accurate, as it is not the merchants who receive CID funds. Landlords do. The more accurate question is why don’t landlords raise their rents?
  3. Weeks, B. (2014). Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-city-council-fails-support-informing-taxed/ Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.

Wichita property tax delinquency problem not solved

Despite a government tax giveaway program, problems with delinquent special assessment taxes in Wichita have become worse.

It’s surprising to read reporting in the Wichita Eagle that the city is owed millions in delinquent special assessment taxes. (City of Wichita owed $4.8 million in delinquent special assessments, August 15, 2015)

That’s because in 2012 the city adopted a program that rebated property taxes to buyers of new homes. The goal of the program was twofold: To help builders sell homes, and to help the city collect delinquent special assessment taxes.

In February of that year, according to city documents, “Current delinquent specials on vacant lots within the City of Wichita are an estimated $3.3 million.”

Now the delinquent taxes have risen to $4.8 million.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. At the council meeting Wes Galyon, president of the Wichita Area Builders Association, told the council, according to meeting minutes: “This program will also aid in eliminating current delinquencies on lots and new home subdivisions in the City and contribute to the developers and builders being able to keep taxes and specials current on buildable lots that they own and plan to build on.”

The city manager told the council, according to meeting minutes: “The other issue was the ability to collect on delinquent taxes and special assessments. Stated that is becoming a growing problem for us as we look at what is happening with the economy and home builders.”

A program that should not have been adopted

In his remarks to city council members in February 2012, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the council, according to meeting minutes: “Stated they took a businesslike approach as they went through this and designed the program. Stated they consulted Wichita State University and the report references a 1.48 return on our investment just in terms of the present value of the direct and indirect jobs that are created as well as the construction expenditures, which was important to them.”

The manager was referring to an analysis prepared by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research, titled Economic Impact of Proposed WABA Incentives, February 1, 2012.

In these analyses, the city attempts to estimate costs and benefits of a program, and adopt only those programs that have a positive ratio of benefits over costs. (Generally the city requires that the ratio be 1.3 to 1 or greater.) Benefits are, according to the study, “sales tax revenues, from construction worker spending and construction material purchases, and property tax revenues.” The costs are the lost revenue due to the tax rebates. Following is an excerpt from a table that presents the results of analysis.

                   No Incentives    Incentives
Public Benefits       $2,364,429    $3,004,315
Public Costs                  $0    $2,032,312
Net Public Benefits   $2,364,429      $730,457
Return on Investment      N/A           1.48

Some, like the Wichita city manager, focused on the return on investment (ROI) ratio of 1.48 if the tax rebate incentive is used. (There is no such ratio if there are no incentives, as there is no investment.) The study explained the ratio this way: “For every dollar invested, the city will receive the initial dollar plus an additional 48 cents in return.”

That sounds like a good deal, and the ratios like this that are calculated by CEDBR are often used by the city to justify incentives.

But there is another way to look at this deal: the net value to the city. In this case, if the city did not offer the incentives, the benefits to the city would be $2,364,429. If incentives were used, the benefits would be $730,457. This means that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 to the better.

That’s right: Even though the city had an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high ROI, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment.

This illustrates the caveats of working with ratios. They are simply “the relation between two similar magnitudes with respect to the number of times the first contains the second.” A ratio says nothing about the absolute magnitude of the numbers.

For more about the problems CEDBR study found with the program, see Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis.

Wichita’s WaterWalk apartment deal

From August 2012, an episode of cronyism in Wichita.

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider the type of taxpayer-funded giveaway that voters have shown they don’t like. How council members vote may set the stage for city elections next March and April.

Tuesday’s item involves a proposed apartment development on the west bank of the Arkansas River across from the downtown WaterWalk development. The apartment developer is WaterWalk LLC, whose manager is Jack P. DeBoer.

