WichitaLiberty.TV: Ben Jones on the death penalty in Kansas

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Ben Jones of Equal Justice USA and Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty explains issues surrounding the death penalty. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 144, broadcast March 26, 2017.

Shownotes

For Wichita Eagle, no concern about relationships

Should the Wichita Eagle, a city’s only daily newspaper and the state’s largest, be concerned about the parties to its business relationships?

It’s a question that the Wichita Eagle should be considering. But the newspaper’s top executives seem to have no concern.

On February 14 I sent a message to the publisher and executive editor of the Wichita Eagle expressing my concerns. That letter appears below. After several follow-up attempts by email and telephone, neither would respond.

Sent I sent this message, I’ve found I was mistaken about the ownership of the building to where the Eagle will move and become a tenant. Steven is not an owner. I had relied on Eagle reporting1 from January, naming Steven as an owner. The reporter confirmed to me that was an error.

An error in the digital archives of the Wichita Eagle which could easily be corrected.

Of note, the Eagle portrays itself as a digital entity. One of the things about material published digitally is it can be easily corrected. As of today, the erroneous story from January 3 has not been corrected, even though the reporter knows she made an error.

Is it important that a newspaper avoid business relationships or entanglements with parties that are frequently in the news? I’ve been told that the Eagle has to rent from someone, and Wichita is a small town. Well, not really. The Eagle owns its current building, which eliminated the relationship with a landlord. And if the newspaper wants to be a rental tenant, it could rent from the many landlords who are not frequent newsmakers, especially those that the Eagle needs to hold accountable.

This is a sad episode for the Eagle. When Eagle reporters ask someone about uncomfortable topics and the subject does not respond to messages, the newspaper reports that, and in a negative light. Here, the top two executives at the Eagle would not comment on something they may be uncomfortable discussing. I think we deserve a newspaper with greater capacity for self-examination, and one whose executives are responsive to legitimate concerns.

Following, the message I sent. Note the corrections indicated in footnotes.

February 14, 2017

Mr. Roy Heatherly
Mr. Steve Coffman
The Wichita Eagle

I’m writing because I’m concerned about some issues regarding the Wichita Eagle and its news coverage.

Specifically, I’m concerned about the Eagle entering into business arrangements with the parties who purchased the Eagle building, and then becoming a tenant of the same parties.2

The three parties are Brandon Steven, Dave Wells, and David Burk. While the Eagle is certainly free to do business with anyone it wants to, these three men are newsmakers that the Eagle has covered in the past, and will likely need to cover in the future.

Mr. Heatherly, you may remember that last year at a Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting I asked you about the arrest of Brandon Steven (although I did not use his name), and why the Eagle did not cover this news. Other newspapers did, including the Topeka Capital-Journal and The Morning Sun in Pittsburg.3 4 Those newspapers thought the item newsworthy as Steven had recently been an applicant for a Kansas casino license, and factors such as a person’s reputation are relevant to these applications. Many thought it curious that the Eagle did not report this news.

Regarding David Burk, he is a continual newsmaker in Wichita, and not always in a positive way. A notable incident was his appeal of property taxes on property located within a tax increment financing district, which defeats the purpose of TIF.5 6 Worse, he misrepresented himself as an agent of the city in order to obtain this benefit. When the Eagle reported on this, it rated designation of “special report.” Other than this, Burk is a newsmaker in that he has, for many years, made large and regular campaign contributions to many city council members, and has received much subsidy from the city through many different programs.

For Dave Wells, a principal of Key Construction, he is often in the news for the same reasons as Burk: Large and continual campaign contributions, and a frequent recipient of subsidy. A particularly troubling matter involving Key Construction and public policy occurred in 2012, regarding the awarding of the contract for the new Wichita air terminal, a contract worth around $100 million. Key was one of the parties pursuing the contract. We learned that Key and its partners were making campaign contributions to one Wichita city council member, Jeff Longwell, immediately before and after he participated in a council vote on awarding the contract to Key.7 Several months later after additional campaign finance reports were filed, we saw that Key made contributions to other council members during the run-up to the contract dispute.8

When it was announced that the Eagle was selling its building to these parties, I was not comfortable with this transaction. But it was a one-time deal. Later we learned that the Eagle is to become a tenant of the same parties,9 a business relationship that is likely to last for a long time.

When the Eagle gives these parties free publicity in future news stories, will readers need to be concerned about the motivation for the Eagle printing the stories?

But more important: When these parties do something wrong, will the Eagle vigorously pursue an investigation? An investigation against its landlord?

