Local economic development in Wichita

Writing from Memphis, Tennessee

Today’s Wichita Eagle (November 5, 2005) tells us of a new economic development package that our local governments have given to induce a call center to locate in Wichita. The deal is described as “one of the biggest the two-year-old economic development coalition [Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition] has landed.”

There is an interesting academic paper titled “The Failures of Economic Development Incentives,” published in Journal of the American Planning Association, and which can be read here: www.planning.org/japa/pdf/04winterecondev.pdf. A few quotes from the study:

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.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or 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 their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.

On the surface of things, to the average person, it would seem that spending to attract new businesses makes a lot of sense. It’s a win-win deal, backers say. Everyone benefits. This is why it appeals so to politicians. It lets them trumpet their achievements doing something that no one should reasonably disagree with. After all, who could be against jobs and prosperity? But the evidence that these schemes work is lacking, as this article shows.

Close to Wichita we have the town of Lawrence, which has recently realized that it as been, well, bamboozled? A September 29, 2005 Lawrence Journal-World article (“Firms must earn tax incentives”) tell us: “Even with these generous standards for compliance, to have 13 out of 17 partnerships fail [to live up to promised economic activity levels] indicates that the city has received poor guidance in its economic development activities.” Further: “The most disconcerting fact is that Lawrence would probably have gained nearly all of the jobs generated by these firms without giving away wasteful tax breaks.”

On November 6, 2005, an article in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader said this:

The Herald-Leader’s investigation, based on a review of more than 15,000 pages of documents and interviews with more than 100 people, reveals a pattern of government giveaways that, all too often, ends in lost jobs, abandoned factories and broken promises.

The investigation shows:

Companies that received incentives often did not live up to their promises. In a 10-year period the paper analyzed, at least one in four companies that received assistance from the state’s main cash-grant program did not create the number of jobs projected.

A tax-incentive program specifically for counties with high unemployment has had little effect in many of those areas. One in five manufacturing companies that received the tax break has since closed.

There is spotty oversight of state tax incentives. The state sometimes does not attempt to recover incentives, even when companies don’t create jobs as required.

Unlike some other states, Kentucky makes little information about incentives public. The Cabinet for Economic Development refuses to release much of the information about its dealings with businesses, citing proprietary concerns. The cabinet has never studied its programs’ effectiveness, and it blocked a legislative committee’s effort to do so.

The Herald-Leader’s examination of Kentucky’s business-incentive programs comes when, nationally, questions are mounting about the effectiveness and legality of expensive government job-creation efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by spring whether trading tax breaks for jobs is legal or whether they amount to discrimination against other companies.

Meanwhile, states continue engaging in costly economic battles for new jobs, even though research strongly suggests that few business subsidies actually influence where a company sets up shop.

We might want to be optimistic and hope that our local Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders are smarter than those in Lawrence and Lexington. Evidence shows us, however, that this probably isn’t the case. Our own local Wichita City Council members have shown that they aren’t familiar with even the most basic facts about our economic development programs. How do we know this? Consider the article titled “Tax break triggers call for reform” published in the Wichita Eagle on August 1, 2004:

Public controversy over the Genesis bond has exposed some glaring flaws in the process used to review industrial revenue bonds and accompanying tax breaks.

For example, on July 13, Mayans and council members Sharon Fearey, Carl Brewer, Bob Martz and Paul Gray voted in favor of granting Genesis $11.8 million in industrial revenue bond financing for its expansion, along with a 50 percent break on property taxes worth $1.7 million.

They all said they didn’t know that, with that vote, they were also approving a sales tax exemption, estimated by Genesis to be worth about $375,000.

It is not like the sales tax exemption that accompanies industrial revenue bonds is a secret. An easily accessible web page on the City of Wichita’s web site explains it.

But perhaps there is hope. The Wichita Business Journal has recently reported this: “The city and county are getting $2 back for every dollar they spent over the past 18 months on economic development incentives, according to an analysis of GWEDC-supplied data. The report was presented at Thursday’s GWEDC investor luncheon at the Hyatt Regency by Janet Harrah, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.” Personally, I am skeptical. I have asked to see these figures and how they are calculated, but I have not been able to obtain them.


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