The highlights of the deal include:

1. The lease of 4.4 acres of city-owned land for $1 per year, for the next 93 years. City documents say the land is valued by Sedgwick County at $479,000. The city paid $919,695 to acquire the land in 1994 and 1995. It’s listed as for sale with an asking price of $1,153,344. The city is, however, asking the apartment developer to pay the full $93 in advance.

2. Development of an amphitheater, which was part of the WaterWalk master plan. Originally planned to be just west of WaterWalk Place, the condominium development on Main Street, the amphitheater will now be implemented as a floating stage in the Arkansas River. A $247,500 Economic Development Initiative (EDI) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will pay for a portion of the cost. Tuesday’s agenda item asks authorization to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for this stage.

Besides the sweetheart land lease, there are two other components of this deal that are troubling. One will undoubtedly be presented to city council members and the public as a big benefit to taxpayers, something that will actually profit the city. This is a provision that requires the apartment developer to pay “Additional Annual Rent.” Under this concept, each year the apartment developer will calculate “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” and remit 25 percent of that to the city.

To the casual observer, this seems like a magnanimous gesture by the apartment developer. It makes it look like the city has been a tough negotiator, hammering out a good deal for the city, letting citizens profit along with the apartment developer.

But the definition of cash flow includes a comprehensive list of expenses the may be deducted, including the cost of repaying any loans. There’s also an allowable expense called “Tenant Development Cost Return,” which is the apartment developer’s profit. The agreement defines this profit as 20 percent, and it’s deducted as part of the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow.”

If there is ever any money left over after the dedication of all these expenses and profit margin, I will be surprised. Shocked, even. Here’s one reason why. One of the allowable deductions that goes into the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” is, according to city documents: “Amounts paid into any capital, furniture, fixture, equipment or other reserve.” There’s no restriction as to how much can be funneled into these reserve accounts. We can be sure that if this project was ever in the position where it looked like it might have to remit “Additional Annual Rent” to the city, contributions to these reserve funds would rise. Then, no funds paid to the city.

This is an example of the city appearing to be concerned for the welfare of taxpayers. In reality, this concept of “Additional Annual Rent” is worse than meaningless. It borders on deception.

Then, there’s this: The city has agreed to allow its ownership of the land (remember, the city is leasing the land to the apartment developer) to be subordinated to other debt the apartment developer may take on, such as the mortgage that will certainly be obtained. This means that if the apartment complex doesn’t succeed and there is foreclosure, the lender takes ownership of the city’s land.

Last week the city council passed a revision to its economic development policy that states that economic development incentives should have a cost-benefit ratio of at least 1.3 to one. No such number is given for this project.

Waterwalk, a problematic development

This deal is another chapter in the history of the troubled WaterWalk development. So far, WaterWalk has received some $41 million in public spending, and we have little to show for that investment.

Three years ago the Wichita Eagle editorialized: “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.” When our newspaper’s editorial board is critical of a government spending project in downtown Wichita, that’s a red letter day.

In 2009, after DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, the Wichita Eagle reported: “‘I’m not going down to City Hall with my hand out,’ DeBoer said. ‘I can’t. The city has put their money in it, and I’m happy with that. We’ve put a lot of our own money in and that’s OK. Now, time to deliver.'”

Leasing land worth $479,000 or $1,153,344 for one dollar per year: To me, that smells like a handout. It doesn’t sound like delivering on promises.

Around the time DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said no more public money would be put in to WaterWalk, according to Eagle reporting. Later he said those remarks were misinterpreted, with the Eagle reporting “[Layton] said the city won’t spend more on infrastructure, and that specific developments would be analyzed case by case to make sure they offer a return on investment for taxpayers and fit with the master plan.”

Wichita, home to cronyism

Measures like the city council will consider on Tuesday are what leads to cynicism regarding city government. It reinforces that notion that there is a network of insiders — the “good ol’ boy network” — that gets what it wants from city staff and officeholders. This deal — the sweetheart land giveaway, the deceptive appearance of profit sharing, the subordination of the city’s interests — doesn’t generate prosperity for Wichita and citizen confidence in its government. Instead, this deal contributes to the stench of cronyism that permeates and infests Wichita City Hall.

