Tag Archives: Taxation

Economic Outlook Ranking for Kansas and selected states.

Rich States, Poor States for 2014 released

In the 2014 edition of Rich States, Poor States, Utah continues its streak at the top of Economic Outlook Ranking, meaning that the state is poised for growth and prosperity. Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance rankings, and fell in the forward-looking forecast.

Rich States, Poor States is produced by American Legislative Exchange Council. The authors are economist Dr. Arthur B. Laffer, former Wall Street Journal senior economics writer (now Heritage Foundation Chief Economist) Stephen Moore, and Jonathan Williams, director of the ALEC Center for State Fiscal Reform.

Rich States, Poor States computes two measures for each state. The first is the Economic Performance Ranking, described as “a backward-looking measure based on a state’s performance on three important variables: State Gross Domestic Product, Absolute Domestic Migration, and Non-Farm Payroll Employment — all of which are highly influenced by state policy.” The process looks at the past ten years.

Looking forward, there is the Economic Outlook Ranking, “a forecast based on a state’s current standing in 15 state policy variables. Each of these factors is influenced directly by state lawmakers through the legislative process. Generally speaking, states that spend less — especially on income transfer programs, and states that tax less — particularly on productive activities such as working or investing — experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more.”

For economic performance this year, Kansas is thirty-second. That’s up three spots from last year.

In this year’s compilation for economic outlook, Kansas ranks fifteenth. That’s down four spots from last year.

Kansas compared to other states

Economic Outlook Ranking for Kansas and selected states.

Economic Outlook Ranking for Kansas and selected states.

A nearby chart shows the Economic Outlook Ranking for Kansas and some nearby states, shown as a trend over time. The jump of Kansas in 2013 is evident, as is the fall of Missouri.

Why Kansas fell

Kansas fell four spots in the Economic Outlook Ranking from 2013 t0 2014. To investigate why, I gathered data for Kansas from 2013 and present it along with the 2014 values. There are three areas that may account for the difference, One value, “Top Marginal Corporate Income Tax Rate,” did not change from 2013 to 2014, remaining at 7.00%. But the ranking for Kansas fell from 24 to 26, meaning that other states improved in this measure.

Economic Outlook Ranking components for Kansas, 2013 and 2014 compared.

Economic Outlook Ranking components for Kansas, 2013 and 2014 compared.

For “Personal Income Tax Progressivity (change in tax liability per $1,000 of Income)” Kansas fell two positions in rank.

In “Sales Tax Burden” Kansas also fell two spots in rank. The burden is calculated proportional to personal income. The most recent data for these measures is for 2011, so this does not include the sales tax rate change that took place on July 1, 2013.

Kansas improved three rank positions for “Debt Service as a Share of Tax Revenue.” This data is from 2011.

Important conclusions

According to the authors of the report, there are three main conclusions to be drawn from this research:

States with lower taxes and fiscally responsible policies experience far more economic growth, job creation, and domestic in-migration than their high-tax, big government counterparts.

States are looking to become more competitive and embrace the policies that have been proven to lead to economic prosperity. Last year, 17 states substantially cut taxes, with Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan leading the charge to vastly improve their overall economic outlooks.

California, Illinois, and New York — once economic powerhouses — continue their long slides into deeper economic malaise. While levels of economic output for these states remain high, rates of economic growth are falling behind states like Texas, North Carolina, and Utah.

How valuable is the ranking?

Correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance

Correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance

After the 2012 rankings were computed. ALEC looked retrospectively at rankings compared to actual performance. The nearby chart shows the correlation of ALEC-Laffer state policy ranks and state economic performance. In its discussion, ALEC concluded:

There is a distinctly positive relationship between the Rich States, Poor States’ economic outlook rankings and current and subsequent state economic health.

The formal correlation is not perfect (i.e., it is not equal to 100 percent) because there are other factors that affect a state’s economic prospects. All economists would concede this obvious point. However, the ALEC-Laffer rankings alone have a 25 to 40 percent correlation with state performance rankings. This is a very high percentage for a single variable considering the multiplicity of idiosyncratic factors that affect growth in each state — resource endowments, access to transportation, ports and other marketplaces, etc.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Schools and the nature of competition and cooperation, Wind power and taxes

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A Kansas newspaper editorial is terribly confused about schools and the nature of competition in markets. Then, we already knew that the wind power industry in Kansas enjoys tax credits and mandates. Now we learn that the industry largely escapes paying property taxes. Episode 38, broadcast April 6, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

Kansas wind turbines

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.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

In Wichita, if you don’t like it, just don’t go there

As Wichita city officials prepare a campaign to raise the sales tax in Wichita, let’s recall some council members’ attitude towards citizens.

At a Wichita City Council meeting in August 2012, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) advised taxpayers on what to do if they disagree with action taken by the council: Just don’t go there.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

If you don’t like this statue, just don’t go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

By way of analogy, Williams counseled the concerned citizens: “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

Photograph by the U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO).

State financial data, an interactive presentation

Photograph by the U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO).

Photograph by the U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO).

The United States Census Bureau collects data from the states about their finances. I’ve gathered selected financial statistics and made them available in an interactive visualization.

Because states vary so widely in population, I’ve presented the data as per-person figures. That presents its own challenges. For example, each state has only one governor, no matter how large or small its population. Therefore, the cost of having a governor can be spread among a very large number of people in California, but across a much smaller number of people in Wyoming.

Using the visualization: Sorting and selecting.

Using the visualization: Sorting and selecting.

In the visualization you may chose which states to display. Also, by clicking on row titles you can sort the states by the values in that row. This lets you see which states collect a lot of tax, or do a lot of spending.

Use the visualization below, or click here to open it in a new window, which may work best. Data is from United States Census Bureau, 2012 Annual Survey of State Government Finances.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s city tourism fee, Special taxes for special people

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Council will hold a meeting regarding an industry that wants to tax itself, but really is taxing its customers. Also, the city may be skirting the law in holding the meeting. Then: The Kansas Legislature is considering special tax treatment for a certain class of business firms. What is the harm in doing this? Episode 35, broadcast March 16, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita City Hall.

The city of Wichita wants hotel guests to make a “marketing investment” in Wichita by paying a “City Tourism Fee.”

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing regarding the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent tax to most hotel rooms sold in the City of Wichita. The funds would go to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to be used to enhance that agency’s marketing efforts. The tax is estimated to raise $2.5 million per year.

What is the motivation of the city’s hotel operators to assent to this added tax on their product? City documents state: “Go Wichita estimates that the new marketing investment could result in a 6% rise in hotel occupancy and a growth of $12 million in hotel revenue.”

What the city calls a “marketing investment” will appear on hotel bills as the “City Tourism Fee,” according to city documents.

How to succeed in business by having others pay for your advertising

When most business firms want to increase their business through advertising, they pay for it themselves. They don’t tack on an additional “advertising fee” to customer’s bills.

But not so with Wichita hotels. Unlike most businesses, Wichita hotels propose to have someone else pay for their advertising.

On top of that, the city and the hotels don’t have the integrity to label the added tax to let customers know its true purpose. Instead, the tax will appear on customer bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” If hotel customers are angry at the fee, well, who is to blame? The hotel, which is merely collecting what city code says it must? Visitors to Wichita likely won’t know the real reason for the tax, which is to shift expenses to someone else through the mechanism of government.

Clever. I wonder if other industries will try something like this? Also: Will the Wichita hotels that currently engage in advertising reduce their spending on advertising, now that a government agency is in charge and taxpayers are footing the bill?

Who pays this tax

City leaders argue that taxes like hotel taxes are largely paid for by people from out of town. Whether that is a wise strategy is debatable. People and business firms notice these taxes. Wichita hotel owner Jim Korroch is an advocate of the new Wichita tax. But he told the Wichita Eagle recently “You know, I used to like to take my girls shopping at the Legends in Kansas City. I thought that was a great deal with the outlet malls, but for the first time I’ve looked at my receipts, and it isn’t. They charge almost 20 percent at the Legends with that district.” So he noticed — eventually — the high taxes charged.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

If the tourism fee is implemented, some hotels in Wichita that are located in community improvement districts (including one Korroch owns) will have taxes totaling 17.9 percent added to customer bills.

Here’s something else regarding the myth of shifting hotel taxes to people from out of town. Are there are any Wichita business firms that have employees who live in other cities, and those employees travel to Wichita on business and stay in hotels? Often these hotel bills are paid by the employee and then reimbursed by the Wichita company they work for. So as far as a hotel knows, and as far as any marketing analysis might show, someone from Fresno spends a few days in a Wichita hotel. This person might work for Cargill Beef’s Fresno facility and have traveled to Wichita to visit the headquarters of Cargill Meat Solutions. In the end, the hotel bill and taxes are paid by Cargill Meat Solutions, a Wichita company.

Do any Wichita business firms employ consultants who travel to Wichita and stay in hotels, and those hotels bills are part of the consultants’ billable expense? In the end, who pays those taxes? A Wichita business firm does.

So at the public hearing, I hope someone asks the question: How often are these taxes actually paid by Wichita companies? Does the city know the answer to this?

Further: Isn’t it a sham to call this tax a “City Tourism Fee” when hometown companies are paying hotel bills for their employees and consultants to come to Wichita for business?

More secret spending

It is the position of Go Wichita that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act. The City of Wichita backs this interpretation of the law. Thus, we will have more taxpayer funds spent in secret.

The bureaucrats profit

Writing in Public Choice — A Primer Eamonn Butler explains the motivations of bureaucrats:

In terms of what bureaucrats actually do pursue, Niskanen suggested that budget maximisation provided a fair measure. It is an approximation to the objective of profit in the market context. And it provides a simple proxy for all the other things that go with a large and growing budget — such as job security, promotion prospects, salary increases and so on.

In their pursuit of these benefits, bureaucrats are just as much players in the political process as any other interest group — and they have no free-rider problem because their group is so well defined that they can easily keep the benefits of their lobbying to themselves. …

Bureaucrats can also rely on the political support of the interest groups that depend on the grants and programmes that they administer, and which would almost certainly like to see those budgets increased; and they can rely on the support of the commercial businesses that supply goods and services to the programmes that the agencies administer.

We see these characteristics revealing themselves: A government agency seeking to expand its budget and power, at the expense of taxpayers.

money-bag-struggle

Special interests struggle to keep special tax treatment

Detail of stairway in Kansas Capitol.

Detail of stairway in Kansas Capitol.

When a legislature is willing to grant special tax treatment, it sets up a battle to keep — or obtain — that status. Once a special class acquires preferential treatment, others will seek it too.