I hope you can understand my concern.

I would appreciate receiving comments on this matter for a story I am writing for the Voice for Liberty. In addition, if either of you would like to appear on WichitaLiberty.TV to discuss that matter, we can do that too.

Thank you,
Bob Weeks


Notes

  1. Rengers, Carrie. Wichita Eagle signs deal for new downtown headquarters. January 3, 2017. http://www.kansas.com/news/business/article124312049.html
  2. An error. See introduction.
  3. Kansas casino bidder Brandon Steven busted for public nudity. Topeka Capital-Journal, October 1, 2015. http://cjonline.com/blog/tim-carpenter/2015-10-01/kansas-casino-bidder-brandon-steven-busted-public-nudity.
  4. Castle Rock developer arrested. The Morning Sun, October 8, 2015, http://www.morningsun.net/article/20151008/NEWS/151009892.
  5. Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property. Wichita Eagle, February 14, 2010. http://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/article1024583.html.
  6. Report: Errors made in Old Town Cinema district tax appeal. Wichita Eagle, March 10, 2010. http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article1027324.html.
  7. Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn questions out-of-state contributions to challenger Jeff Longwell. Wichita Eagle, August 1, 2012. http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article1096574.html.
  8. Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. Voice for Liberty, January 11, 2013. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/campaign-contributions-show-need-for-reform-in-wichita/.
  9. An error. See introduction.

Sedgwick County to consider raising debt limit

This week the Sedgwick County Commission will consider raising its limit on borrowing for reasons which need to be revealed, and then carefully examined.

Update: On Wednesday the Commission decided to defer this item to a future meeting, probably in April.

Personal correspondence from Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau explains the changes the Commission is scheduled to hear this Wednesday:

In 2016, the Board of County Commissioners modified the debt policy by limiting the annual debt service obligations (the amount we pay in principal and interest on a yearly basis) to 9% of budgeted expenditures until January 1, 2019, at which time the maximum will decrease to 8%. The previous maximum had been 20% with the County’s annual debt service hovering around 10% of budgeted expenditures. The policy was amended in an effort to place meaningful yet reasonable limits out the County’s borrowing capacity so as to avoid unnecessary habitual borrowing and excessive spending on projects “just because we can.”

The County’s current annual debt service is 8.22% and will fall below 8% in 2018.

No reason or project has been given as to why this change is needed. The county currently has no plans to issue debt for anything in 2017.

A nearby table summarizes and compares the present policy with debt limits that would exist under the new policy, according to the Sedgwick County Financial Office. (There is an alternative interpretation of policy that if used, would limit borrowing in 2019 to $73,218,639.)

Ranzau’s correspondence says there have been no reasons given for the need to change the debt limit, and that there is no plan to issue debt in 2017.

But that’s the county’s public position. Internally, there is consideration of borrowing and bonding in 2017. Some is for projects already completed and paid for.

Borrowing against the Ronald Reagan Building at 271 W. Third St. is being considered in the amount of $4.0 million. That’s $2.1 million of renovations already completed, plus $1.9 million in planned renovations already paid for.

Borrowing against the Downtown Tag Office at 2525 W. Douglas is considered at $2.3 million. This project has been paid for.

Additionally, the county may borrow to pay for the new Law Enforcement Training Center, in the amount of $5.5 million. This building is under construction, but the county has already transferred cash to the capital improvement fund that is designated to pay for this building.

Why would these buildings — some paid for, another for which cash is already set aside — be under consideration for bond issues?

An analogy is in personal finance, where a family might — after many years — pay off the mortgage on their house. Or maybe they saved and purchased the house outright without borrowing.

But then, the family takes out a mortgage — a new loan — on the house to have additional money for current spending. And more current spending is likely what some Commission members have in mind, as there is no need to take out a mortgage on property owned free and clear unless one wants to spend on something else.

Further, there are more projects the county may consider starting in years through 2021, using borrowing through bonds as payment. These total to $59.4 million, which is within the $61.6 million of borrowing allowed just through 2019. (That limit rises each year.)

This seems to contradict the need for a higher debt limit.

Before approving a higher borrowing limit, Sedgwick County Commissioners need to explain the need for the higher limit, and let taxpayers know if they’re about to be saddled with new mortgages on properties we thought we owned outright.

Sedgwick County may abolish scheduled tax decrease

The Sedgwick County Commission had scheduled a reduction in the property tax rate, but may abandon it.

