Tag Archives: Activism

Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum

Citizens in Wichita have been busy exercising their rights of initiative and referendum at the municipal level. The Kansas Legislature should grant the same rights to citizens at the state level.

What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. Citizens in Wichita have exercised these rights, but Kansans are not able to do this at the state level.

Initiative is when citizens propose a new law, and then gather signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is filed, the matter is (generally) placed on a ballot for the electorate to decide whether the proposed law will become actual law. Examples are the initiative to add fluoride to Wichita water (which voters rejected) and reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana (which passed, but has not taken effect pending legal action by the Kansas Supreme Court.)

Referendum is when citizens petition to overturn an act passed by a governing body. An example is the 2012 repeal of a charter ordinance passed by the Wichita city council.

So at the municipal level in Kansas, citizens have the right of initiative, although in practice the right is limited. The right of referendum is more narrowly limited. But at the state level, there is no possibility for citizens to exercise initiative or referendum. The law simply does not allow for this.

Policies, not politicians

Initiative and referendum allow citizens to vote on specific laws or policies. This is contrasted with elections for office, where voters must choose candidate A or candidate B. Voters have to take the entire package of positions associated with a candidate. It isn’t possible to select some positions from candidate A, and others from candidate B. So when a candidate wins an election, can we say why? Which of the candidate’s positions did voters like, and which did voters not like? Results of regular elections rarely provide a clear answer.

Initiative and referendum, however, let citizens vote on a specific law or proposal. There is little doubt as to the will of the voters.

There’s a difference between voting for politicians and voting for policies. When given a chance, Wichitans have often voted different from what the council wanted. An example is the 2012 overturn of a charter ordinance the council passed. Another is the failure of the sales tax in November 2014. That was on the ballot not because of citizen initiative, but it is an example of voting directly for an issue rather than a candidate. Citizens rejected the sales tax by a wide margin, contrary to the wishes of the city council, city hall bureaucrats, and the rest of Wichita’s political class.

It’s different voting for policies than politicians. For one thing, the laws passed by initiative don’t change, at least for some period of time. But politicians and their campaign promises have a short shelf life, and are easily discarded or modified to fit the current situation.

Politicians don’t want it, which is its best argument

Generally, politicians and bureaucrats don’t want citizens to be empowered with initiative and referendum. When the city council was forced to set an election due to the successful petition regarding the Ambassador Hotel issue, reactions by council members showed just how much politicians hate initiative and referendum. Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.”

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer advocated having the election as soon as possible. He told the city “By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest.”

As you can see by these remarks, politicians don’t like citizens second-guessing their actions. Initiative and referendum gives citizens this power. John Fund said it best: “Without initiatives and referendums, elites would barely bother at all to take note of public opinion on issues they disdained — from supermajority requirements to raise taxes to term limits. They serve as a reminder that the experts sometimes have to pay attention to good old common sense.”

Petitioning is not easy

A criticism often leveled against initiative and referendum is that ballots will be crowded with questions submitted by citizens. But as anyone who has been involved in a petitioning effort knows, filing a successful petition is not a simple matter. The first petition effort to relax Wichita marijuana laws failed, with the election commissioner ruling that an insufficient number of valid signatures were submitted. (Generally, petition signers must meet certain requirements such as being a registered voter and living within a certain jurisdiction.) Now the Kansas Attorney General contends that the second petition by the same group is defective because it lacks the proper legal language. It is common for the validity of petitions to be contested, either by government or by special interest groups that believe they will be adversely affected.

How to get it

It will take an amendment to the constitution for the people of Kansas to have initiative and referendum rights at the state level. That requires passage in both chambers of the legislature by a two-thirds margin, and then passage by a majority of voters.

Although the governor does not play a direct role in constitutional amendments — as they do not require the governor’s signature — a governor can still have a role. In 1991 Joan Finney supported initiative and referendum. An amendment passed the Kansas Senate, but did not advance through the House of Representatives.

Today it seems unlikely that the present Kansas Legislature would support an amendment implementing initiative and referendum. Politicians just don’t want to give up the power. (The laws giving some initiative and referendum rights at the municipal level is a state law. State legislators were imposing a hardship on other elected officials, not themselves.)