When preferential tax treatment is granted, that is, when government says someone doesn’t have to pay taxes, it’s usually the case that someone else has to pay. That’s because governmental bodies usually don’t reduce their spending in response to the tax breaks they give. Spending stays the same (or rises), but someone isn’t paying their share. Therefore, others have to make up the missing tax revenue.

In Kansas, SB 72 has been passed by the Senate and may be considered by the House of Representatives. This bill would, according to its supplemental note “provide a property or ad valorem tax exemption on all property owned and operated by a health club.” In effect, this bill would give all health clubs the same property tax exemption that the YMCA enjoys on its fitness centers.

When the legislature uses tax law to achieve goals, the statute book becomes complicated as illustrated by the many special sales tax exemptions in Kansas. K.S.A. 79-3606 details the special sales tax exemptions that the legislature has granted. In order to list them all, the statute has sections labeled from (a) through (z), then from (aa) through (zz), then from (aaa) through (zzz), and finally from (aaaa) through (gggg).

Some of these sections are needed and valuable, such as the section that exempts manufacturers from paying sales tax on component parts and ingredients used to build final products. It is supposed to be a retail sales tax, after all.

But then there are sections like this: “(vv) (18) the Ottawa Suzuki Strings, Inc., for the purpose of providing students and families with education and resources necessary to enable each child to develop fine character and musical ability to the fullest potential.”

I have no doubt that this organization is engaged in useful work and that there should be more of this. But what about all the other organizations engaged in similar activities, and which are undoubtedly as deserving of the same tax break? Should they be penalized because they did not have the temerity to ask?

In the area of property taxation, we find many similar circumstances, where two businesses that seem to be similarly situated are treated very differently by the tax collector.

For example, Wesley Medical Center, one of Wichita’s principal hospitals, is Wichita’s second-largest property taxpayer, with taxable assessed value representing 0.90 percent of the total of such property in Wichita.

One hospital has many millions in property, but is not taxed on that property.

One hospital has many millions in property, but is not taxed on that property.

But another large Wichita Hospital, Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, has assets valued at over $115 million, yet pays no property tax. For the mill levy rate that applies to its address, this represents about $3.5 million in property tax savings. (It did pay a Sedgwick County Solid Waste User Fee of $8.91.)

How can we meaningfully distinguish between Wesley and St. Francis Hospitals? Does one provide more charity care than the other? Does the non-profit hospital charge lower rates? (I’d be surprised if so.) Does St. Francis impose less of a burden on city and county resources such as fire and police protection than does Wesley? Since Wesley attempts to earn a profit and St. Francis purportedly does not, does that make Wesley evil and St. Francis saintly? Why do we exempt St. Francis from millions of property tax, yet insist it pay $8.91 in solid waste user fees?

A scene from a non-profit retirement living center.

A scene from a non-profit retirement living center.

We find other examples: A luxury retirement community (Larksfield Place) with real property valued at $27,491,440 pays no property tax, except for $5.95 in the solid waste user fee. Less than a mile away, Sedgwick Plaza, a senior living center, has a valuation of $5,067,350 for its real property, and was billed $70,080.51 in property tax, including its solid waste user fee of $972. Despite — or perhaps due to — its non-profit status, Larksfield Place is able to provide its president a salary of over $130,000.

A Goodwill thrift store on West Central in Wichita has real property valued at $696,600, but paid no property taxes except for $5.94 solid waste user fee. On the other side of town, a small thrift store on East Douglas has real property valued at $113,800. It pays $3,437 in property tax, including its solid waste user fee.

These differences in what seem to be properties in similar situations are not justifiable under any theory of taxation, one of which is that similar situations are taxed similarly. The YMCA’s fitness centers are difficult to distinguish from others in Wichita — except for the YMCA’s rarefied tax-exempt status.

The slippery slope

Here’s the danger: Should SB 72 pass and all health clubs start enjoying the same tax privileges as the YMCA, shouldn’t we then expect to see for-profit hospitals like Wesley Medical Center ask to be relieved of their tax burden, using the same logic? If the legislature were to deny that request, how could it possibly explain its reasoning to citizens?

In defense of its tax exempt status, the YMCA says it engages in many charitable activities. I’m sure that’s true, and we’d like to keep those activities. Perhaps the YMCA would consider separating its fitness centers from the rest of its operations. Separate the business-like activities from the charitable. The YMCA can use the “profits” from its fitness centers to finance its charitable activities. To the extent it does that, it will avoid paying state and federal income tax on its profits.

But property taxes are something different from income taxes. The YMCA benefits from all the things the city (and other taxing jurisdictions) provide, ranging from public safety to schools to security for the mayor’s trip to Ghana. When it doesn’t pay its share, others have to pay. That means that others — you and me, for example — have less money available for the charitable (and other) activities they feel important. Even worse, I am forced to subsidize the charitable activities that the YMCA (or the Methodist Church, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.) chooses to fund. This is especially true in Kansas, where low-income households pay a regressive sales tax on food.

When the YMCA — or any non-profit, for that matter — escapes taxation that other similar organizations must pay, it means that we all subsidize the charitable activities of these non-profits. It sustains a system in which special interest groups lobby to keep their advantages, and those who are not similarly blessed spend lavishly on campaign contributions and other lobbyists. Even when the organization is widely respected, as is the YMCA, this is wrong. It leads to cynicism as citizens realize that our laws are not applied uniformly, and that special interests feel they can buy their way to special treatment.

For their business-like activities, the YMCA, Larksfield Place, and Goodwill thrift stores should pay property taxes so they shoulder the same burden that the rest of us struggle under. That will spread the cost of government fairly, and let ordinary people themselves decide how to contribute their after-tax dollars.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Government planning, taxes, and carbon

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The document holds some facts that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. Then: What is the purpose of high tax rates on high income earners? Finally: Advances in producing oil and natural gas make for a more competitive and carbon-efficient economy. Episode 33, broadcast March 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

This week the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The documents hold information that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.

The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

It’s thought that an additional one cent per dollar city sales tax would generate around $80 million per year.

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Sometimes we don’t have to read between the lines. Sometimes the attitude of planners is explicit. In 2010 the city — actually the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — employed Goody Clancy, a Boston-based planning firm, to help plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita. In the article Goody Clancy market findings presented to Wichita audience I reported on some of what the planners said. For example, David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is found only at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. By the way, when I presented to the Wichita City Council on this topic, I noted that no council members, except for possibly one, lived in neighborhoods that might be described as in “the core.”

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

This, again, is an elitist attitude. No, it’s worse than that. It’s condescending. It reveals that the professional planning class thinks that the ordinary people of Wichita can’t decide for themselves what they really want. Somehow, people are duped into buying homes that don’t really meet their needs, and they’re not smart enough to realize that. That is the attitude of the professional planning class. It’s an elitism that Wichitans ought to reject.

The planning process

The planners tells us that the process is based on data. “Data-driven” is a term they use. But when we look under the covers at the data, we realize that we need to be very skeptical of claims.

Returning to the Goody Clancy plan for downtown Wichita, the principal planner used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation is located in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But the chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation at that time said that Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on my website.

He was correct in one regard: Walk Score had been updated. For the same location the walk score was revised to 85%, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

Someone strolling by that location would notice that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

Still no grocery store. Nothing even resembling a grocery store.

I looked this week at the Walk Score website. It’s been updated and redesigned. Now for the same block in the heart of downtown Wichita the walk score is 74, which is “very walkable,” according to the site. In a narrative explanation, the site says this: “The closest grocery stores are Ray Sales Co, Market Place and The Hot Spot Detox Shop.”

Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.

Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Ray Sales, but it’s a tiny store with a very limited product selection. It’s not the type of place that will attract people to downtown Wichita. We know that because officials say a grocery store is one of downtown’s most pressing needs, despite the existence of Ray Sales.

Market Place is listed again as evidence of a grocery store in downtown Wichita. Remember, Market Place is the name of an office building located on Market Street. It’s not a grocery store.

The third location listed as a grocery store is a shop that sells kits to help people pass drug tests. It’s nothing like a grocery store.

Again, David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities. But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

Keep in mind that the presentation of this Walk Score data was made after Goody Clancy staff had spent considerable time in Wichita. That someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is: That should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similarly shoddy data and analysis.

Constraining growth

Returning to the city’s presentation: How does the city “constrain” suburban growth? By taking away the freedom for people to live where they want. Why would the city want do that? City leaders say that suburban development is expensive. It’s not sustainable. Suburban living depends on the personal automobile. And remember the attitude of the professional planners Wichita Downtown Development Corporation hired: People can’t be trusted to know what they really want for themselves.

Special taxes paid on a residential home.

Special taxes paid on a residential home.

If it really is more expensive to develop new suburban areas, the city should simply charge what it costs. To some extent this already happens. Anyone who builds a new home in a new area will pay for the residential street and other infrastructure through special taxes. If the city feels it needs to charge for building arterial streets to serve new suburban areas, it should do so. But the city should realize that people spending their own money to buy or rent a residence — this is the best indication of their true preferences. What people say in focus groups or on paper survey forms is nowhere near as reliable.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city fathers

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. In spite of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released this week gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

Click image for larger version.

The relevance of income tax rates

Bar char statistics

Jim Pinkerton, the journalist, Fox News contributor, and co-founder of the RATE (Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably) Coalition told an audience this: “The purpose of high taxes on the rich is not to get the rich to pay money, it’s to get the middle class to feel better about paying high taxes.”

Pinkerton was speaking last week at a conference titled “The Tax & Regulatory Impact on Industry, Jobs & The Economy, and Consumers” produced by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. His remarks, as he told the conference attendees, were based on the work of economist F.A. Hayek. Others have also noted that changes to marginal tax rates often have little impact on the amount of taxes actually paid. The top marginal tax rate — that’s the rate that applies to high income earners on most of their income — was above 90 percent during most of the 1950s. From 2003 to 2012 it was 35 percent, and is now 39.6 percent.

The top marginal tax rate is the rate that applies to income. It’s not the same as what is actually paid. This fact is unknown or ignored by those who clamor for higher taxes on the rich. They often cite the rising prosperity of the 1950s as caused by the high marginal tax rate in effect at the time.

A common mistake is equating tax rates with the tax actually paid. For many taxpayers, there is a direct relationship. For those who earn a paycheck, there’s not much they can do to change the timing of their income, find tax shelters, or shift income to capital gains. When income tax rates rise, they have to pay more. But rich people can use these (and other) strategies to reduce the taxes they pay.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

In The purpose of high tax rates on the rich I showed that despite wide fluctuations in the top marginal tax rate, the tax revenue collected since World War II is remarkably constant, when measured as a percent of gross domestic product.

This is not the only way to consider the effect of tax rates. Using data from the Internal Revenue Service and Congressional Budget Office, I developed two charts. One shows the share of total federal taxes paid by top income earners, in this case the top five percent and the top one percent. For the range of years for which CBO provides data, the top marginal income tax rate has varied widely and has mostly fallen, and the share of federal taxes paid by top income earners has risen slightly.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

A second chart shows the average federal tax rate for these two groups of top earners. The average federal tax rates paid by top earners has varied much less than the variation in tax rates.

As Pinkerton told the Franklin Center conference attendees, high tax rates make the middle class feel better about paying their own taxes. They may take comfort in the fact that someone else is worse off — that rich people are paying higher tax rates. But as the data shows, it’s a misconception that high tax rates mean rich people actually pay taxes at correspondingly higher rates.

Click image for larger version

The purpose of high tax rates on the rich

Taxes

“The purpose of high taxes on the rich is not to get the rich to pay money, it’s to get the middle class to feel better about paying high taxes.”

This is what Jim Pinkerton, the journalist, Fox News contributor, and co-founder of the RATE (Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably) Coalition told an audience at a conference titled “The Tax & Regulatory Impact on Industry, Jobs & The Economy, and Consumers” produced by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Pinkerton was referring to the economist F.A. Hayek. Others have also noted that changes to marginal tax rates often have little impact on the amount of taxes actually paid. The top marginal tax rate — that’s the rate that applies to high income earners on most of their income — was above 90 percent during most of the 1950s. From 2003 to 2012 it was 35 percent, and is now 39.6 percent.

The top marginal tax rate is the rate that applies to income. It’s not the same as what is actually paid. This fact is unknown or ignored by those who clamor for higher taxes on the rich. They often cite the rising prosperity of the 1950s as caused by the high marginal tax rate in effect at the time.

The mistake the progressives make is equating tax rates with the tax actually paid. For many people, there is a direct relationship. For workers who earn a paycheck, there’s not much they can do to change the timing of their income, find tax shelters, or shift income to capital gains. When income tax rates rise, they have to pay more. But rich people can use these and other strategies to reduce the taxes they pay.

But as Pinkerton told the conference attendees, the high tax rates make the middle class feel better about paying their own taxes. They may take comfort in the fact that someone else is worse off, at least based on the misconception that high tax rates mean rich people actually pay correspondingly higher tax.

In 2010 W. Kurt Hauser explained in The Wall Street Journal: “Even amoebas learn by trial and error, but some economists and politicians do not. The Obama administration’s budget projections claim that raising taxes on the top 2% of taxpayers, those individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning $250,000 or more, will increase revenues to the U.S. Treasury. The empirical evidence suggests otherwise. None of the personal income tax or capital gains tax increases enacted in the post-World War II period has raised the projected tax revenues. Over the past six decades, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have averaged just under 19% regardless of the top marginal personal income tax rate. The top marginal rate has been as high as 92% (1952-53) and as low as 28% (1988-90). This observation was first reported in an op-ed I wrote for this newspaper in March 1993. A wit later dubbed this ‘Hauser’s Law.’”

Incentives matter, economists tell us. People react to changes in tax law. As tax rates rise, people seek to reduce their taxable income. A common strategy is to make investments in economically unproductive tax shelters. There is less incentive to work, to save and build up capital stocks, and invest. These are some of the reasons why tax rate hikes usually don’t generate the promised revenue.

Click image for larger version

Click image for larger version

The subtitle to Hauser’s article is “Tax revenues as a share of GDP have averaged just under 19%, whether tax rates are cut or raised. Better to cut rates and get 19% of a larger pie.” The nearby chart illustrates. The top line, the top marginal tax rate in effect for year year, varies widely. The other two lines show total taxes and federal income taxes as a percent of gross domestic product. Since World War II, these lines are fairly constant, even as the top marginal tax rate varies.

Data is from Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) along with my calculations.

Voice for Liberty radio logo for featured posts 01

Voice for Liberty Radio: Mike Pompeo

Voice for Liberty logo with microphone 150

In this episode of WichitaLiberty Radio: U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas spoke at a meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. Some of the topics and questions Pompeo answered included:

The size of the defense budget, the threats to our nation, and the importance of the National Security Agency in keeping the country safe. He addressed privacy concerns.

What about tension between the Speaker of the House and tea party and conservatives?

What’s wrong the the just-passed farm bill, and how did it pass?

Attitudes towards and respect for Congress and the President.

The arrest of a suspect in an attack on the Wichita Airport.

The presentation started with a video of Rep. Pompeo questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

This recording contains Pompeo’s prepared remarks in full and selected responses to questions at the Wichita Pachyderm Club on February 7, 2014.

Shownotes

Mike Pompeo Congressional office.
Campaign website: pompeoforcongress.com
Twitter at @RepMikePompeo
Wichita Pachyderm Club

In Wichita, why do some pay taxes, and others don’t?

Wichita City Hall

A request by a luxury development in downtown Wichita raises issues, for example, why do we have to pay taxes?

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers yet another layer of business welfare for The Lux, a luxury real estate development in downtown Wichita. This project, despite having already received millions in assistance from taxpayers, is not economically viable, according to city documents.

Because the transaction contemplated tomorrow is shrouded in the mystery of Internal Revenue Bonds (IRBs), we can expect that the important aspects of this transaction will be under-reported. We’re likely to see headlines that The Lux is receiving $14,450,000 in IRBs. City council members may clumsily explain to citizens that the city is not lending this money, and that taxpayers are not on the hook if the bonds are not repaid. The city may tell us that a local bank will buy the bonds and that the Lux will issue a mortgage to protect the bank’s interest, as though that was a matter of public concern rather than a private business dealing.

The city’s documents, for all their words and effort spent in preparation, don’t state the amount of sales tax relief this project will receive. But the amount of the bonds contemplated is $14,450,000, so an upper estimate of the amount of sales tax forgone is that amount times the city’s sales tax rate, or $1,033,175.

The item on tomorrow’s agenda features another example of the city adapting to meet the needs of its cronies. The letter of intent originally called for a certain level of investment, but now that has been reduced:

The Letter of Intent approved by the City Council stated that “LUX Building, LLC has represented that it will make a total capital investment in the project of at least $24,000,000.” The projection was intended to be an estimate of the not-to-exceed project costs at that time and not a requirement of minimum capital investment. Since the actual total cost of the project will be closer to $20,000,000 the developer is requesting that the minimum investment requirement be waived.

It’s a small point, but big numbers like $24,000,000 are a “wow” factor to city council members and are cited and praised as evidence of the goodness of the city’s economic development incentives. But now: never mind.

Why do we tax?

TaxThere are a variety of theories of taxation, such as taxes being “dues” paid, or payment for services the city provides, or as the cost of a civilized society. In any case, we have to wonder why the owners of The Lux are being excused from paying perhaps one million dollars of these dues, or payment for government services it will consume, or it share of the cost of a civilized society.

Tale of two cash registers

Supporters will point to the cost/benefit ratios. These ratios are simply recognition that economic activity is good, and government taxes it. But unless the city, county, and state will each reduce their spending by the amount of sales tax forgiveness given to The Lux, other taxpayers have to pay.

It’s worth noting that the subsidy being granted to The Lux is in the form of sales tax exemption. Kansas taxes food at the same rate as everything else. This means that while the owners of The Lux are enjoying the privilege of saving perhaps one million dollars in sales tax, others — including poor people struggling to provide food for their families — are making up the sales tax that The Lux is not paying.

man-digging-coinsWhen other taxpayers have to bear the cost of incentives for the Lux and its owners, other spending and investment is reduced. While the spending on incentives is concentrated and easy to see — there will be groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies to make sure we don’t miss it — the missing spending and investment is dispersed. That means the missing spending and investment is difficult to see. But it is every bit as real as this project.

In fact, this missing spending and investment is more valuable than government spending on this project. That’s because when people spend and invest on their own, they choose what is most important to them, not what is important to politicians and bureaucrats. This is a special problem in Wichita, where the mayor and city council members have a history of awarding over-priced no-bid contracts to their campaign contributors. (A separate item on tomorrow’s agenda will attempt to address that problem.)

Sometimes these subsidies are justified by the claim that renovating historic buildings like The Lux is more expensive than new construction. If that’s true, we have to recognize that investing in, or living in, a historic building is a lifestyle choice. The people who make these choices should pay themselves, just like we expect others to pay for the characteristics of the housing they choose. For example , building a home with granite kitchen counter tops and marble floors in the bathrooms is more expensive than a plainer home. These premium features are chosen voluntarily by the homeowner, and it is right and just that they alone should pay for them.

We should recognize historic buildings for what they are: a premium feature or amenity whose extra cost should be born solely by those who chose to own them or rent them. There’s no difference between these premium features and choosing to live in a historic building. Those who desire them choose them voluntarily, and should pay their full cost. Forcing everyone to subsidize this choice is wrong. It’s an example of a special interest gone wild. But in Wichita we call this economic development.

The nature of tax credits

The sales tax exemption is not the only form of taxpayer subsidy The Lux will receive. The historic preservation tax credits approved for this the project are worth millions. These credits are equal to grants of cash. They are a cost to government that taxpayers must bear.

hidden-hand-government-spending-title
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. 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.

Indeed, if government issued checks to real estate developers, citizens would look at things differently. They’d wonder why they’re subsidizing the construction of expensive apartments and condos. They’d be angry. Using a semi-mysterious mechanism like tax credits shrouds the true economic transaction taking place.

These expenditures of tax money — being issued as credits rather than appropriations — go through a different process than most expenditures of taxpayer money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” to describe tax credits. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations.

It’s time to recognize these historic preservation tax credits as payments to a special interest group. Unfortunately, as with most special interest groups, the group receiving the payment — tax credits in this case — has an extreme interest in the matter. They benefit greatly. But to the rest of the populace — well, does it really matter to them? John Stossel explains the problem like this:

The Public Choice school of economics calls this the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Individual members of relatively small interest groups stand to gain huge rewards when they lobby for government favors, but each taxpayer will pay only a tiny portion of the cost of any particular program, making opposition pointless.

That’s the situation we face with the historic preservation tax credits. A few real estate developers will enrich themselves at taxpayer expense. Well-to-do renters will get a better deal. To everyone else, it’s just another way that government nickels and dimes us to death.

What’s the matter with Wichita?

We have to wonder why so many projects in downtown Wichita require massive doses of taxpayer subsidy. Here’s what city documents tell us:

The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (gap) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives exists based on the current market. The project lender, Intrust Bank, has advised that the bank cannot increase the loan amount, leaving a gap in funding sources that is filled by the City’s facade program.

When the city is willing to fill in financing gaps, you can be sure that gaps will be created.