Update: On Wednesday the Commission, by unanimous vote, disapproved the proposed ordinance, thereby leaving the scheduled reduction in place.

On March 23, 2016, the Sedgwick County Commission passed an ordinance, number 51-2016, which stated: “The maximum target for the mill levy to be assessed by Sedgwick County during its budgeting process for budget years 2017 — 2022 is 29.359 mills, and for budget years thereafter is 28.758, subject to requirements mandated by state law.” All commissioners voted in favor.

The resolution to be considered this week sets the maximum target for the mill levy at 29.359. Period. The language reducing the mill levy after 2022 is gone.

Does this count as a tax increase? People will have different perspectives on this.

But it is certain that if passed, this resolution abandons a plan to reduce taxes in the future.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Of note: When formulating a budget each year, the Commission doesn’t set the mill levy by ordinance. Instead, the Commission decides to spend a certain amount. Then, based on the assessed value of taxable property in the county, the mill levy is calculated. The target established by the Commission is just that, a target. Without a strict target, the Sedgwick County might go the path of the City of Wichita, in which the mill levy drifts upward in many years, resulting in a large increase over time. See Wichita property tax rate: Level for the most recent figures.

Highway budget cuts and sweeps in Kansas

A public interest group makes claims about Kansas roads and highways that are not supported by data. It’s not even close.

Excerpt from fundraising email. Click for larger.
A fundraising email sent by Save Kansas Coalition makes claims about Kansas roads and highways that readers will recognize as a few of the standard complaints common among Kansas spending and taxation advocates. It’s charitable, thoough, to call them complaints, because they are actually outright lies.

“Budget cuts and sweeps from the Bank of KDOT have decimated our state’s transportation infrastructure investments.” Decimate means “to reduce drastically” or “to cause great destruction or harm to.”1

Total spending on major road programs in Kansas. Click for larger.
Spending on major road programs in Kansas. Click for larger.
Reading that, you might think that spending has been cut by — how much? 10 percent? That doesn’t sound like decimating. 50 percent? 75 percent? That’s more like what decimating means.

So what is the story on Kansas Department of Transportation spending? Nearby is a chart. It shows amounts of money actually spent on road and highway programs, according to KDOT’s annual financial reports. SKC is correct, partially. There have been sweeps from KDOT to the general fund. Those are not a good idea, even though they’ve been practiced for many years. But as shown nearby and in more detail at Spending on roads in Kansas spending has not declined. It been up and down a little, but is higher than it was in 2007 and 2008, before the recession.

In particular, spending on maintenance has been fairly level until dipping a bit in 2016. Spending on preservation rose rapidly until dipping, also in 2016. It’s still twice as high as in the pre-recession years of 2007 and 2008.

Does this sound like spending has been decimated?

Transfers from sales tax to Kansas highway fund. Click for larger.
By the way, there are sweeps from sales tax to the highway fund. Nearby is another chart showing how much sales tax was transferred to the highway fund. In 2006 the transfer was $98,914. In 2016 it was $517,698, an increase of $418,784 or 423 percent.

SKC also writes: “Whereas we formerly maintained 1200 miles of roadway each year, the state now can only afford 200 miles of upkeep. That means road repair once every 50 years!”

Each year KDOT publishes a list of the road projects underway. I’ve obtained this data in machine-readable form for five years, and I present the relevant data in a nearby table.

(A few definitions: According to KDOT, “The Preservation program protects the public’s investment in its highway system by maintaining the ‘as built’ condition of roads and bridges. Projects in this group range from roadway surfacing rehabilitation and bridge repairs to pavement and bridge replacement.”2 For Modernization, KDOT says “Projects under this program are designed to enhance safety and/or improve roadways by adding shoulders, flattening hills, straightening curves and upgrading intersections on already existing roadways.”3)

While SKC isn’t specific in what it means by “maintained” or “upkeep,” it’s possible it is referring to the category “Non-Interstate Resurfacing (PMS 1R).” As you can see in the table, the number of miles in the program has risen for the past three years, and is far above the 200 miles SKC claims we can afford.

The claims made by Save Kansas Coalition don’t add up. Ironically, SKC’s website promises “A willingness to engage in meaningful discussion, in-depth research and critical analysis is vital to the health of the Kansas economy.” But nothing in the record of relevant data supports these claims — unless SKC has secret data it isn’t willing to share.

Sum of KDOT projects, selected categories, measured in miles. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decimate.
  2. Appendix to the Kansas Department of Transportation’s 2016 Annual Report.
  3. ibid

Kansas revenue estimates

Kansas revenue estimates are frequently in the news and have become a political issue. Here’s a look at them over the past decades.