Two recent elections have shown that Wichitans don’t much care for this culture of giveaways to the politically connected class. People don’t like crony capitalism. They know it doesn’t work. The city defends these giveaways by saying they create jobs. But Wichita economic development is failing. Our city is not doing well, in spite of all the money spent on economic development efforts.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “good ol’ boy” network of insiders exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections?

Last year Charles Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, wrote in the pages of the Wall Street Journal this regarding cronyism: “Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”

WaterWalk and Jack DeBoer have already received generous financial assistance ($41 million) from the taxpayers of Wichita. That the city would consider even one dollar more is a scandal.

Amendments to Wichita WaterWalk Developer Agreements

In Wichita, an incomplete economic development analysis

The Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive based on an analysis that is nowhere near complete.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider granting a sales tax exemption for a real estate development in northeast Wichita. (For background, see In Wichita, benefitting from your sales taxes, but not paying their own.)

As evidence of the goodness of the project and why the city should forego collecting sales tax, the council has been presented with these benefit-cost figures:

City of Wichita General Fund: 44.67 to 1
City of Wichita Debt Service Fund: NA
Sedgwick County: 100.23 to 1
USD 375: NA
State of Kansas: 65.28 to 1

Undoubtedly council members will congratulate themselves on their wisdom and foresight for being able to invest $1.00 and get back $44.67 in return. And look at what a favor the council is doing for the county and state! For an investment of $1.00, they’ll get back $100.23 and $65.28.

If only these numbers were a true and accurate representation.

The source of these numbers is that the city is giving up a relatively small amount of sales tax revenue, but gaining a lot of property tax (and other tax) revenue in the future. This is true, as far as we can predict these things.

The problem is that one of the numbers used to calculate the benefit-cost ratio is incomplete, and far from being complete. (Click here to view the analysis prepared for the city.)

The source of the calculation starts with the city giving up $16,227 of its share of sales tax revenue, based on the action the council will likely approve on August 11. This is the city’s cost, according to city documents. Then, future tax revenues are estimated, discounted to present value, and compared to the cost. The result is the benefit-cost ratio.

This calculation could make sense if the city included all costs in the calculation. But it hasn’t done that. First, the project benefits from STAR bonds. These bonds carry a sales tax exemption on goods purchased with bond proceeds, which means that the city (and other jurisdictions) are forgoing the collection of other sales tax revenue in addition to the sales tax used in the present calculation. This foregone revenue is of precisely the same nature as other foregone sales tax revenue that the city includes in its calculation.

Additionally, the project benefits from up to $7,525,000 in STAR bonds financing. These bonds will be repaid by sales tax collections from the project and surrounding merchants. This represents more sales tax revenue that the city and other jurisdictions will not be able to spend on anything except paying principle and interest in these bonds.

If these costs were included in the benefit-cost ratio calculation, I don’t know what the result would be, except that it would be different, and probably a great deal lower. It might even be below the city’s threshold for projects.

No matter your opinion on the wisdom of the city investing in public-private partnerships, the city council ought to insist on complete information. That hasn’t happened in this case. The city is using only part of its costs, but pretending that these costs are responsible for producing all revenues.

Who do we hold accountable for this? The benefit-cost ratios are computed by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. It uses figures provided by the city. In the past, when results like these have been questioned, the city has cited the economists at CEDBR as evidence that the figures are valid and reliable. By splitting the responsibility for these calculations, accountability is avoided.

In Sedgwick County, expectation of government entitlements

In Sedgwick County, we see that once companies are accustomed to government entitlements, any reduction is met with resistance.

When an executive of Spirit Aerosystems accused the Sedgwick County Commission of “working against us,” the company may have forgotten the assistance and special treatment the company has received from local governments and taxpayers. This assistance has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades, when we consider both Spirit and its predecessor, Boeing.