Here’s an idea: Instead of handing out economic development incentives on a piecemeal basis, let’s try to fix what prevents projects like The Lux from moving forward on its own. If, in fact, the obstacles are real, and don’t exist only in the imagination of those seeking to finance their projects on the backs of Wichita taxpayers.

Visit Wichita, and pay a tourism fee

welcome-wichita-01

The Wichita City Council will consider adding a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills, calling it a “City Tourism Fee.” Welcome to Wichita!

This week the Wichita City Council will consider advancing the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent fee to most hotel rooms sold in the City of Wichita. The funds would go to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to be used to enhance Go Wichita’s market efforts. The cost of the effort is estimated at $2.5 million per year. The item the city council will consider Tuesday will set a date for a public hearing, if the council agrees to proceed.

What is the motivation of the city’s hotel operators to assent to this added tax on their product? City documents state: “Go Wichita estimates that the new marketing investment could result in a 6% rise in hotel occupancy and a growth of $12 million in hotel revenue.”

A few remarks:

First: If it’s true that increased marketing of Wichita’s hotels will result in increased business, who is in the best position to undertake this effort? Hotel operators themselves, or the government bureaucrats that staff tourism bureaus?

Second: The proposal indicates that hotels will collect this money via an item on the bill that will be called the “City Tourism Fee.” I wonder: Is there any way to distinguish this “fee” from a tax? Not only that, but a tax that will explicitly be passed along to visitors to Wichita?

It would be one thing if the city required hotels to remit 2.75 percent of their revenue to the TBID. It’s another matter for the city to levy a fee for the privilege of staying in a hotel room in Wichita and list it on hotel bills. There’s nothing like saying “thank you” for visiting Wichita by adding 2.75 percent to your hotel costs.

Coming to Wichita for business

There will be quite a bit of tax on a Wichita hotel bill if the TBID is implemented. Start with 7.15 percent sales tax. Add six percent hotel guest tax. Now add 2.75 percent tourism fee. That’s 15.9 percent total tax. Except: If the hotel is one of several located in a Community Improvement Districts, guests may need to add an additional two percent, for a total of 17.9 percent in tax.

But I forgot. Not all of that is tax. Some of it is a only a fee assessed for the privilege of visiting Wichita and staying in a hotel.

Third: This will be more taxpayer funds that are spent in relative secrecy, because it is the position of Go Wichita and the city that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act.

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors BureauFourth: Is there any way to characterize this as anything other than an expansion of bureaucracy in Wichita? I really wonder if the hotel operators know what they’re getting themselves mixed up in. If the hotels feel they need more marketing firepower to attract business to Wichita, I’m sure they’d do better to form a voluntary association to undertake this task. This would be nimble and flexible in way that a government bureaucracy can never be. But who will stand up to this expansion of our tourism bureaucracy? A hotel owner who wishes to receive referrals? Like most government bureaucrats, those who will run this new program “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets, perks, and staffs. They won’t look favorably on those who don’t go along with the program.

Finally, the people of Wichita need to realize that pursuit of convention and tourism business is not a wise path to economic development and prosperity. Wall Street Journal reporting from last year concluded with:

“Mr. Sanders, the University of Texas professor, predicts the glut of convention space will only get worse, because a number of cities continue to push expansions. He blames cities’ hired consultants, who he said predict “all these people are going to come and do wonderful things to your economy.”

“But the problem is they aren’t coming anymore, because there are lots of other convention centers … that desperately want that business,” he said. “So Atlanta steals from Boston, Orlando steals from Chicago and Las Vegas steals from everywhere.”

The “Mr. Sanders” referred to in the Journal reporting is Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His 2005 report report Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Sanders writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

What about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and will probably continue, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Sanders says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, recently opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, Sanders writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

In Wichita, more tax for more transit?

Wichita City Hall

In 2014 it is likely that Wichitans will be asked to pay an increased sales tax, part of which would fund the existing bus transit service, as the system is not sustaining itself. Another part of the increased sales tax might expand the service. Wichitans ought to think twice before voting to spend additional taxpayer funds for either reason. In fact, Wichita ought to consider spending less on public transit, and look to the private sector to provide transit that people want to use, and which meets their real needs.

Transit is expensive. To be more precise, government-provided transit is expensive. I’ve gathered data from the National Transit Database and provided it in a more useful format that that provided by the government. You may click here to use this interactive visualization of operating costs. (This table provides the codes that are used.) As for Wichita, the nearby excerpt (click for a larger version) shows that for 2011, the cost per passenger mile for the “regular” bus service was $0.97. This is not the cost to move a bus one mile. It is the cost to move one passenger one mile. This value is not out of line compared to other cities.

wichita-transit-2014-01

If Wichita were to expand its transit service to offer wider coverage and longer hours of service, the cost per passenger mile probably would not go down. We would still have a system that is very expensive, especially considering the level of service that would still be provided.

Can the private sector do better? One thing we could do is to outsource or privatize the transit system. Government would still pay for the system, but the private sector would operate the buses. This would likely be an improvement, as outsourcing almost always results in lower costs and improved service.

(By the way, many people would be surprised to learn of the fraction of expenses paid for through fares. Considering operating expenses only, the number is 13.5 percent. Considering operating and capital costs, just 12.1 percent comes from fare revenue. The remainder is provided by taxpayers. So when a bus rider puts a dollar in the farebox, taxpayers contribute an additional six dollars to fund the system.)

What Wichita could do to really improve service is to allow private competition to the existing transit system. Here’s an example of what could happen:

Brooklyn’s dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit with privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs.

America’s 20th largest bus service — hauling 120,000 riders a day — is profitable and also illegal. It’s not really a bus service at all, but a willy-nilly aggregation of 350 licensed and 500 unlicensed privately-owned “dollar vans” that roam the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, picking up passengers from street corners where city buses are either missing or inconvenient. The dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit to include privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs, giving people alternative ways to get around, and creating jobs. (The (Illegal) Private Bus System That Works, The Atlantic.)

This is not an example of government paying a private-sector company to do a job that government formerly did. Instead, this is allowing the private sector to operate on its own, free to succeed or fail based on how well it provides service. It’s allowing the private sector to be flexible and innovative in ways that government bureaucracy, like our transit system, is not able.

There are other things we could do to help improve transit service in Wichita. On his television show, John Stossel recently had a segment on a system called “Lyft.” This is a system available in about a dozen large cities in America, and there are other similar systems. You might sign up to be a driver. You go through a background check, and if you pass, you’re a driver for Lyft. Then people who need a ride use their smart phone to request a trip. You, as a Lyft driver, can decide if you’d like to provide the ride.

After the driver drops off the rider, the rider — that is the customer — decides how much to pay the driver for the ride. The system makes a suggestion, but other than that it’s up to the customer to decide how much to pay. As you might imagine, the system uses feedback to rate both drivers and customers. People in the Lyft system have an incentive to be good providers of service, and also good consumers of service.

Isn’t that a tremendous contrast to the way government works? Government works through force — through taxation — requiring all of us to pay to support a bus system that very few people use. And few people use the system because — like most government programs — the service is lousy. It’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Lousy government service leads to few people using the service, which leads to the need for more subsidy. But in the Lyft system people willingly cooperate, aided by technology.

Could Lyft work in Wichita? Not likely, because government stands in the way. I’m pretty sure Lyft would be illegal in Wichita. The city recently passed taxicab regulations that are quite strict: Taxi companies must have a central office, staffed at least 40 hours per week; a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor on duty at all times cabs are operating.

These regulations stifle innovation and entrepreneurship. Things like Lyft and the dollar vans aren’t compatible with these regulations. These regulations mean that our present transit and taxi service — which no one seems happy with — is all that we will ever have.

Here’s something else: In the Lyft system, passengers ride in the front seat of the car next to the driver. Total strangers do that! Can you imagine if you asked to sit in the front seat of a taxicab in Wichita? This is the private sector versus government-regulated monopolies.

transit-service-in-wichita

Recently the director of the Wichita transit system made a presentation to Wichita City Council members outlining various possibilities about what Wichita could do with bus service. Was allowing the private sector a role in providing transit a possibility? Not that I heard. It’s just not in the DNA of government bureaucrats and unfortunately, many elected officials, to consider letting the private sector do a job.

WichitaLiberty.TV December 22, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV.34In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: United States Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas appears to explain the recent budget bill, Obamacare, the government shutdown, the debt ceiling, government spending, and whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about the country’s future. Episode 25, broadcast December 22, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Rep. Huelskamp’s Congressional website is huelskamp.house.gov.

Sedgwick County illustrates inefficiency of tax credit mechanism

Sedgwick County Kansas seal

Tax credits can be an inefficient way for government to distribute benefits, as illustrated by action the Sedgwick County Commission will consider today.

A tax credit is, conceptually, a certificate with a dollar amount written on it. That certificate can be used instead of cash for payment of taxes. So when the State of Kansas issues a tax credit for $100, the state gives up that same amount in tax revenue, as someone will submit that certificate instead of a hundred dollar bill in payment of taxes. The certificate, of course, has no value to the state.

Sedgwick County received Kansas income tax credits under the state’s historic preservation program. Since the county doesn’t pay income tax, it can’t use them as payment for taxes. But since the credits are transferable, the county can sell them to someone who does need to pay taxes. And if that person can buy the tax credits for less than face value, such as paying $90 for a tax credit that’s worth $100, there’s motivation for buyers and sellers to make a deal.

This is what the county is doing. In an auction it sold three tax credits for a total of $507,066.74. This is described by county documents as representing $0.9025 per dollar of value. Working backwards, this means that the tax credits have a face value of $507,066.74/.9025 = $561,847 in face value. Someone will submit these credits to the state instead of a check for that amount when they pay their taxes.

This means that the State of Kansas gives up $561,847 in order to grant a benefit worth $507,067 to Sedgwick County. This is the inefficiency of using tax credits as a mechanism for distributing benefits.

You may be wondering: Why does this state use this inefficient method? One reason is that tax credits operate more or less on autopilot. Once the program is authorized and put in place, people or organizations that qualify for the credits receive them without action by the legislature. This has happened in downtown Wichita on a number of projects such as the renovation of the Broadview and Ambassador Hotels. Both received millions under historic preservation tax credit programs. (See In Wichita, historic preservation tax credits an inefficient form of developer welfare.)

Can you imagine the legislature having to vote to give millions of dollars to specific hotel developers? That probably wouldn’t be popular. But the tax credit program accomplishes the same result, and mostly under the radar without scrutiny.

Tax credits are a direct transfer of money from taxpayers to private parties. But being accomplished through the tax system shrouds the process in mystery. And, no direct action is required by any legislative body. The legislature creates the tax credit program. The developer applies, and if accepted, the credits are granted. No one — at least no one elected by and accountable to voters — votes to grant the specific credits.