A favorite criticism of liberals and progressives across the nation is that in Kansas, actual revenues to the state’s general fund have fallen short of projections, month after month. Reading most newspaper reports and editorials, one might think that these negative variances are a new phenomenon, and one relished by the Left. As many as a dozen articles on this topic have appeared in the New York Times in the past two years.

The revenue estimates in Kansas are produced by a body known as the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group. It consists of one member each from the Division of the Budget, Department of Revenue, Legislative Research Department, and one consulting economist each from the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and Wichita State University.

As described: “This group meets each spring and fall. Before December 4th, the group makes its initial estimate for the budget year and revises the estimate for the current year. By April 20th, the fall estimate is reviewed, along with any additional data. A revised estimate is published, which the Legislature may use in adjusting expenditures, if necessary.”1

The estimates are important because the legislature and governor are required to use them when formulating budgets and spending plans. If the estimates are high, meaning that revenue is less than expected, it’s possible that the legislature or (more likely) the governor will need to make spending cuts. (The other alternative is that leftover funds from prior years may be used, if available.)

If, on the other hand, the estimates are too low, meaning that revenue is higher than expected, the state has collected too much tax revenue. In this case, the state should refund the excess to taxpayers. Some states do that, notably Colorado, although residents may vote to let the state keep the excess.

Some states have true rainy day funds, and the excess revenue might be used to build that fund’s balance. In a true rainy day fund, the fund’s balances can be spent only during specific sets of circumstances.

But in Kansas, the excess revenue is simply called the “ending balance” and is available to spend at the legislature’s whim. That’s what happened in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, when the state spent $340 million and $308 million, respectively, of the ending balance rather than cut spending.

What has been the history of the revenue estimates compared to actual revenue? First, know that making these estimates is not easy. Some of the inputs to the process include the inflation rate in future years, interest rates in future years, and the prices of oil and natural gas in the future. If someone knew these values with any certainty, they could earn huge profits by trading in futures markets.

The state makes the revenue estimates available.2 I’ve presented the results since 1975 in a chart at the end of this article. For each year, two numbers are presented. One it the difference from the Original Estimate and actual revenue. The other is the difference from the Adjusted Final Estimate and actual revenue.

We can see that in fiscal years 2014 and 2016, the variance of the estimates is negative, meaning that revenue was lower than the estimates. The magnitude of these variances, however, is not out of line with the magnitude of the variances of other years, either positive or negative.

In fact, the negative variances — revenue shortfalls, in other words — in the periods 2002 to 2003 and 2009 to 2010 were generally much larger in magnitude than those of recent years. This is of interest as Duane Goossen, who was the budget director during these periods, is a prominent critic of the recent revenue shortfalls. Evidently, he has forgotten the difficulty of creating these estimates.

While Goossen along with newspaper reporters and editorialists use the negative revenue estimate variances as a political weapon against the governor and conservatives, it is in the interest of the people of Kansas that revenue estimates be as accurate as possible. In an effort to produce more accurate revenue estimates, Governor Brownback created a commission to study the issue. That group released its report in October.3

Kansas revenue estimate errors. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. Consensus Revenue Estimating Group. Available at budget.ks.gov/cre.htm.
  2. Kansas Division of the Budget. State General Fund Receipt Revisions for FY 2016 and FY 2017. May 2, 2016. Available at: budget.ks.gov/files/FY2017/CRE_Long_Memo_April2016.pdf. Also Kansas Legislative Research for 2016 figures.
  3. Governor’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Working Group. Final Recommendations. Available at budget.ks.gov/files/FY2017/cre_workgroup_report.pdf.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Keen Umbehr on criminal justice reform

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Keen Umbehr is a criminal defense attorney. He talks about reforms needed in the criminal justice system. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 143, broadcast March 19, 2017.

Show notes

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city lags far behind in providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Former Mayor Carl Brewer often spoke in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.”

When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Current Mayor Jeff Longwell penned a column in which he said, “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.” (But he has wondered if the city could conduct business with fewer public hearings.)

But the reality of obtaining information and records from the City of Wichita is far different from the claims of its leaders. Two years ago the city expanded its staff by hiring a Strategic Communications Director. When the city announced the new position, it said: “The Strategic Communications Director is the City’s top communications position, charged with developing, managing, and evaluating innovative, strategic and proactive public communications plans that support the City’s mission, vision and goals.”