But initiative and referendum are popular with voters. In 2013 Gallup polled voters regarding petitioning at the national level. 68 percent favored this, while 23 percent opposed. One of the few issues that poll higher than this is term limits for office holders.

By the way, do you know what citizens in states often do after gaining the right of initiative? Impose term limits on their legislatures. Lawmakers don’t want you to do that.

Recent history in Wichita

In 2011, Wichitans petitioned to overturn a charter ordinance passed by the city council. In February 2012 the ordinance was overturned by a vote of 16,454 to 10,268 (62 percent to 38 percent). This was a special election with only question on the ballot.

In 2012 a group petitioned to add fluoride to Wichita water. The measure appeared on the November 2012 general election ballot, and voters said no by a vote of 76,906 to 52,293, or 60 percent to 40 percent.

On the November 2014 general election ballot, Wichita voters were asked about a one cent per dollar sales tax. This was not the result of a petition, but it provides an example of a vote for a policy rather than a person. Voters said no to the sales tax, 64,487 to 38,803 (62 percent to 38 percent.)

In 2015 a group petitioned to reduce the penalties for possession of small amount of marijuana. The measure appeared on the April 2015 city general election ballot, where Wichita voters approved the proposed law 20,327 to 17,183 (54 percent to 46 percent).

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita city government and upcoming elections

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll take a look at how city government and council meetings operate. Then, there are city elections coming up. How can you get involved? How can you decide which candidates to support? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 71, broadcast January 18, 2015.

‘Activate Wichita’ illustrates city approach to citizen involvement

A City of Wichita outreach system is lightly used, and risks gathering only positive feedback.

Activate Wichita is touted by Wichita city officials as an “online conversation about the future of the Greater Wichita metropolitan area.”

Described on its companion Facebook page as “Activate Wichita is an innovative new way to be heard on the issues your passionate about. Whether your passion is local arts, the environment, or employment creation, you can log on and voice your opinion and local leaders will respond. Together communities come up with solutions and vote on the best course.”

For a system designed to be an interactive conversation, there aren’t many people talking. And maybe I didn’t look diligently enough, but I didn’t see local leaders responding. (Sometimes ideas were marked as “referred to appropriate party.”)

Here’s a real problem: When citizens are asked to rate ideas, to express their approval or — well, that’s the problem. Your choices for voting on an idea are:

  • I Love It!
  • I Like It.
  • It’s OK.
  • Neutral.
Activate Wichita feedback possibilities.
Activate Wichita feedback possibilities.

That’s it. There’s no voting option for expressing disagreement or disapproval with an idea. “Neutral” is as much dissent as Wichitans are allowed to express in this system.

On this system that city leaders say they rely on for gathering citizen input, there needs to be a voting selection that expresses disagreement or disapproval with an idea. Otherwise when votes are tallied, the worst that any idea can be is “neutral.”

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s blatant waste, Transforming Wichita, and how you can help

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Let’s ask that Wichita trim its blatant waste of tax dollars before asking for more. We’ll look back at a program called Transforming Wichita. Then: We need to hold campaigns accountable. I’ll give you examples why, and tell how you can help. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 57, broadcast September 7, 2014.

Kansas campaign material repository

An accessible collection of campaign material will help hold candidates and campaigns accountable.

I’ve started a collection of Kansas political campaign material such as mailers, palm cards, handouts, and door hangers. This collection could be valuable in holding candidates of all parties accountable for their words. Independent organizations may advocate for or against candidates and ballot measures, and these need to be held accountable, too.

It can be difficult to gather campaign material. Some is mailed or distributed only to small geographic districts. Or, material is mailed only to voters with certain characteristics, such as party registration or voting consistency. Unless you live in a “blended” household (with voters of different political parties), you may never see many campaign mailers. While some campaigns may make their mailers or similar material available on their websites or Facebook pages, it’s not common that the negative mail pieces — the ones that often contain the type of distortions that need to be exposed — are publicized by campaigns. (That may say something about negative campaigning.)

You may view the material here.

There are several ways to contribute to the repository.