Now, Spirit objects to a proposed reduction in funding to Wichita Area Technical College, and also cuts to local attractions such as the zoo. The proposed cut to WATC is less than the cut made the year before, although part of that cut was rescinded, making the proposed cut equal to last year’s cut. These cuts follow a trajectory recommended by the former county manager, who was widely praised as understanding and accommodating the needs of area business firms.

So when Spirit accuses county taxpayers as working against the company, it’s a little hard to stomach. Residents of Sedgwick County pay higher taxes so that Spirit can pay less.

Especially glaring is when companies ask for forgiveness of paying sales tax, as Spirit routinely does. In Kansas, low-income families must pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is among the highest in the country. Even more difficult to fathom are the companies that campaigned for a higher sales tax in Wichita, but engage in financial maneuvers designed to avoid paying any sales tax. Sometimes companies campaign for higher property taxes, especially school bonds, but then ask for exemption from paying those taxes. 1 2 3

Following, a discussion of a Spirit Aerosystems tax abatement request from 2014.

This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing concerning the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. The purpose of the bonds is to allow Spirit to avoid paying property taxes on taxable property purchased with bond proceeds for a period of five years. The abatement may then be extended for another five years. Additionally, Spirit will not pay sales taxes on the purchased property.

City documents state that the property tax abatement will be shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts:

City: $81,272
State: $3,750
County: $73,442
USD 259: $143,038

No value is supplied for the amount of sales tax that may be avoided. The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:

City of Wichita: 1.98 to one
General Fund: 1.78 to one
Debt Service: 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County: 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260: 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas: 28.23 to one

The City of Wichita has a policy where economic development incentives should have a benefit cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater for the city to participate, although there are many loopholes the city regularly uses to approve projects with smaller ratios. Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses one of the many available loopholes.

We have to wonder why the City of Wichita imposes upon the Derby school district an economic development incentive that costs the Derby schools $143,038 per year, with no payoff? Generally the cost of economic development incentives are shouldered because there is the lure of a return, be it real or imaginary. But this is not the case for the Derby school district. This is especially relevant because the school district bears, by far, the largest share of the cost of the tax abatement.

Of note, the Derby school district extends into Wichita, including parts of city council districts 2 and 3. These districts are represented by Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin, respectively.

The city’s past experience

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Facebook 2012-01-04Spirit Aerosystems is a spin-off from Boeing and has benefited from many tax abatements over the years. In a written statement in January 2012 at the time of Boeing’s announcement that it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer wrote “Our disappointment in Boeing’s decision to abandon its 80-year relationship with Wichita and the State of Kansas will not diminish any time soon. The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.”

Along with the mayor’s statement the city released a compilation of the industrial revenue bonds authorized for Boeing starting in 1979. The purpose of the IRBs is to allow Boeing to escape paying property taxes, and in many cases, sales taxes. According to the city’s compilation, Boeing was granted property tax relief totaling $657,992,250 from 1980 to 2017. No estimate for the amount of sales tax exemption is available. I’ve prepared a chart showing the value of property tax abatements in favor of Boeing each year, based on city documents. There were several years where the value of forgiven tax was over $40 million.

Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.
Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.
Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives:

Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.

Not all the Boeing incentives started with Wichita city government action. But the biggest benefit to Boeing, which is the property tax abatements through industrial revenue bonds, starts with Wichita city council action. By authorizing IRBs, the city council cancels property taxes not only for the city, but also for the county, state, and school district.

Sedgwick County WATC funding trajectory following manager’s recommendations

Sedgwick County taxpayers have been generous with funding for Wichita Area Technical College, and the former county manager has recommended reducing its funding.

During the July 16, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, county manager Bill Buchanan presented the recommended budget for 2015. It included a cut in funding for Wichita Area Technical College in the amount of $150,000. In response to a question, Buchanan told the commissioners:

“The new president has been assertive and aggressive in trying to deal with their financial issues. They have, he has turned that financial, that institution around financially. They are in pretty healthy shape. They have a fund balance that’s relatively strong, and it’s in my opinion that our subsidy, although it was critical in the beginning, is less critical in their operations now, and perhaps it would be time for us, when we face our own fiscal issues, to reduce their funding so we can address some of ours.”