But there has been little, perhaps no, improvement in the data and information made available to citizens.

The city’s attitude

Despite the proclamations of mayors and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Visit Wichita (the former Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau), and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, now the Greater Wichita Partnership. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere.

Recently the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But Dale Goter, the city’s lobbyist at the time, told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, citing it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost to the city. No harm, no foul.

Still the City of Wichita used this incident — and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute — as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."
Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

Something that had been very useful is missing and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been several years since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Until a few years ago, Wichita could supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to a useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This was a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Now, if you ask the city for this data, you’ll receive data in an Excel spreadsheet. This is an improvement. But: You must pay for this data. The city says that someday it will make check register data available. See Wichita check register for the data and details on the request.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city. See Towards government transparency in Wichita: Legal notices.

Publish fulfilled requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Economic development transparency

For several years, the Kansas city of Lawrence has published an economic development report letting citizens know about the activities of the city in this area. The most recent edition may be viewed here.

The Lawrence report contains enough detail and length that an executive summary is provided. This is the type of information that cities should be providing, but the City of Wichita does not do this.

It’s not like the City of Wichita does not realize the desirability of providing citizens with information. In fact, Wichitans have been teased with the promise of more information in order to induce them to vote for higher taxes. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this information regarding economic development spending if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” (This is what Lawrence has been doing for several years.)

The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised, “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.” (But “Yes Wichita” was a campaign group and not an entity whose promises can be relied on, and can’t be held accountable for failure to perform.)

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance, because the city (and other overlapping governmental jurisdictions) still spends a lot on economic development.

Where are our documents?

Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

Why is this information not available in any case? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Wichita Facebook page example 2015-09-14 aSince then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.

Here’s an example. A few years ago as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.

11-Sedgwick County FinancialsSo I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.

Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.

Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Wichita public schools  YouTubeThe Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

I’ve asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.

Recently the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.

But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

All these levels of government say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?

In Kansas, the war on property rights

John Todd makes an appearance on The Voice of Reason with Andy Hooser to talk about proposed legislation in Kansas that would be harmful to private property rights. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Recorded on March 16, 2017.

For more information on this important issue, see In Kansas, the war on blight continues: Kansas governments are trying — again — to expand their powers to take property to the detriment of one of the fundamental rights of citizens: private property rights.

Kansas tax receipts

Kansas tax receipts by category, presented in an interactive visualization.

The Kansas Division of the Budget publishes monthly statistics regarding tax collections. I’ve gathered these figures present them in an interactive visualization. In the visualization, there are these available tabs:

Table: A table of data. For each month the two data items supplied by the state are the actual value and the estimated value. This table also holds the computed variance, or difference, between the actual value and the estimated value. A positive number means the actual value was greater than the estimated value.

Collections: Shows monthly collections for each component. Because monthly numbers vary widely, this data is presented as the moving average of the previous 12 months.

Annual Change: Shows the change from the same month of the previous year. A positive value means the value for the month is greater than the same month last year.

Estimates: The Governor’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Working Group provides monthly estimates. This chart shows the variance, or difference, between the actual value and the estimated value. A positive number means the actual value was greater than the estimated value.

Running Total Estimates: This is the cumulative sum of the estimate variances, reset to zero at the start of each fiscal year (July 1).

Running Total Change from Prior Year: This is the cumulative sum of the monthly changes from the prior year, reset to zero at the start of each fiscal year (July 1).

Since July 2014, individual income tax collections have been relatively flat. Corporate income tax collections are on a slight downward trajectory.

Retail sales tax and compensating use tax have been mostly rising. A higher sales tax rate took effect on July 1, 2015, with the rate rising from 6.15 percent to 6.50 percent.

Cigarette taxes rose rapidly since July 2015 when higher tax rates on these products took effect. After peaking, collections are declining.

Severance taxes — tax collected on natural gas and oil as it is extracted from the ground — have been on a downward trend since July 2014 as prices for these products have fallen. This is a sizable tax. In June 2014 collections of this tax were running at about $143 million per year. For February 2017, the rate is $32 million annually.

Click here to use the visualization.

Source of data is Kansas Division of the Budget.

Lessons from Kansas tax reform

What can the rest of the nation learn from our experience in Kansas? Come to think of it, why haven’t we learned much?