On your computer. A useful and valuable extension for Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome browsers is FireShot. It will save partial or entire web pages in a variety of formats, including pdf.

Printed material. The traditional scanner still makes the best captures. But now many people have a document capture system in their pocket and carry it with them at all times. It’s their smartphones. For information about using smartphones to capture documents, see Your smartphone is your activism toolkit. It’s not difficult to create valuable captures if you have the right app on your smartphone.

Signs, etc. Take a photograph. It’s useful to take a wide shot to show context, and then a close-up to see the detail.

You may send me digital files at [email protected]. Or, you can send me postal mail at 2451 Regency Lakes Ct., Wichita, KS 67226. I won’t be able to return material you send me unless you include return postage.

Before capturing and distributing material that has your name and address (or other personal information) consider obliterating it with a marker or scissors.

Your smartphone is your activism toolkit

Your smartphone is a valuable tool for activism. Here are two ways to get involved.

Many people wonder how they can be involved in helping to improve government as a citizen activist. It may be that you have a valuable tool that’s in your pocket, and that you take everywhere you go: Your smartphone.

Street lights in downtown Wichita, July 22, 2014.
Street lights in downtown Wichita, July 22, 2014.
You may have seen me showing photographs of street lights burning in downtown Wichita during the middle of sunny afternoons. Have you ever spotted government waste like that? I’m sure that you have. I think people forget they have a fairly high-quality camera with them at all times in their smartphones. So here’s something that you can do: Take a photograph or shoot some video. Send it to me or to your local government watchdog. People like me need information. I need tips. Put your smartphone to work for something beside selfies.

Another thing you can do with your smartphone that is very helpful is to capture documents. Here’s an example. At election time, campaigns and political groups send a lot of mail pieces to voters. Some of these will contain falsehoods or distortions that need to be exposed so that the guilty parties can be held accountable. But much of the time, these political mailings go unnoticed. That’s because a Kansas House of Representatives campaign, for example, covers a relatively small population. Then, campaigns may send mail to only the people they consider active voters, and may narrow down the list using other criteria like political party. Or campaigns may send certain mail pieces to small subsets of voters. So any single campaign mail piece may go to a relatively small number of households.

What can you do to help? Use your smartphone or regular camera to capture documents like campaign mailers. You can do this by simply take a regular photograph with the built-in camera app. That usually works well enough if you follow a few guidelines, and with a little practice you can create documents are are very usable.

Probably the three most important things to remember are to avoid glare, maintain perspective, and crop. If your light source or flash creates glare on the document, the document may not be usable. By perspective, I mean having your camera square and perpendicular relative to the document so that its dimensions are not distorted. (I find that placing the document on the floor and then getting right over it helps.) Finally, cropping removes unneeded parts of the image. Remember, what we’re trying to do here is to create usable documents that can be read. We don’t have to worry about creating archival-quality documents like you would be if you’re digitizing and preserving family photographs.

As I said, you can do this with the regular camera app in your smartphone. But there are specialized document scanning apps. I’ve used several, and one I can recommend is called Scanbot. Another is CamScanner.

Using Scanbot
Using Scanbot
Scanbot is free for both Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, although there is a paid version with extra features like optical character recognition. What I like about Scanbot is that as you’re taking a photo, the app coaches you on the screen with tips like “too dark,” “get closer,” or “perspective.” Finally, it will command “don’t move” and it will snap the photo. You can then add more pages.

When finished, it creates a pdf from the scan. That’s really handy, as you then have one pdf document that holds all pages of the campaign mailer or other document. Then, you can have the app send the pdf by email or upload it to cloud-based storage systems like DropBox or Google Drive. (I recommend both of these systems.)

Be careful about sharing personal information.
Be careful about sharing personal information.
I should warn you: If you plan on sending something that you received in the mail that has your address or any other personal information on it, be aware and be careful. You could erase it using an editing app on your smartphone or computer, but in many cases the easiest thing to do is to obliterate your address with a marker pen before you capture the document. Or, you might cover it with paper, or excise it with scissors.