Under the leadership of Chair Dave Unruh, this reduction in funding was approved.

At the January 7, 2015 meeting of the commission, again under the leadership of Unruh, the commission heard an off-agenda item to restore $50,000 of the funding for 2015, making the cut $100,000. That item passed. Being an off-agenda item, there is little or no public notice. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted this in his remarks: “I frankly would feel much more comfortable if we postponed this issue until we could get it published in the paper and have at least whatever public attention that that would generate provided, as opposed to taking another Off Agenda item that’s going to increase county spending.”

In support of Peterjohn’s motion to delay the decision for a week, Commissioner Richard Ranzau expressed concern over the lack of financial information made available to commissioners. He also repeated the manager’s recommendation that WATC needs less county funding: “Well, I’d like to have more financial information. It’s my understanding that since the state has increased funding for Vocational Ed, they’re doing very well, their reserves increased significantly, and that’s why, I mean, I was told the reason we could reduce it $150,000 was because they were doing so well. I support what they’re doing out there, but if they’ve had an influx of money from the state, a result of Vocational Ed legislation then I think it’s appropriate to adjust our spending, and I’m not prepared to increase it by $50,000 without more financial information, and that’s why I support Commissioner Peterjohn’s motion to postpone this a week so we can get more information and make a more educated decision on this. There is really no reason for hurry through this in my estimation.”

In summary, the Sedgwick County manager recommended that commissioners reduce funding to WATC, as its need for county funding has declined. Under commission chair Unruh, the commission did so, in the net amount of $100,000. The same amount is proposed for cuts this year. In light of this, the criticism of WATC beneficiaries like Spirit Aerosystems is unfounded.

By the way, the commission has been criticized for considering off-agenda items since Ranzau became chair in January, with the Wichita Eagle editorial board describing one off-agenda vote as “abrupt.” In another op-ed, Rhonda Holman complained that “The move came in an off-agenda item, with little opportunity for GWEDC and the business community to argue against it.”

Whether off-agenda items are good or bad public policy seems to depend on the whim of the Eagle editorial board.

Cash incentives in Wichita

Wichita city leaders are proud to announce the end of cash incentives, but they were only a small portion of the total cost of incentives.

Wichita city leaders say that cash incentives are on the way out. That’s a welcome change. Cash incentives, however, were only a small part of the city’s spending on incentives. Far more costly are property and sales tax abatements, tax increment financing, and various programs at the state level. There seems to be no appetite to reduce reliance on these.

Forgiveness of taxes is more valuable to business firms than receiving cash. That’s because cash incentives are usually taxable as income, while forgiveness of taxes does not create taxable income. Each dollar of tax that is forgiven adds one dollar to after-tax profits. 1

Wichita city leaders will take credit for reforming the use of incentives, but cash incentives were only a small portion of the total cost of incentives. It’s up to citizens to be watchful of the total cost of incentives, as the city does not make this data available.

  1. Site Selection magazine, September 2009. 2015. ‘INCENTIVES — Site Selection Magazine, September 2009’. Siteselection.Com. Accessed May 1 2015. http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2009/sep/Incentives/

In Wichita, benefitting from your sales taxes, but not paying their own

A Wichita real estate development benefits from the sales taxes you pay, but doesn’t want to pay themselves.

STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
In Kansas, the STAR bond program allows cities to issue bonds (that is, to borrow money), give the proceeds (that is, cash) to a private business firm, and then pay off the bonds with the sales taxes paid by the business firm’s customers.

But sometimes this gift by taxpayers isn’t sufficient. In Wichita, despite benefitting from STAR bonds, a company wishes to skip paying sales taxes itself. This is what the Wichita City Council will consider tomorrow.

The Wichita Sports Forum (WSF) project on North Greenwich Road, according to city documents, is a project with a cost of $14,025,000. Of that, $7,525,000 (53.6 percent) may be paid for by the STAR bonds. These bonds will be paid off at no cost to the owners of WSF.

Additionally, according to city documents, the STAR bonds program carries with it a sales tax exemption. That is, if any of the bond proceeds are spent on items subject to sales tax (like building materials), WSF doesn’t pay the sales tax.

There’s another consideration, however. Some of the project is being paid for by the developers themselves rather than by STAR bonds. Stuff purchased with their money will be subject to sales tax. Evidently that is a problem, and the city has a way to step in and solve it.

Through the Industrial Revenue Bonds program, the WSF developers can avoid paying sales tax on $4,500,000 of building materials. City documents don’t mention this number, but with the sales tax rate in Wichita at 7.5 percent, this is a savings of $337,500. It’s as good as a grant of cash. Better, in fact. If the city granted this cash, it would be taxable as income. But forgiveness of taxes isn’t considered income.

In Kansas, low-income families must pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is among the highest in the country. Is it unseemly that having already benefited from millions in taxpayer subsidy and sales tax exemption, the developers of Wichita Sports Forum seek even more sales tax exemptions?

Kansas senators vote to advance Ex-Im Bank

In a procedural motion, Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran voted to advance the revival of the Export-Import Bank. The vote was a procedural motion on an amendment to allow a floor vote (invoking cloture). The amendment passed by a vote of 67 to 26.

Among Republicans the vote was 24 to 26 against the measure. All Democrats voted in favor.

The Export-Import Bank failed to be reauthorized by a June 30 deadline. It has not been making new loans since. The current legislation that passed the senate would reauthorize the bank.

Free market groups have long opposed the Ex-Im Bank, while many business interest groups call it vital.

Friedman: The fallacy of the welfare state

As we approach another birthday of Milton Friedman, here’s an insightful passage from the book he wrote with his wife Rose: Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. It explains why government spending is wasteful, how it leads to corruption, how it often does not benefit the people it was intended, and how the pressure for more spending is always present.

A simple classification of spending shows why that process leads to undesirable results. When you spend, you may spend your own money or someone else’s; and you may spend for the benefit of yourself or someone else. Combining these two pairs of alternatives gives four possibilities summarized in the following simple table:

friedman-spending-categories-2013-07

Category I in the table refers to your spending your own money on yourself. You shop in a supermarket, for example. You clearly have a strong incentive both to economize and to get as much value as you can for each dollar you do spend.

Category II refers to your spending your own money on someone else. You shop for Christmas or birthday presents. You have the same incentive to economize as in Category I but not the same incentive to get full value for your money, at least as judged by the tastes of the recipient. You will, of course, want to get something the recipient will like — provided that it also makes the right impression and does not take too much time and effort. (If, indeed, your main objective were to enable the recipient to get as much value as possible per dollar, you would give him cash, converting your Category II spending to Category I spending by him.)

Category III refers to your spending someone else’s money on yourself — lunching on an expense account, for instance. You have no strong incentive to keep down the cost of the lunch, but you do have a strong incentive to get your money’s worth.

Category IV refers to your spending someone else’s money on still another person. You are paying for someone else’s lunch out of an expense account. You have little incentive either to economize or to try to get your guest the lunch that he will value most highly. However, if you are having lunch with him, so that the lunch is a mixture of Category III and Category IV, you do have a strong incentive to satisfy your own tastes at the sacrifice of his, if necessary.

All welfare programs fall into either Category III — for example, Social Security which involves cash payments that the recipient is free to spend as he may wish; or Category IV — for example, public housing; except that even Category IV programs share one feature of Category III, namely, that the bureaucrats administering the program partake of the lunch; and all Category III programs have bureaucrats among their recipients.

In our opinion these characteristics of welfare spending are the main source of their defects.

Continue reading Friedman: The fallacy of the welfare state