Economists from American Legislative Exchange Council have looked at Kansas and derived some lessons from our state’s struggle with tax reform. The document is titled Lessons from Kansas: A Behind the Scenes Look at America’s Most Discussed Tax Reform Effort. A few remarks and quotations:

It may be difficult for us in Kansas to see how the rest of the country views our state. But it’s all about the struggle between those who want more government, and those who want more private sector activity: “… it is clear to most observers of state policy at this point Kansas was, and continues to be, a flashpoint in debates about state tax policy. That flashpoint has served as something of a proxy war between big government advocates and those who would prefer to shrink the size and scope of state government.”

While taxes were cut, the state failed to make the other needed reform: “Spending reductions necessary to implement the plan were eschewed in favor of other tax increases, making any honest judgement of the original plan’s success or failure impossible.”

On the 2012 plan, was it all for business pass-throughs, or for everyone? “Enacted an estimated $4.5 billion in tax relief over five years, about 80 percent of which was for individuals and 20 percent for business pass-through income.”

We have to remember the failure of the legislative process in 2012 and the next year: “It is important to note at this point that the revenue increasing offsets included in the 2013 tax plan were nowhere near as comprehensive as the revenue raising offsets in Governor Brownback’s original 2012 tax reform proposal. It was this discrepancy in revenue raising offsets and the failure to rein in state spending that would ultimately lead to revenue problems for Kansas down the road.”

Credit downgrades are a sign of a mismatch between revenues and expenses. Those who want more spending say the downgrades are caused by a lack of revenue, but we could have cured the mismatch by reforming spending, too: “Contrary to this popularly reported narrative, Moody’s cited much more than just recent tax cuts as the rationale for a downgrade, specifically failure to reduce spending to offset tax cuts, pension liabilities and state debt.

The purpose of tax cuts? Let us keep more resources in the productive private sector: “It is certainly true that in the years following the tax reductions, Kansas did experience lower revenue collections, even lower than what had been projected. But, part of the goal of the Kansas tax reform was to reduce the amount of money taken in by state government and enhance the resources available to the private sector. Importantly, however, was the resistance to any meaningful spending reductions. Even as the 2012 tax reductions were projected to let Kansans keep $4.5 billion more of their own money, the state increased spending in 2012 by $432 million.”

Would more taxes help the Kansas economy? “In a late 2012 literature review on this topic, William McBride, former Chief Economist for the Tax Foundation, found that of 26 peer-reviewed academic studies since 1983, only three fail to find a negative effect on economic growth from taxes.”

The 2015 legislative session: “A block of legislators held out for reductions in the cost of government rather than tax increases but they were unable to get a majority. … The final plan that passed both houses and was signed by Governor Brownback included two main tax increases. The state raised the cigarette tax by 50 cents per pack and increased the sales tax rate from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent. The two tax increase proposals added up to $384 million in new state revenue and were bolstered by $50 million in spending cuts, although there was still a net increase in spending.”

Our legislature failed the people of Kansas: “The first lesson to glean from the Kansas experience is that politics affects policy. The final reforms that passed in 2012 were not the reforms that anybody wanted. Specific tax reform ideas are easily diluted and changed, and without the political will to fix imperfect reforms, unintended consequences can be difficult to avoid.”

Then, politicians should be so boastful. Don’t overpromise. (Ask Barack Obama about that. He said if we don’t pass the ARRA stimulus bill, the unemployment rate would rise above a certain level. Well, the stimulus passed, the unemployment rate went above that level, and it was several years before it fell below. In other words, unemployment was worse with the stimulus than Obama said it would be without the stimulus.) “The second important lesson that can be learned from the Kansas experience is economic growth resulting from bold tax reductions takes time. Governor Brownback’s previous comments about the Kansas tax reforms being ‘a shot of adrenaline’ to the state’s economy continued to hound him throughout the ups and downs of revenue and economic reports. Setting expectations too high or too early can make pushing forward with future reforms nearly impossible, while setting unrealistic expectations can lead to the unwinding of sound economic reforms.”

Finally: “Even though the tax reductions improved economic growth, the lack of commensurate spending reductions led to trouble for the state’s budget. Budget shortfalls and tough negotiations about possible tax increases mean uncertainty for businesses and families, which can hamper some of the positive economic effects of decreasing taxes.”

Kansas manufacturing and oil not recovering

While total employment in Kansas is growing, two industries are the exception.

Kansas employment, seasonally adjusted, selected series. Click for larger.
Newly revised data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics lets us examine Kansas employment. This data comes from the Current Employment Statistics, which is a monthly survey of employers.1 I’ve gathered this data and have presented it in an interactive visualization. The accompanying charts are derived from that.