This type of intelligence-gathering is extremely valuable. Now, you may be thinking “Wait a minute. Don’t political campaigns post their mailers on their websites or Facebook?” The answer is some do, and some don’t. For the negative mail pieces — the ones that often contain the type of distortions that need to be exposed — it’s rare for a political campaign to make these mailers available to the public.

So this is a way you can be involved in gathering information. It could be campaign mailers, political campaign handouts, meeting agendas, material distributed at meetings, things you see on your computer screen, anything. It could be material distributed

I can’t tell you how many times people have complained to me about something they received in the mail or at a meeting. I ask “can you scan it and send it to me?” Well, not many people have scanners in their home. But now many people have smartphones. With a little practice, you can capture these documents in electronic form.

Then, what do you do with these documents? The campaigns of candidates that you support need intelligence like this. News reporters need documents for tips and substantiation of stories. You can share documents on social media like Facebook and Twitter. You can send them to me or your local government watchdog person or organization. There’s a lot you can do.

Government officials at all levels count on the average citizen not being interested or informed about government. We can hold government more closely accountable if we have information, and this a way that anyone can help.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s missing water, sales tax, Gidget, smartphone activism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A former Wichita mayor wonders what happened to Wichita’s water supply. Then, I’ll introduce you to Gidget, a Kansas blogger I think you will enjoy. Then, how can you use your smartphone to help candidates and causes? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 56, broadcast August 24, 2014.

Susan Estes of AFP and the upcoming summt

On the Joseph Ashby Show, Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas appeared on August 7, 2014. Bob Weeks is the guest host. We discuss the the goals of AFP and the upcoming Defending the American Dream Summit in Dallas. There are bus trips available from Wichita.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Citizen activists and the proposed Wichita sales tax

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Two activists join host Bob Weeks to discuss activism at the local level. Then, what about the proposed sales tax increase in Wichita? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 51, broadcast July 13, 2014.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Vampires on the prowl in Wichita and the city council’s treatment of citizens.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Then proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing. Episode 49, broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Tech advice for activism, then a lesson in economic development in Wichita

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A few tips on using your computer and the internet. Then, how to be informed. Finally, a look at a recent episode of economic development in Wichita, and what we can we learn from that. Episode 47, broadcast June 15, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

ALEC should stand up to liberal pressure groups

From April 2012.

Today’s Wall Street Journal explains how left-wing activists are using fear of the racism label to shut down free speech and debate. The target of their current smear campaign is American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Liberals can’t stand ALEC because it is a strong and influential advocate for free market and limited government principals in state legislatures. Liberals accuse ALEC of supplying model legislation which may influence the writing of actual state law, or even become state law in some cases. Of course, liberal advocacy groups do this too, but they don’t let that get in the way of their criticism of ALEC.

The reality is that all sorts of people and special interest groups seek to influence the writing of laws. But for laws to take effect — no matter who proposes them — they must be passed by legislatures and signed by the chief executive (or a veto must be overturned).

The false charges of racism are particularly troubling, as no one wants to be labeled as such. That’s why scoundrels demonize their opponents with charges of racism, writes the Journal, and it’s become a powerful weapon for left-wing activists: “The ugly, race-baiting anti-ALEC campaign is typical of today’s liberal activism. It’s akin to the campaigns to smear libertarian donors Charles and David Koch and to exploit shareholder proxies to stop companies from giving to political campaigns or even the Chamber of Commerce. The left these days isn’t content merely to fight on the merits in legislatures or during elections. If they lose, they resort to demonizing opponents and trying to shut them down. The business community had better understand that ALEC won’t be the last target.”

As it turns out, the motivations of some contributors to ALEC are quite narrow. Coca-Cola wanted help from ALEC only in the opposition to soft drink taxes: “So Coke executives are happy to get ALEC’s help in their self-interest but head for the tall grass when ALEC needs a friend.”

Liberals accuse ALEC of being a front group for corporations, promoting only legislation that advances the interests of corporations or business at the expense of others. When you examine specific examples of these charges, the proposals being criticized often reduce taxes for everyone or reduce harmful and unnecessary regulations. If ALEC does promote legislation that caters to special interest groups, it should stop doing so.

Besides services to legislators, ALEC provides a valuable service to the public: The Rich States, Poor States publication that examines why some states perform better in economic growth and opportunity than others. The fifth edition was released last week.

