When the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee endorses a candidate, consider what that means.
If you’ve been following analyst James Chung — and it seems like everyone has — he’s delivered a sobering message: The Wichita economy has not been growing. “[Wichita has been] stuck in neutral for about three decades, with basically no growth, amidst the landscape of a growing U.S. economy,” he said. (In fact, in 2016 the Wichita economy shrank from the previous year, and numbers for 2017 don’t look much better.)
Chung says we need to change our ways. In his June visit he said, and the Chung Report wrote, “Every market signal points to the same conclusion: The manner in which Wichita is operating during this critical point in our history is just not working.”
So what needs to change? Chung won’t say, but here are two things:
First, there are some elected officials and bureaucrats who have presided over the stagnation of Wichita. These people need to go.
Second, there are also institutions that are problems, with one glaring example. In one way or another, the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce has taken the lead in economic development for many years. In recent years the Chamber ran Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Now the effort has been split off to a non-profit corporation, the Greater Wichita Partnership.
That sounds good, but under the hood it’s the same leadership and the same methods, although with a few new hired hands.
So when James Chung (and others) says our manner of operation is not working, it’s the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and its ecosystem that must assume a large portion of blame.
Not only has the Wichita Chamber manner of operation not been working, its leadership hasn’t been working, either. In 2014 the Chamber showed charts of Wichita job growth as compared to the nation and other cities, and Wichita was near the bottom. The Chamber’s response was to advocate for a Wichita city sales tax, some to be used for economic development, but also for water supply enhancement, street repair, and bus transit improvement.
The Chamber managed the political campaign for the sales tax, and in November 2014, 62 percent of Wichita voters said no.
After this, what did the Chamber do? It had told Wichitans that an economic development fund fed by sales tax revenue was essential. Then, the sales tax vote failed. But that isn’t the only way to fund what the Chamber said we needed. The Chamber could have asked the Wichita city council to raise property taxes, and the council could have done that with a simple majority vote of its members. (Since then it has become more difficult, but still possible, to raise local property taxes.)
Or, the city could have raised franchise fees. These are like a sales tax added to utility bills. This could also have been accomplished with a simple majority vote of the council. The council could do it today, if its members wanted to.
None of these possibilities were pursued, at least to my knowledge. The Wichita Chamber of Commerce, after advocating for a sales tax it said was essential, gave up after defeat. It recommended that Wichitans vote to impose a sales tax themselves, but when it came to something it could have accomplished — new taxes through city council votes — the Chamber backed away.
The Chamber then formed the Greater Wichita Partnership. But many of the people who supported the Chamber’s sales tax are directing the operations of GWP, serving its strategic advisory team and the more-exclusive executive board.
This includes the president and CEO of the Wichita Chamber, who was also president during the sales tax campaign.
The Chamber endorsements
So when the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC supports candidates, spends money on their behalf, and issues endorsements, what should voters think?
Voters should remember that the Wichita Chamber has presided over the wreckage of the Wichita economy, its leaders still call the shots, and still wants to raise taxes, I believe.
Plus, these people will not accept responsibility for the harm they have caused.
This is a shame, because we want to be proud of our civic leadership. We want to have faith in our elected officials and bureaucrats.
But that isn’t the case in Wichita. Keep this in mind when considering candidates endorsed by the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC.