Southfork TIF should, again, be rejected

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers the formation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district in south Wichita. Known as the Southfork TIF District, the developer is Wichitan Jay Maxwell. His agent is Tim Austin.

The TIF proposal has been revised since it was approved by the Wichita city council last December, but rejected by the Sedgwick County Commission in January. Like all TIF districts, this form of government intervention in the economy does more harm than good, and should be rejected.

TIF is not free money

Supporters of TIF usually contend that TIF has no cost. This is not the case. This new development will consume fire, police, and other governmental services, but will not contribute its share of property taxes to pay for these. Instead, some portion of the property taxes will be redirected back to the TIF district to benefit the developers. Others will have to pay taxes to make up this deficit, or will have to accept a reduced level of service. See Tax increment financing is not free money.

There’s also the “but-for” argument: without the benefit of TIF, the project will not be built, and therefore no tax revenue would be received. It’s a powerful argument, if it were really true. But those who seek this type of government funding can always find a way to make their financial projections “prove” the need for TIF money. Governments then take them at their word.

We might ask ourselves this question: If TIF is truly without cost, why not have more TIF districts? Why not offer TIF for all new development?

The role of politics

Maxwell and Austin have some queer ideas regarding the nature of markets and politics. In an email message to supporters of the Southfork TIF, Austin wrote: “There are many underlying political winds working against the Southfork TIF.” In another email message, he wrote: “As I mentioned previously, there are underlying political interests at play that appear to be making this a political matter as opposed to a vote the merits of the TIF, the project, and South Wichita.”

Austin has it exactly backwards. It is he and Maxwell who are arguing for using the political process to enrich themselves. Those such as myself who oppose government interventions like TIF are arguing against using the political process — against making this a political matter, that is.

The supporters of government intervention such as TIF often make claims of “market failure.” They claim that the free market system has failed to deliver what they want, so they make appeals to government to intervene. This moves society away from markets and civil society and toward politics and cronyism.

In reality, markets do quite well in allocating the resources of our economy, despite the claims of many, including historians who should know better. There are those who may feel they’re not getting everything they deserve through the market process, but that’s no reason to introduce the tremendous inefficiencies and distortions that the political process brings with it. In his book How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, From the Pilgrims to the Present, Thomas J. DiLorenzo explained:

Most historians also uncritically repeat the claim that government subsidies were necessary to building America’s transcontinental railroad industry, steamship industry, steel industry, and other industries. But while clinging to this “market failure” argument, they ignore (or at least are unaware of) the fact that market entrepreneurs performed quite well without government subsidies. They also ignore the fact that the subsidies themselves were a great source of inefficiency and business failure, even though they enriched the direct recipients of the subsidies and advanced the political careers of those who dished them out.

Political entrepreneurs and their governmental patrons are the real villains of American business history and should be portrayed as such. They are the real robber barons.

The idea of “market failure” is used by the promoters of this TIF district. They claim that only government — that is, politics — can make things right, at least according to their vision.

Political entrepreneurs, by the way, are those who seek their profits through government, not markets. Instead of seeking to create products and services that please customers, they seek to please politicians and bureaucrats. This move away from market entrepreneurship to political entrepreneurship is especially sad in Wichita, where we have a proud tradition of market entrepreneurs with famous names: Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, W.C. Coleman, Albert Alexander Hyde, Dan and Frank Carney, Fred C. Koch, and many others.

Do TIF districts work?

In deciding whether TIF districts “work” we must come to an agreement of what “work” means. Generally, most supporters of TIF — besides the obvious motivations of the developers who are directly enriched by them — claim increased development and jobs.

But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

As far as increased development: Yes, that generally happens within the TIF district. But what about the overall city? The answer is that TIF is harmful.

Regarding the effect of tax increment financing (TIF) districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied the issue 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.” More on their work is at Tax increment financing (TIF) and economic growth.

Others may support TIF for its purported positive impact on employment. Sure, it’s easy to drive by a TIF district and see people at work. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

One person who looked at the effect of TIF on employment in the entire city is economist Paul F. Byrne. He concluded this: “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.”

More on his work is at Does tax increment financing (TIF) deliver on its promise of jobs?

We must conclude that TIF does not meet the goals of increased development and/or jobs, if we consider the impact on everyone. What we’re left with is the well-known problem that public choice economics — the economics of politics — has described: Concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. It’s the reason why those who seek enrichment at Wichita City Hall and other governments make so many political campaign contributions.

This particular applicant

We also need to look at the characteristics of this applicant. The Wichita Business Journal reported this regarding a company Maxwell owned:

Pixius proposes to repay, over a 10-year period, $1.3 million of a $6.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, according to court documents. The loan was part of a 2002 Farm Bill pilot program that loaned more than $180 million to ISPs to expand Internet service to rural areas.

“To my memory … Pixius is the only one (to receive a loan) that’s had to file bankruptcy to work out of its situation,” says Claiborn Crain, USDA spokesman.

When the government helped out Maxwell in the past, it cost taxpayers $5.1 million in a loan discharged in bankruptcy. His company is set apart from other similar companies in that, according to the USDA spokesman, only Maxwell’s declared bankruptcy.

I suggest that Maxwell has had his turn at the government funding trough. Taxpayers can’t afford to give him another.


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