Recently a city council member from a small town asked me if there were resources to help city council or county commission members understand and apply the principals of free markets and limited government to city and county governments. I looked and asked a few people. The answer is no, there appears to be no such resource. This seems like a growth opportunity for ALEC or a new organization. There are several well-known organizations that strive to advance the size and scope of city and county governments, and these need a counter-balance.

Shutting Down ALEC

Playing the race card to silence a free-market policy voice

Is it suddenly disreputable to advocate free-market policies? That’s the question raised by a remarkable political assault on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes reform in the 50 states. Led by former White House aide Van Jones, various left-wing activists and media are bullying big business to cut off ALEC’s funding. So much for free and open debate.

Founded in 1973, ALEC is a group of state lawmakers who meet to share and spread conservative policy ideas. ALEC’s main focus is fiscal and economic policy, notably at the moment pension and lawsuit reform, tax and spending limitation, and school choice. For years it labored in obscurity, its influence rising or falling with the public mood. But after conservatives made record gains in state legislatures in 2010, the left began to target ALEC for destruction.

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (no subscription required)

Wichita school board reacts to criticism

apple-wormIn the following video, USD 259 (Wichita public school district) board member Betty Arnold reacts to concerns that citizens expressed at a recent meeting.

It’s common that citizens who disagree with governmental agencies — especially the Wichita school board — are told that they have the wrong information, or that they simply don’t understand the complexities of running government.

A few years ago when board members dismissed the input of an elected official because he disagreed with the board, I wrote in my coverage: “Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

The balance of power at meetings like these is all in favor of the board. Citizens may speak for a short period of time. Then board members may speak at length without fear of being held accountable for their remarks, because if the citizen were to speak even one word out of turn, the board would shut them up.

When she was board president and citizens disagreed with action the board was considering, Arnold admonished the audience: “This board meeting is being held in public, but it is not for the public, or of the public. And I hope you understand that.”

If a citizen should want to address the board, they’ll receive a stern reminder of the time limit for speaking. This is at a school district where much board meeting time is devoted to “feel good” measures. We’ll probably see this soon as two board members end their terms. Two years ago, while strictly regulating the time of an elected official to address the board, the board found time in the same meeting to make a lengthy “goodbye” to departing board member Kevass Harding. That had nothing to do with public policy. It was constructive in no way except to board members, district staff, and Harding’s ego. By the way, he used the opportunity and time to announce his future political ambitions.

But when citizens and even elected officials and community leaders speak — even though they may speak about important and weighty matters of policy — their time is strictly regulated. If they disagree with school district orthodoxy they may be scolded and lectured with no chance to defend themselves or rebut false statements and nonsensical arguments from board members or district staff. There is nothing resembling discussion or debate except among board members and district staff — all who drink from the same ideological fountain.

Defeated Kansas Republican Chorus

Joseph Ashby and friends created a funny parody song about the recent primary election in Kansas, where many so-called moderate Republicans were defeated by conservative challengers. It’s described by Ashby as “The Defeated Republican Chorus sings about their recent election loss in the Kansas Republican primary.”

Ashby hosts a morning radio talk show on KQAM 1480 AM from 6:00 am to 8:00 am Monday through Friday. You can also listen through the station’s website. I often listen using tunein radio on my Iphone.

Find out more about the Joseph Ashby Show on Facebook at Joseph Ashby Show or on Twitter at @JosephAshbyShow.

SWATing a threat to political speech

Conservative bloggers are being targeted with an illegal and dangerous tactic with the aim of silencing or moderating their voices. The tactic is SWATing (from the police special forces often named Special Weapons and Tactics). The perpetrator makes a telephone call to police falsely reporting that a crime — usually a violent crime — has been committed or is in progress at a blogger’s home.

Erick Erickson of the prominent conservative blog RedState relates the story of his SWATing: “Sunday night as my family and sister’s family were around the dinner table and playing outside, sheriff’s deputies pulled into my driveway responding to an accidental shooting at my home. One deputy was in the driveway. Another blocked the end of the driveway with his car. A neighbor tells me another was up the hill from the house. There was no shooting at my home. Someone called 911, claimed to be at my home, and claimed to witness a shooting at my home.”