The Kansas historic preservation tax credit program, in a short time, has grown from a program designed to help spruce up a few old buildings here and there to a developer welfare program on steroids.

WichitaLiberty.TV December 8, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita city leaders are preparing to ask Wichita voters to approve a sales tax increase. What would this money be used for? Are there alternatives, such as private sector integration, that the city could consider? Then: What is the role of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce? Is it promoting capitalism, or something else? Finally, David Hart, who is Director of the Online Library of Liberty Project at the Liberty Fund, explains some of the lessons of Frederic Bastiat, including the broken window fallacy. Episode 23, broadcast December 8, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita economic development on tap

Wichita city hall

The role of government in economic development should be limited to that of providing the framework necessary for equally protecting the rights and property of all citizens, through the rule of law, and not by acting as a participant in any activity that places it in a position of granting a competitive advantage to one group of citizens to the exclusion of all others. When government becomes an active participant in economic activity, it abdicates its proper role of providing the legal framework and physical security that is essential for natural coercive-free trade to flourish.
— John Todd

This week the Wichita City Council will consider another economic development incentive in the form of property tax abatements, this time to a company described as a “frequent flyer” in this regard. The council ought to take a few moments to explain to citizens why this action is necessary, if in fact it is.

The company requesting the tax breaks is Hijos, LLC/JR Custom Metal Products, Inc. This company has received several incentives like the one it is requesting this week. The incentive being considered is under the Economic Development Tax Exemption (“EDX”) program, which allows the city to forgive the payment of property taxes. In many instances, the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds is required by law in order to achieve tax forbearance. The EDX program does away with the often meaningless issuance of bonds, and lets the city do, in a streamlined fashion, what the applicant company wants: Permission to skip the payment of property taxes.

Based on a formula the city has established to guide the awarding of economic development strategies, this company qualifies to have 46 percent of the property taxes forgiven. Not 45 percent, and not 47 percent. Precisely 46 percent. This reminds me of the old saw that economists use a decimal point to remind us they have a sense of humor.

There are a number of questions that the city council ought to answer and explain to citizens before it grants this special treatment.

1. Since the incentive being considered is in the form of reduced property taxes, does this mean that property taxes in Wichita are a barrier to investment? A related question is whether the tax breaks are required to make the project economically feasible, or does the company simply want to avoid its share of the tax burden?

2. What distinguishes this company and these jobs from others that will be created this month in Wichita? Why do these jobs require a subsidy, and so many others do not?

3. When granting tax breaks like this, how does the city council explain that the tax burden is not being applied fairly and evenly to everyone? Related: If the theory of taxation is ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite theory), how does this tax exemption coexist with that theory?

4. Has the city checked with the overlapping jurisdictions that will be affected by the tax abatements? These would be Sedgwick County, the Wichita school district, and the State of Kansas. When Wichita grants a tax break, it also abates these taxes, without advice or consent. Notice is required, however.

5. If we really believe in this benefit to the city (and similar benefits to the county, school district, and state) as proclaimed by the cost-benefit studies, why doesn’t the city make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies could expand if not for the burden of property taxes. And that’s what this contemplated action means, if we are to believe it is anything but cronyism and business welfare: Property taxes in Wichita are what prevented this company from expanding. Erase 46 percent of the company’s property tax burden, and it is able to make new capital investment and jobs.

If it really is so easy to promote economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every city council meeting. Several times each meeting, don’t you think?

I also wonder about companies that made expansions as did this applicant company, but did not ask the city for incentives. What is their secret?

The reality is that these economic development incentives don’t work, if we are willing to consider the effect on everyone in the region instead of just this applicant company, and also if we are willing to consider the long-term effects instead of only the immediate.

Peer-reviewed research on economic development incentives — this is the conclusion of all the studies — find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives. That’s not a surprise. But the research also finds that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment

If peer-reviewed research is not convincing, let’s take a look at the record of Wichita.
Here is a chart of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers. (Click it for a larger version, or click here for the interactive visualization, or here to watch a video.) The data shows that Wichita hasn’t been doing well.

So if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to also recognize that our efforts aren’t working.

Wichita city council advances economic development

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Can you fill in the blank?

Wichita City Council says: “By allowing Cessna to avoid paying property taxes, we are showing our support for the company.”

“By requiring other companies to pay their full share of property taxes, we are showing our ________ for these companies.”

Yesterday’s action taken by the Wichita City Council regarding economic development incentives granted to Cessna Aircraft Company through the Industrial Revenue Bond program may be confusing to some people. The Wichita Eagle is not helping citizens understand what is happening when the city issues IRBs. The headline and lede of the article illustrate: “Wichita approves $40.2 million in industrial revenue bonds for Cessna improvements.”

The bonds are a sideshow and not economically relevant. In fact, Wichita has a related program called EDX that implements the benefits of IRBs without the charade of a company buying its own bonds. The Eagle gets around to this, explaining: “Industrial revenue bonds are issued by governments without any taxpayer liability, a type of municipal bond repaid from the proceeds of bond sales. They do not affect the tax revenue or the credit of the issuing governmental entity. The company will buy its own bonds.”

This explanation isn’t accurate, however. IRBs do affect the tax revenue of the issuing governmental entity, because property purchased under the program is exempt from property taxation, and often sales tax. The article does finally explain why Cessna is applying for the IRBs: “The value of the abated taxes could be as much as $37,197 for the first year.”

That — or something like it — should have been the headline to this article. The fact that Kansas law grants tax abatements for bond-purchased property is the only reason that Cessna applied for the IRB program. As Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) explained from the bench and as quoted by the Wichita Eagle: “I’d like to confirm to the public that what we’re doing is voting to allow Cessna to purchase $40 million of their own bonds for all these improvements.”

I’m glad he understands. We still have to endure the spectacle of a governing body voting to allow a company to issue bonds that the company will purchase from itself. Perhaps someday we will have laws that allow a company to issue debt and purchase that same debt without governmental approval.

In remarks from the bench, several council members thanked Cessna for its commitment to Wichita. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) thanked Cessna for showing their commitment to Wichita, “as they have for decades.” I wonder: What do other business owners in Wichita who have to pay their full share of taxes think about Cessna’s commitment to Wichita?

Clendenin also expressed appreciation for their charitable nature and their “humongous” heart. I wonder: Why doesn’t Cessna pay the same taxes that everyone else has to pay so that we may keep more of our own money to be charitable as we see fit?

In their remarks, no member of the Wichita City Council made the argument that is often used to justify economic development incentives: economic necessity. No one proffered that absent these tax breaks, Cessna would be unwilling or unable to make this investment. No one wondered that given that Cessna is such a good corporate citizen, why does it ask to be excused from shouldering the same tax burden that almost everyone else has to bear?

No one spoke on behalf of the other business firms in Wichita that, when wanting to make an investment to expand and hire people, are not able to qualify for the type of favored treatment that companies like Cessna receive.

No one offered any evidence that these jobs are somehow different from other jobs in Wichita that area created every day without companies receiving special tax treatment.

No one argued that the tax burden should be applied fairly and evenly to everyone.

No one made the moral case for free enterprise — rather than cronyism and business welfare — as the way to grow and diversify the Wichita economy.

FITB - Cessna property tax abatements

Wichita won’t consider this, I’m sure

City of Wichita logoAs Wichita considers continuing taxing everyone to pay for a transit system that few people use, and as Wichita considers taxing everyone even more to pay for a bigger transit system that only a few additional people will use, here’s an example of something that I’m sure is not under consideration: Privatization, entrepreneurship, and diversity.

Federal grants seen to increase future local spending

graph-1“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” — Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman

Is this true? Do federal grants cause state and/or local tax increases in the future after the government grant ends? Economists Russell S. Sobel and George R. Crowley have examined the evidence, and they find the answer is yes.

This paper is especially important as south-central Kansas starts a comprehensive planning process under a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant — a federal grant. Some officials have justified their votes in favor of the planning grant because the grant is “just for planning purposes.” It does not bind us to future actions that might raise taxes, they say. But this attitude is naive and dangerous.

The research paper is titled Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes? Testing the Friedman-Sanford Hypothesis.

The difference between this research and most other is that Sobel and Crowley look at the impact of federal grants on state and local tax policy in future periods.

This is important because, in their words, “Federal grants often result in states creating new programs and hiring new employees, and when the federal funding for that specific purpose is discontinued, these new state programs must either be discontinued or financed through increases in state own source taxes.”

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

The conclusion to their research paper states:

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

So: Not only are we taxed to pay for the cost of funding federal and state grants, the units of government that receive grants are very likely to raise their own levels of taxation in response to the receipt of the grants. This is a cycle of ever-expanding government that needs to end, and right now.

An introduction to the paper is Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes?.

Spirit Aerosystems applies for tax relief

Wichita City HallThe Wichita City Council will consider excepting a large company from property and sales taxation. Is this action wise for the city’s economy?

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider granting Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit Aerosystems, the city’s largest employer.

The amount of the proposed bond issue is $49,000,000. The purpose of the IRBs is to allow the recipient to escape the payment of property taxes, and often sales taxes too. This action by the council may exempt up to $49,000,000 of property from taxation, both ad valorem (property) and sales. A 100 percent exemption is proposed for five years, plus a second five years if conditions are met.

The city uses benefit-cost ratios to justify its expenditures on economic development incentives. The reasoning is that by spending cash (such as on a forgivable loan) or forgiving taxes (as in the current case), the city (and county, state, and school district) gain even more than they give up. Generally, Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to 1 or better, although there are many exceptions and loopholes that are used if a potential deal doesn’t meet this criteria.

The council’s agenda packet gives benefit-cost ratios for the various taxing authorities, but it doesn’t list the dollar amounts of the tax abatements. Usually these dollar amounts are supplied.

One of the taxing jurisdictions affected by this proposed action is USD 260, the Derby school district, as the property is within its boundaries. In this case, the benefit-cost ratio given for the Derby school district is 1.00 to 1. Since the City of Wichita requires 1.3 to 1 or better for itself, by what right does the city impose a burden on a school district that it would not accept for itself? (The tax rate for Derby schools is 59.3 mills; while for the City of Wichita the rate is 32.5 mills.)

It’s important to note that the benefits claimed from the IRBs are in the form of increased taxes paid.

The harm of this incentive is that the taxes not paid by Spirit Aerosystems are shifted to other taxpayers. The money these taxpayers would have spent or invested is instead spent on taxes. Instead of people and businesses firms deciding how to spend or invest, Wichita City Hall does this for them. This brings into play a whole host of problems. These include the deficit of knowledge needed to make good investment decisions, decisions being made for political rather than economic reasons, and the corrosive influence of cronyism.

There is something the city could to do alleviate this problem. Would the city consider reducing its spending by the amount of tax being abated? In this case, the cost of these tax abatements will not be born by others.

Wichita’s management of incentives

Recent reporting told us what some have suspected: The city doesn’t manage its economic development efforts. One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level. Shouldn’t we develop our management skills of tax abatements and other economic development incentives before we grant new?

Wichita’s results in economic development

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment
Despite the complaints of many that Wichita doesn’t have a rich treasure chest of incentives, the city has been granting tax abatements for years. What is the result? Not very good. Wichita is in last place in job creation (and other measures of economic growth) among our Visioneering peer cities. See here Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth.

If we believe that incentives have a place, then we have to ask why Wichita has done so poorly.

Particularly relevant to this applicant today: Boeing, its predecessor, received many millions in incentives. After the announcement of Boeing leaving in 2012, a new report contained this: “‘They weren’t totally honest with us,’ said [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer of Boeing, which has benefited from about $4 billion of municipal bonds and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief. ‘We thought the relationship was a lot stronger.’” Has anything changed?

A diversified economy

wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentration
The mayor and council members have said that we need to diversify our economy. This action contemplated this week reduces diversification. It gives special benefits worth millions to the largest company in our most concentrated industry. The costs of these incentives are born by other companies, especially entrepreneurs and start up companies. It’s these entrepreneurs and young companies that must be the source of diversity and dynamism in our economy.

(If we really believe that these incentives have no cost, why don’t we offer them more often? Think of how many companies go out of business each month. Many of them could be saved with just a little infusion of cash. Why doesn’t the city rescue these firms with incentives?)

Do incentives work?

The uncontroverted, peer-reviewed research tells us that targeted economic development incentives don’t work, if we consider the entire economy. See: Research on economic development incentives. Some of the conclusions of the studies listed there include:

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

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

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

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

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

These research programs illustrate the fallacy of the seen and the unseen. It is easy to see the jobs being created by economic development incentives. It’s undeniable that jobs are created at firms that receive incentives, at least most of the time. But these jobs are easy to see. It’s easy for news reporters to find the newly-hired and grateful workers, or to show video footage of a new manufacturing plant.

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

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

Can officials manage growth?

Alan Peters and Peter Fisher wrote an academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

In 2008 Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit investigated spending on economic development. It found about the same as did Peters and Fisher.

Going forward

Politicians and bureaucrats promote programs like this tax abatement as targeted investment in our economic future. They believe that 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 and Kansas 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.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

Professor 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.’”

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 is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. 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.

Kansas sales tax exemptions, according to Kansas City Star

Here’s a look at just how bad some Kansas newspaper articles and editorials have been. From December 2010.

kansas-city-star-bannerA recent editorial in one of Kansas’ leading newspapers may lead readers to believe that eliminating sales tax exemptions holds the key to solving the state’s budget problems. But following the advice of the editorial would place Kansas at a severe disadvantage to other states in manufacturing.

The Kansas City Star editorial, titled “Education should trump tax breaks in Kansas” (available to read here), holds this paragraph: “For every penny of sales tax collected in Kansas, the state exempts 2 cents. Brownback should be looking at ways to spread, not increase, the tax burden more fairly so everyday Kansans aren’t asked to prop up breaks for businesses.”

While the numbers the editorial cites are correct, they are used in a misleading way, as we can easily see.

In 2009, the retail sales tax brought in $2,286.7 million. According to a study by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit is titled Kansas Tax Revenues, Part II: Reviewing Sales Tax Exemptions, Kansas has 99 sales tax exemptions that cost the state an estimated $4.2 billion in 2009. That’s pretty close to the two-to-one ratio of exemptions to collections that the Star editorial mentions.

But if the Star had cared to look any farther, they would have realized that this number is an illusion. The audit report noted: “Six of those exemptions, accounting for $3.4 billion, relate primarily to taxing goods at the final point of sale, and not taxing government entities.”

An example of an exemption that contributes toward the $3.4 billion figure is exemption 79-3606 (m), described as “Ingredient/Component parts: Of items manufactured or produced for sale at retail.” The audit report estimates that for 2009, this exemption cost the state $2,248.1 million in lost sales tax revenue.

This exemption isn’t really an “exemption,” at least if the sales tax is thought of as 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.

An example would be an aircraft manufacturer purchasing a jet engine to be installed in an airplane that is being built. 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 and crippling disadvantage compared to almost all other states.

There are two other exemptions that fall in this category of inputs to to production processes, totaling an estimated $461 million in lost revenue. When we consider these numbers, the premise of the Star’s editorial — that there are untold riches to be collected if we close tax breaks — isn’t true. That is, unless the Star really believes we should be taxing these type of intermediate business transactions. I wouldn’t be surprised if it thinks we should.

I agree with the Star that we should be looking for ways to spread the tax burden. Then, let’s lower the rates.

Wichita economic development not being managed

The Wichita Eagle has reported that Wichita has increased its granting of property tax exemptions in recent years. (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013) Buried in the story is the really important aspect of public policy. In his reporting, Bill Wilson wrote:

The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.”

wichita-economic-development

One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care.

This is a management problem at the highest level. In January when the city council awarded city manager Robert Layton a large raise, the praise from council members was effusive. This means one of several things: (a) that the mayor and city council have not asked for these job creation numbers, or (b) city council members don’t care about the numbers, or (c) they’re not interested in knowing the numbers. There could be other explanations, but all point to a lack of bureaucratic management and political oversight.

I wonder why the city officials didn’t explain that according to their analysis and way of thinking, these tax abatements don’t have a cost. When presented to the council, each abatement opportunity is generally accompanied by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that the city, county, school district, and state gain more in tax revenue than they forego from the abatement. Does this extra government revenue create jobs?

In any case, the number of jobs stemming from our economic development efforts is small. In his State of the City Address for 2012, Mayor Carl Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This minuscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity. (The mayor didn’t mention job creation figures in his 2013 address.)

The case of InfoNXX

Here’s an example of property tax abatements granted for which the city received little in return. In 2005, with great fanfare, the city announced that its economic development recruitment efforts had landed InfoNXX, an operator of call centers. The council agenda report of November 15, 2005 recommended that the council approve a letter of intent for tax abatements. The report stated this:

The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has worked with a national site consultant to recruit a new company to Wichita. InfoNXX, Inc., major provider of telephone directory assistance and enhanced information services to leading communications companies, businesses and consumers located principally in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Italy. As a result of the recruitment effort, InfoNXX will locate a large customer service center in the former MCI Building, near Rock Road and K-96 in northeast Wichita, and hire over 900 customer care representatives. As an economic development incentive, the City offered InfoNXX Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) and property tax abatement on equipment and furnishings, subject to City Council approval.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Approve a Letter of Intent to InfoNXX Inc. for Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount not-to-exceed $6 million, subject to the Letter of Intent conditions, for a term of six-months, approve a 100% tax abatement on all bond-financed property for an initial five-year period plus an additional five years following City Council review, and authorize the application for a sales tax exemption on bond-financed property.

On December 13, 2005 the council approved the ordinance granting the tax abatements.

Fast forward to the February 15, 2011 council agenda packet. The five year initial property tax abatement granted in 2005 was over, and the council could extend it for another five years if the committed goals had been met. The agenda report gave this summary for capital investment: “Purchase furniture, fixtures and equipment for a capital investment of $6 million.” Results, according to city documents, were “Invested $7,331,379 million [sic] in FF&E.”

For job creation, the 2005 commitment was “Create 944 new jobs in five years.” Results, according to city documents, were “Created 870 new jobs; current job level is 185.”

InfoNXX was short of its job creation commitments, but the city used a loophole to grant a one-year extension of the tax abatement. That one-year extension was never the subject of further consideration, as InfoNXX changed its name, and in January 2012 closed the Wichita facility that was the subject of these incentives.

It’s unfortunate for Wichita and the InfoNXX employees that the facility closed. The important public policy consideration is that we learn from this. So, when Wichita counts the number of jobs created, does it adjust for short-lived jobs like these?

The answer, I believe, is no. We don’t adjust our job creation statistics, and we don’t learn.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, we don’t even keep current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012, and as we saw above, city documents said that at its peak the company employed 870 in Wichita. As of today, here’s what GWEDC says on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers – including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)

So the official Wichita-area economic development agency proclaims the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. This is beyond careless negligence. This is malpractice.

The USPS Remote Encoding Center mentioned? It’s being closed this year.

Going forward

In his State of the City address for 2013 the Wichita mayor lamented the fact that Wichita has no dedicated funding source for economic development. It’s likely that Wichitans will be asked to approve increased taxes for economic development, as well as for many other things we want like a new central library, new water and sewer pipes, improved public transit, and downtown development.

But before Wichita officials ask for more taxes so there can be more spending, they need to convince us that they care about measuring and managing results. They haven’t shown this so far.

Exchange Place still not good for Wichita, others

Wichita city hall logo

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider a redevelopment plan for the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita. Despite having shed the problems with the former owners, the project has become an even worse deal for the taxpayers of Wichita, Kansas, and the nation. Those looking for jobs and for investment capital to meet consumer demands are worse off, too.

Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.

HUD Loan Amount         $29,087,700
Private Equity            5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity        19,370,395
TIF Proceeds             12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds  $66,610,349

Consider each of these sources of funding. TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.

It sounds innocent, even beneficient and desirable. But if this project was not built within a TIF district, it would add $12,500,000 in tax revenues to the city, county, and school district. This is called “building up the tax base,” something politicians and bureaucrats say is an important goal. Downtown Wichita, however, has not done well in this regard, despite the claim of hundreds of millions in investment.

City leaders will tell us that tax increment financing is needed for economic development. Regarding the effect of tax increment financing districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

What about the effect of tax increment financing on job creation, that being another goal mentioned by politicians and bureaucrats? One person who has looked at the effect of TIF on jobs is Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. He authored a recent report titled Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth. In its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs: “Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment.” This project is a retail project, and can be expected to have a negative effect on employment.

Another bad aspect of this project for citizens is what city documents describe as “tax credit equity.” The amount is $19,370,395. This is understatement at its finest. Tax credits are a direct transfer from taxpayers to the project developers, with very few strings attached.

A tax credit is an appropriation of money made through the tax system and economically equivalent to a direct grant of money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” or “tax expenditures” to describe tax credits in recognition of this. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations. If the Kansas Legislature and United States Congress are not comfortable with writing this developer a check for over $19,000,000, they should not make a roundabout contribution through the tax system that has the same economic impact on the state’s and nation’s finances.

Citizens will be told that the tax credits are needed because rehabbing historic buildings is expensive. We should let politicians and bureaucrats know that living or working in a historic building is a premium amenity that one chooses, just like one might choose granite counter tops in their kitchen. We shouldn’t expect others to pay for these voluntary choices.

Then, there’s a “HUD Loan Amount,” which is actually a loan guarantee of $29,087,700. U.S. taxpayers are liable for this amount of money should the project not meet its projections.

The subsides to this project have real costs. This development will require services from the city, county, and school district, yet it won’t be contributing its full share of property taxes. So someone else has to pay.

The tax credits represent money that has to be made up by taxpayers across Kansas and the nation. Again, someone else has to pay. Since Kansas applies sales tax to food, even poor people buying groceries will be contributing to the cost of the grants given to this project through state tax credits.

We’ll be told that there’s a “funding gap” that taxpayers must step forward to fill. Why does that gap exist? It’s simple: Markets have decided that this project is not worth what it costs. If it was worth what it’s going to cost, and if the developer is reputable (as we’ve been promised), markets would be willing to fund the project. This happens every day all across the country, even during recessions.

What the city is proposing to do is to take risks with the taxpayers’ money that no one is willing to take with their own. Further, the spending and credit that is diverted from markets to this project wastes capital. There is less capital available for projects that people value, because it is diverted to projects that politicians and bureaucrats value.

The difficulty is that it’s easy to see the new project. The groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies that commemorate government intervention will be covered by television and newspapers. Politicians and bureaucrats are drawn to these events and will spend taxpayer funds to make sure you’re aware of them.

It’s more difficult to see that the harm that government intervention causes. That harm is dispersed and more difficult to spot. But the harm is real. If it is not, then we need to ask why our governments don’t do more of this type of development.

Driving by a development in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Recognizing the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is “stage one” thinking, and no more than that.

It’s hard to think beyond stage one. It requires considering not only the seen, but also the unseen, as Frederic Bastiat taught us in his famous parable of the broken window. It also requires thinking of the long term effects of a policy, not just the immediate. But over and over again we see how politicians at all levels of government stop thinking at stage one. This is one of the many reasons why we need to return as much decision-making as possible to the private sector, and drastically limit the powers of politicians and governments.

It hasn’t worked, but Wichita will do it again

man-digging-coins

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will, in all likelihood, issue more business welfare in an effort to create jobs in Wichita.

The applicant company is asking for relief from paying property taxes under the city’s Economic Development Exemption (EDX). The city’s economic development policy has a formula that determines how much tax can be excused, based on job creation and capital investment. In this case, according to city documents, “WSM Industries qualifies for a 59%, five-plus-five year tax exemption.” Not 50 percent, and not 60 percent. Precisely 59 percent is what the city judges.

Here’s how the tax savings breaks down among the various taxing jurisdictions:

City of Wichita: $4,500
Sedgwick County: $4,081
USD 259: $7,920
State of Kansas: $209
Total: $16,710

An analysis performed for the city indicates a favorable benefit-cost ratio for these incentives. This inspires a question: If we really believe in this benefit to the city (and similar benefits to the county, school district, and state), why doesn’t the city make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies could expand if not for the burden of property taxes. And that’s what tomorrow’s contemplated action means, if we are to believe it is anything but cronyism and business welfare: Property taxes in Wichita are what prevented this company from expanding. Erase 59 percent of the company’s property tax burden, and it is able to make new capital investment and jobs.

If it really is so easy to promote economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every city council meeting. Several times each meeting, don’t you think?

I also wonder about companies that made expansions as did this applicant company, but did not ask the city for incentives. What is their secret?

The reality is that these economic development incentives don’t work, if we are willing to consider the effect on everyone in the region instead of just this applicant company, and also if we are willing to consider the long-term effects instead of only the immediate.

Peer-reviewed research on economic development incentives — this is the conclusion of all the studies — find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives. That’s not a surprise. But the research also finds that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment

If peer-reviewed research is not convincing, let’s take a look at the record of Wichita.
Here is a chart of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers. (Click it for a larger version, or click here for the interactive visualization, or here to watch a video.) The data shows that Wichita hasn’t been doing well.

So if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to also recognize that our efforts aren’t working. Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

For Wichita, more districts, more taxes, more bureaucracy

red-tape-person-upset

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District. Actually, the council will formation of a planning committee to determine boundaries, parameters, budgets, and how to fund the budget.

The impetus behind the TBID, according to city documents, is “Go Wichita has proposed that a TBID be created to enhance its marketing efforts.” Go Wichita is the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The source of its funds, again from city documents: “A fee is assessed to each of these properties based on room night sales. This fee is usually determined as a percentage of the room rate or as a flat dollar amount per night. The funds collected in the district are spent exclusively for the benefit of the hotels and are usually programmed by the local convention and visitor’s bureau.”

What will be done with the money that is raised? “The funds generated from the district would be used to increase convention advertising in key meeting planner publications, convention sales initiatives in key markets and digital advertising. Additionally, a significant portion of the new funds would be earmarked for leisure marketing efforts.”

Tomorrow’s action contemplated by the council is just the formation of a planning committee, not he actual TBID. So there’s still time to think this through. Here’s what I hope the city considers:

First, is there any way to distinguish this “fee” from a tax? A tax that will probably be passed along to visitors to Wichita?

Second: Is there any way to characterize this as anything other than an expansion of bureaucracy in Wichita? I really wonder if the hotel operators know what they’re getting themselves mixed up in. If the hotels feel they need more marketing firepower to attract business to Wichita, I’m sure they’d do better to form a voluntary association to undertake this task. This would be nimble and flexible in way that a government bureaucracy can never be. But who will stand up to this expansion of our tourism bureaucracy? A hotel owner that wishes to receive referrals? Like most government bureaucrats, those who will run this new program “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets, perks, and staffs. They won’t look favorably on those who don’t go along with the program.

Then: The members of the committee are appointed by the mayor. Hotel owners: Do you want Carl Brewer to be in charge of appointing people to oversee something important to your business?

Finally, the people of Wichita need to realize that pursuit of convention and tourism business is not the wisest path to follow. Wall Street Journal reporting from last year concluded with:

“Mr. Sanders, the University of Texas professor, predicts the glut of convention space will only get worse, because a number of cities continue to push expansions. He blames cities’ hired consultants, who he said predict “all these people are going to come and do wonderful things to your economy.”

“But the problem is they aren’t coming anymore, because there are lots of other convention centers … that desperately want that business,” he said. “So Atlanta steals from Boston, Orlando steals from Chicago and Las Vegas steals from everywhere.”

The “Mr. Sanders” referred to in the Journal reporting is Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His 2005 report report Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Sanders writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

What about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and will probably continue, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Sanders says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, recently opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, Sanders writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

We already see some of this excuse-making taking place: Private investment in downtown Wichita has been weak, it is said, because there’s not yet a critical mass of development. It is promised by downtown boosters that given enough public money, critical mass will be achieved, and private investment will rush in. But since there is no definition of what constitutes critical mass, this excuse is always available to justify failure.

Anderson, former Kansas budget director, speaks

Last Friday former Kansas budget director Steve Anderson spoke to members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. Two videos are available, a highlights version and full version. View below, or to view on YouTube, click here for highlights or here for full version.

Also, it was announced on Friday that Anderson would be joining Kansas Policy Institute in the role of senior adjunct fiscal policy fellow. For more on this from KPI, see Former state budget director Steve Anderson joins Kansas Policy Institute.

Highlights video

Full speech

WichitaLiberty.TV September 8, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks wonders if Wichitans will be asked to support increased sales taxes, especially for supporting bus transit. But do we really want more buses and fewer personal automobiles? Amanda BillyRock illustrates “Economics in One Lesson” Chapter 4, which is titled “Public Works mean Taxes.” Then, Bob’s video illustrates the Wichita City Council making a decision for uneconomic reasons, and Bob suspects cronyism is the real motive. Episode 12, broadcast September 8, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Be wary of expanding Wichita transit spending

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Today’s Wichita Eagle carries an op-ed designed to gather support for funding an expanded Wichita regional transit system. The article is Chase M. Billingham: State should support transit. Before deciding to expand Wichita’s transit system, and especially before deciding on a new taxing scheme to fund it, we need to make sure we understand more about transit.

Here’s a claim from the op-ed that is incorrect: “Already, local revenue sources and fares account for about half of Wichita Transit’s operating budget.” That doesn’t align with figures I’ve found. In July I reported on the transit system’s finances, and found that of $13,914,580 in annual operating expenses, $5,953,042 was categorized as from fares and local source. That’s 43 percent, not really close to half. Considering fares and local support as a fraction of total spending including capital, it’s 38 percent. This data is from the National Transit Database for 2011, and is summarized in a chart at the end of this article. The Wichita city budget documents tell largely the same story.

By the way, many people would be surprised to learn of the fraction of expenses paid for through fares. Considering operating expenses only, the number is 13.5 percent. Considering operating and capital costs, just 12.1 percent comes from fare revenue. The remainder is provided by taxpayers. So when a bus rider puts a dollar in the farebox, taxpayers contribute an additional six dollars to fund the system.

Speaking of taxpayers, Billingham writes: “In recent years, generous federal funding has made up much of the rest of the budget …” It ought to be a crime to use the word generous to describe federal spending and taxation. “Generous” has to do with giving. That’s a voluntary act. The federal government has nothing to give except what it takes from others, and that is not generosity.

Why should we spend on an expanded transit system in Wichita and the region? Billingham writes: “Research has shown that robust public transit service can spur economic growth and downtown redevelopment, reduce traffic congestion, and expand residents’ access to jobs and resources.” Well, what research? There is no citation. Now, I know that newspapers don’t like to include footnotes or citations in articles. That’s too bad, as we’re left to guess from where the author drew his facts and conclusions.

Transit is an expensive way to move people. Riders spend a lot of time waiting for buses. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for economic growth. Considering downtown development: If it’s true that transit increases downtown development, that’s bad for taxpayers, as very little is done downtown without some type of taxpayer handout. People spending their own money, not someone else’s, usually choose somewhere other than downtown.

Randal O'Toole: The Best-Laid Plans

As far as expanding access to jobs: I’ve done some research. Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, writes the following regarding the tremendous boost the personal automobile has given Americans: “Since the dawn of the Republic, no invention has enhanced the quality of life of the average American as much as the mass-produced automobile. Americans today are far more mobile, they earn much higher incomes, and they have access to far more consumer goods than a hundred years ago. It is no exaggeration to attribute most of these improvements to the wide availability of automobiles.”