The first chart shows the relative change in jobs for each series, using seasonally adjusted values. Total private sector employment is growing. Employment in mining and logging, which is dominated in Kansas by the oil and gas industry, has cratered since its peak in 2014. Manufacturing employment has remained steady since 2010, but at a lower level than in the past.

Kansas manufacturing employment, not seasonally adjusted, selected series. Click for larger.
Looking at manufacturing in more detail, we see that aerospace manufacturing has been on a long downwards trend at the time total manufacturing has remained relatively level. (Aerospace employment is available only as unadjusted data, so it’s shown in a separate chart with unadjusted manufacturing.)

You can access the visualization and create your own examples through the article Kansas employment by industry.


Notes

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current Employment Statistics data and their contributions as key economic indicators. www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2016/article/current-employment-statistics-data-and-their-contributions-as-key-economic-indicators.htm.

Kansas employment by industry

An interactive visualization of Kansas employment by industry.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is an agency of the United States Department of Labor. It describes its mission as: “The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor is the principal Federal agency responsible for measuring labor market activity, working conditions, and price changes in the economy. Its mission is to collect, analyze, and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making. As an independent statistical agency, BLS serves its diverse user communities by providing products and services that are objective, timely, accurate, and relevant.”1

BLS provides monthly employment statistics. It has just updated revised numbers for 2016. I’ve gathered these for Kansas and present them in an interactive visualization.

This data comes from the Current Employment Statistics, which is a monthly survey of employers.2

The tabs along the top of the visualization hold different views of the data. Employment figures are in thousands. You may view seasonally adjusted or unadjusted data. Some views display the number of jobs, while others display the change in jobs by industry since the first year or month that is selected. When using the charts that display annual averages, be aware that using a time selection with a partial year will not provide accurate results.

Two “industries” that are closely followed are “Total Nonfarm” and “Total Private.” These, obviously, are not industries in themselves, but are sums of other industries. There are other examples like this.

Click here to access the visualization. The visualization was created by myself using Tableau Public.

Example from the visualization, showing points of control. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. Bureau of Labor statistics. About BLS. https://www.bls.gov/bls/infohome.htm.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current Employment Statistics data and their contributions as key economic indicators. www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2016/article/current-employment-statistics-data-and-their-contributions-as-key-economic-indicators.htm.

Wichita business property taxes still high

An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.

Property taxes in Wichita. Click for larger.
The study is produced by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. It’s titled “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study, June 2016” and may be read here. It uses a variety of residential, apartment, commercial, and industrial property scenarios to analyze the nature of property taxation across the country. I’ve gathered data from selected tables for Wichita.

In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its appraised value. (Appraised value is the market value as determined by the assessor. Assessed value is multiplied by the mill levy rates of taxing jurisdictions in order to compute tax.) Commercial property is assessed at 25 percent of appraised value, and public utility property at 33 percent.

This means that commercial property faces 2.180 times the property tax rate as residential property. The U.S. average is 1.683. Whether higher assessment ratios on commercial property as compared to residential property is desirable public policy is a subject for debate. But because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property.

For residential property taxes, Wichita ranks below the national average. For a property valued at $150,000, the effective property tax rate in Wichita is 1.29 percent, while the national average is 1.43 percent. The results for a $300,000 property were similar. Of note, however, is the property taxes on a median-valued home. In this case Wichita is a bargain, due to our lower housing prices. A home at the median value in Wichita pays $1,552 in taxes, while the nationwide average is $3,097.

Looking at commercial property, Wichita taxes are high. For example, for a $100,000 valued property, the study found that the national average for property tax is $2,351 or 1.96 percent of the property value. For Wichita the corresponding values are $3,398 or 2.83 percent, ranking sixth from the top. Wichita property taxes for this scenario are 45 percent higher than the national average.

For industrial property taxes, the situation in Wichita is better, with Wichita ranking near the middle. For an industrial property worth $1,000,000, taxes in Wichita are $30,980. The national average is $32,445.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Director of Budget Shawn Sullivan

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Director of Budget Shawn Sullivan joins Karl Peterjohn and Bob Weeks to explain issues related to the Kansas budget. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 142, broadcast March 12, 2017.

Shownotes

Wichita student/teacher ratios

Despite years of purported budget cuts, the Wichita public school district has been able to improve or maintain student/teacher ratios.

When discussing school funding, there is controversy over how spending should be measured. What funds are included? Is KPERS included? Should we adjust for enrollment and inflation? What about bond and interest funds and capital outlay?

The largest expenditures of schools — some 80 percent nationwide — is personnel costs. In Kansas, and Wichita in particular, we’re told that budget cuts are causing school class sizes to increase.

When we look at numbers, we see that the Wichita school district has — over the long term — been able to maintain or reduce its student/teacher ratios. (Student/teacher ratio is not the same statistic as class size.) There have been a few ups and downs along the way, but for all three school levels, the ratios are lower or nearly the same than they were ten years ago. (Click charts for larger versions.)

This means that Wichita schools have been able to increase employment of teachers at a faster rate than enrollment has risen.

So however spending is categorized in funds, whether KPERS contributions are included or not, whether the funding comes from state or local sources, whether spending is adjusted for inflation, the Wichita school district has been able to improve or maintain its student/teacher ratios.

Data is from USD 259 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2016, Miscellaneous Statistics, page 118, and CAFR from other years.

Wichita property tax rate: Level

The City of Wichita says it hasn’t raised its property tax mill levy in many years. For this year, the city is correct.

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 1994 the City of Wichita mill levy rate — the rate at which property is taxed — was 31.290. In 2016 it was 32.685, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.395 mills, or 4.46 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

In 2015 the mill levy was 32.686, so the mill levy dropped by .001 for 2016. That’s a refreshing change. While the city says the mill levy hasn’t increased, the nearby table and summary above indicate otherwise.

It is true that the Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.

Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. As can be seen in the chart of changes in the mill levy, the council decides to spend more than the previous year’s mill levy generates in taxes. Therefore, tax rates rise.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.46 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not actual tax revenue. As property values rise, and as the mill levy rises, property tax bills rise rapidly.

The total amount of property tax levied is the mill levy rate multiplied by the assessed value of taxable property. This amount has risen, due to these factors:

  • Appreciation in the value of property
  • An increase in the amount of property
  • Spending decisions made by the Wichita City Council

Application of tax revenue has shifted

Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
The allocation of city property tax revenue has shifted over the years. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

In 2005 the mill levy dedicated to debt service was 10.022. In 2016 it was 8.508. That’s a reduction of 1.514 mills (15.1 percent) of property tax revenue dedicated for paying off debt. Another interpretation of this is that in 2005, 31.4 percent of Wichita property tax revenue was dedicated to debt service. In 2016 it was 26.0 percent.

This shift has not caused the city to delay paying off debt. This city is making its scheduled payments. But we should recognize that property tax revenue that could have been used to retire debt has instead been shifted to support current spending. Instead of spending this money on current consumption — including economic development spending that has produced little result — we could have, for example, used that money to purchase some of our outstanding bonds.

What the city council says

Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed or uninformed. The following video from 2012 provides insight into the level of knowledge of some former elected officials and city staff. Based on recent discussions with city officials, things have not improved regarding present staff.

Wichita economy and job growth

A research project by The Brookings Institution illustrates the poor performance of the Wichita-area economy.

Metro Monitor from The Brookings Institution rates metropolitan areas on several indicators.

For this year’s report, the news is not good. For the period 2010 to 2015, Wichita ranks 88th in growth, 69th in prosperity, and 44th in inclusion. (The 100 largest metro areas were ranked.)

Looking at just the most recent year, 2014 to 2015, Wichita ranks 73rd in growth, 42nd in prosperity, and 9th in inclusion.

Wichita employment since 1990. Click for larger.
Wichita employment since 2010. Click for larger.
Changes in Wichita employment. Click for larger.
So perhaps there is hope for progress, in that the rankings for the most recent year are better than the rankings for the past five years.

Brookings computed a measure called “Metro area competitive shift.” It’s described as “The difference between the actual job growth and the expected job growth. It indicates whether the metro area overperformed or underperformed given its industrial structure.”

For the period 2010 to 2015, Wichita scored -4.2 percent. For 2014 to 2015, the measure is -0.5 percent. Again, perhaps a good sign.

Looking at more recent data gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through December 2016, we see that while total nonfarm employment rises, manufacturing employment has remained steady since 2010. But, after a sharp drop during the last recession, aerospace manufacturing employment has been on a downward trend since 2010. This is relevant because Wichita’s economic development practice provides much subsidy to companies in the aircraft manufacturing industry. These subsidies increase the cost of government for other business firms, including — especially — the young firms that are the fuel for a dynamic economy.

When comparing total nonfarm employment in Wichita to that of the nation, we see that while Wichita is growing, it is growing at a slower rate than the nation.

Individual liberty, limited government, economic freedom, and free markets in Wichita and Kansas