Owning an automobile gives people the mobility that is impossible to provide through transit, and that is very important for workers. Some examples:

“Studies show that car ownership is a significant factor in improving the employment status of welfare recipients.” (Job Access, Commute, and Travel Burden Among Welfare Recipients)

“Raphael and Rice (2002) found in their study that car ownership has a strong effect on the probability of an individual being employed as well as on the number of hours they work per week. Generally, car ownership better enables job seekers to look for jobs. They can consider work outside of regular transit service hours, and they can travel faster, more safely, and more flexibly than with public transportation.” (Transportation & Work: Exploring Car Usage and Employment Outcomes in the LSAL Data)

Also from this study: “Overall, car ownership does appear to have an important relationship to employment status, wages, and weeks worked.” And “Having a car as a primary mode of transportation makes a respondent four times as likely to be employed. Car ownership also improves earnings by several hundred dollars and increases weeks worked by up to eleven weeks.”

In the rankings of factors that are important to obtaining employment, a car was more useful than a high-school-equivalent diploma. We should be working to increase automobile ownership, especially among lower-income people. The more we tax people to provide transit, the more difficult it is for them to buy and maintain private cars.

Finally, consider this from O’Toole on the disjointed logic of transit boosters: “Transit advocates will point out that the autos driving on congested urban highways often have only one occupant. But that is exactly the point: If modern life is so decentralized that carpooling makes no sense for most commuters, how are giant buses and high-capacity trains going to work?”

The goal of the planners, of course, is for people to conform to their designs, not their own. Transit is one of the ways that planners create their dream world for us to live in. The sustainable communities planning process we’re undertaking has, as a goal, reducing the amount we drive. REAP, one of our several planning agencies, has much information about the process on its website devoted to the process, located at Sustainable Communities Grant 2011. I would especially encourage reading the document “Sustainable Communities Work Plan DRAFT.” In there you can learn of the plans to “decrease per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).” This plan, if it succeeds, will harm citizens’ mobility and economic opportunities, especially for the people who need jobs most.

The sustainable communities planning process is definitely anti-automobile. One of the goals for the plan is: “Regional Transportation Plan: Develop multi-modal transportation options/programs for the region and connects housing options to emerging employment clusters.” This sounds like a good and noble idea. But in practice, government transit systems fail to produce what riders truly want and need, and are very expensive.

Wichita Transit Finances, 2011

Incentive program ignores ‘One Lesson’

City of Wichita logo

Recording an episode of WichitaLiberty.TV on the topic of “Economics in One Lesson” reminded me of a story I reported last year. The lesson is “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” A program implemented last year in Wichita provides examples of how governments ignore this lesson.

A document released by the City of Wichita casts strong doubt on the wisdom of a new home property tax rebate program. The document also lets us know that city staff are not being entirely honest with the citizens of Wichita.

The new home tax rebate program, according to city documents prepared for the February 14, 2012 city council meeting, provides free Wichita city property taxes to buyers of qualifying new homes: “To promote additional new home construction and new home ownership, the City of Wichita, after extensive coordination and discussion with WABA, is proposing a New HOME (New Home Ownership Made Easy) Program. The program will provide a 5 year rebate of City property taxes for eligible property. To be eligible, property must be in a participating development, with all taxes through 2010 (general and special assessment) current in the development. In addition, to be eligible, the special assessment and general taxes must be paid current at the date of sale and closing of a property.”

WABA is The Wichita Area Builders Association , a trade association for home builders. The document recently released is a study or analysis of the program dated February 1 from Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

During the period of the tax rebate program, the study estimates that 787 homes would be built and sold even if there was no rebate program. It is assumed that 1,000 homes would be sold during that period with the rebate program, but that is not certain.

Following is an excerpt from a table that presents the results of analysis. The benefits and costs are to the City of Wichita General Fund. 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.

                   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, undoubtedly, will focus 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 explains 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 doesn’t offer the incentives, the benefits to the city are $2,364,429. If incentives are used, the benefits are $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 has 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.

The analysis concludes that with the tax rebate program, there will be more construction jobs. But, caution the study authors: “Please note, the jobs supported in 2012 and 2013 are not net new jobs — they are jobs that already exist. The analysis simply identifies a funding stream for these jobs.”

In a separate but similar analysis dated March 22, 2012 prepared for Sedgwick County, some limitations of the analysis were itemized, as follows:

It was beyond the scope of this analysis to account for:

  • Changes in household consumption due to a change in homeownership.
  • The impact of renters who become owners. The program would likely encourage renters to become homebuyers. As these individuals leave the rental market, there may be adverse effects, including falling rental rates.
  • An increase in demand. Although an increase in new home purchases, above existing demand, is likely if incentives are offered, the actual increase in demand has not been quantified.
  • Any increase in demand that offsets future home purchases. It is likely that any increase in new home purchases will simply offset future home purchases as seen in the national Cash for Clunkers program.
  • A change in the price of new homes due to additional supply or higher demand.
  • A fall in home prices, or the associated tax collections, from existing homes. There is a strong likelihood that the increased demand in new homes could lower the value of existing homes.
  • Sunk costs. All costs associated with the creation of a new development, including specials, are viewed as sunk costs. Because they have already occurred, these sunk costs are not included in the analysis.
  • Increased cost of public services. Incentives provided to rural areas could increase public costs as new services are required, including roads, sewer, fire and the like. These increased costs are location specific and not included in the analysis.
  • Cost associated with not providing incentives. The costs associated with a poor new home market have not been analyzed. Without incentives, new home purchases are expected to be lower. This could have negative consequences to builders, developers and taxing entities.

Some of these problems I presented to the city council in my testimony delivered at the February 14th council meeting. Specifically, I warned council members of the devaluing of existing homes, the “cash for clunkers” effect, the costs of providing city services to homes that aren’t contributing property tax to pay for them, and the question of how much new activity will be induced: “Related to this is the question as to how much new activity this program will induce. Often government takes credit for all economic activity that takes place. This ignores the economic activity that was going to take place naturally — in this case, new homes that are going to be built even without this subsidy program … But, the city has to give up collecting property tax on all these homes — even the ones that would be built anyway.

In the case of a new home property tax rebate program for Sedgwick County, the study concludes that the benefit of the program to the county is negative $1,832,294 — a huge cost.

Missing candor

Now that the CEDBR study is released, we can see how city staff failed to present the entire economic impact of the tax rebate program to citizens. Here’s what city staff presented to council members, and by extension, all Wichitans:

“The Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University analyzed the fiscal impact of the proposed New HOME incentive program on the City’s General Fund. The analysis compares the present value cost of incentives to the present value benefits of direct and indirect jobs created and construction expenditures. In this case, a 1.48 to one ratio of benefits-to costs is reported.”

Every word in this statement is true. But what’s missing is that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 better off.

City staff had this information. Sources tell me, however, that staff did not present it to council members or the public before the council voted on the program. We are left with this conclusion: City staff presented only the information from the study that promoted the result the city wanted. This is lying by omission.

This is not the first time city staff has misled the council and the public. Regarding the economic impact of subsidies to the Ambassador Hotel, the city touted a positive cost-benefit ratio to one fund, while ignoring a negative impact to a much larger fund. The difference was a factor of 23 times. Later the city backpedaled, saying that it didn’t intend for downtown projects to be evaluated on the cost-benefit ratio to the debt service fund. See In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned.

At some time council members and citizens need to demand that someone be held accountable for this behavior. Demands for accountability are not likely to come from the city council, as many members have shown themselves willing to overlook all facts and reason in order to promote their goals. The editorial board of the Wichita Eagle does the same. It remains important for citizens to perform this watchdog function.

Wichita Eagle reporting on this matter is at Sedgwick County won’t join property tax rebate for new-home buyers.

Sedgwick County delinquent taxes, the useful version

The Wichita Eagle has devoted newsprint to deliver the data, and you can obtain it as pdf on your computer, too. Neither of these options for delivering the Sedgwick County delinquent tax list for 2012 is very useful.

I’ve created a Google Docs sheet that holds this data. You can access it below, but it’s probably best to open it in a new window by clicking here. There are three tabs: an introduction, the data, and a pivot table that summarizes the data. Have fun.

Wichita income is not keeping up

Visioneering Wichita uses per capita income growth as one benchmark of economic progress. What do the numbers say about the city’s progress? The following video illustrates. View below, or click here to view in higher resolution at YouTube, which may work better for some people.

For more in this, and to access the interactive visualization, see Wichita personal income growth benchmark.

Change in needed in Wichita

A version of this op-ed by John Todd appeared in the Wichita Eagle.

John Todd, American PatriotChange is desperately needed in Wichita — change to allow exceptionalism and end failed economic subsidies.

Once again, several of the favored downtown development group partners have lined up outside City Hall with outstretched palms to receive prime city owned Arkansas River corridor land for bargain basement prices layered with generous incentives.

I heartily support private real estate development downtown and across Wichita. It creates jobs, enhances quality of life, expands the tax base and provides economic uplift. However, projects involving generous taxpayer funded “economic development” incentive handouts transfer the risk and tax burden from developers back to taxpayers who rarely realize any direct benefits from the projects.

The downtown WaterWalk project essentially gave away 20 acres of prime city owned land with a reported $41 million incentive package that included diverting tax revenue to the developer with unknown benefits to taxpayers. Compare this with the Waterfront development at 13th and Webb Road that received no subsidy and generates an estimated $2.5 million in annual tax revenues for the public treasury.

To paraphrase a thought attributed to several authors: “A Democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government, because, when people discover they can vote money for themselves out of the public treasury, they will bankrupt it.”

I believe it is time for the citizens of Wichita to move forward by putting a new marketing program in place titled, “Capitalizing on Exceptionalism: A New Chapter in Wichita.”

To make it work, we must enlist the support of key, wealth producing, connected people of influence in our community as well as the everyday hard working citizen entrepreneurs and craftsmen, and provide the marketing forum for them to recognize and realize that Wichita can be exceptional, and that we don’t have to embrace a “follow the herd” mentality that will lead us to economic destruction and mediocrity.

We must change the “entitlement” mentality that permeates the social and the business segments of our whole country, starting in particular with our own community. Wichita can become the exceptional example of economic prosperity others will strive to emulate.

If we can move away from the entitlement attitude and get government out of the way, our private sector entrepreneurs and craftsmen can match anyone in the country; and all of this can be achieved by rejecting the corporate welfare trap we have fallen into.

John Todd
Wichita

WichitaLiberty.TV August 11, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks asks if shoppers have ever paid extra sales tax in Wichita’s Community Improvement Districts, and describes efforts by the city to avoid disclosure of this tax. Then, are there similarities between Wichita and Detroit? Finally, a Sedgwick County Commissioner is worried about agriculture being driven out of the county, but Bob thinks he doesn’t need to worry. Episode 8, broadcast August 11, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.