Besides the illegality of making a false police report, the tactic is dangerous to both police officers and people at or nearby the targeted address.

U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia has written to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing his concern regarding the SWATing attacks. In his letter he wrote “Any potentially criminal action that incites fear, seeks to silence a dissenting opinion, and collaterally wastes the resources of law enforcement should be given close scrutiny at all levels.”

Later he added “The perpetrators appear to be targeting individuals who are vigorously exercising their First Amendment rights to political speech. As you know, these reported efforts to intimidate those who choose to enter the political forum and express their opinions are in conflict with the founding principles of our nation. Regardless of any potential political differences that may exist, threats and intimidation have no place in our national political discourse. Those who choose to enter into that political discourse should not have to worry about potential threats to their or their family’s safety.”

The purpose of SWATing is to, as Chambliss explained, silence conservative bloggers, or make them less likely to write posts and articles. Besides the attempt to tamp down civil debate and discourse, the SWATing technique is illegal and potentially deadly. It goes beyond bullying. Those who use it are domestic terrorists.

The use of SWATing against conservatives stands in contrast to a recent New York Times column by Charles M. Blow. In the column, Blow uses the bullying of an elderly bus monitor to draw a larger conclusion: Republicans are bullies. “… bullying has become boilerplate. Hiss and taunt. Tease and intimidate. Target your enemies and torture them mercilessly. Maintain primacy through predation.”

Later Blow wrote “But bullying is always about power — projecting more than you have in order to accrue more than your share.” That describes SWATing: Illegally summoning police power to target and intimidate your enemies.

ALEC should resist liberal pressure groups

Today’s Wall Street Journal explains how left-wing activists are using fear of the racism label to shut down free speech and debate. The target of their current smear campaign is American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Liberals can’t stand ALEC because it is a strong and influential advocate for free market and limited government principals in state legislatures. Liberals accuse ALEC of supplying model legislation which may influence the writing of actual state law, or even become state law in some cases. Of course, liberal advocacy groups do this too, but they don’t let that get in the way of their criticism of ALEC.

The reality is that all sorts of people and special interest groups seek to influence the writing of laws. But for laws to take effect — no matter who proposes them — they must be passed by legislatures and signed by the chief executive (or a veto must be overturned).

The false charges of racism are particularly troubling, as no one wants to be labeled as such. That’s why scoundrels demonize their opponents with charges of racism, writes the Journal, and it’s become a powerful weapon for left-wing activists: “The ugly, race-baiting anti-ALEC campaign is typical of today’s liberal activism. It’s akin to the campaigns to smear libertarian donors Charles and David Koch and to exploit shareholder proxies to stop companies from giving to political campaigns or even the Chamber of Commerce. The left these days isn’t content merely to fight on the merits in legislatures or during elections. If they lose, they resort to demonizing opponents and trying to shut them down. The business community had better understand that ALEC won’t be the last target.”

As it turns out, the motivations of some contributors to ALEC are quite narrow. Coca-Cola wanted help from ALEC only in the opposition to soft drink taxes: “So Coke executives are happy to get ALEC’s help in their self-interest but head for the tall grass when ALEC needs a friend.”

Liberals accuse ALEC of being a front group for corporations, promoting only legislation that advances the interests of corporations or business at the expense of others. When you examine specific examples of these charges, the proposals being criticized often reduce taxes for everyone or reduce harmful and unnecessary regulations. If ALEC does promote legislation that caters to special interest groups, it should stop doing so.

Besides services to legislators, ALEC provides a valuable service to the public: The Rich States, Poor States publication that examines why some states perform better in economic growth and opportunity than others. The fifth edition was released last week.

Recently a city council member from a small town asked me if there were resources to help city council or county commission members understand and apply the principals of free markets and limited government to city and county governments. I looked and asked a few people. The answer is no, there appears to be no such resource. This seems like a growth opportunity for ALEC or a new organization. There are several well-known organizations that strive to advance the size and scope of city and county governments, and these need a counter-balance.

Shutting Down ALEC

Playing the race card to silence a free-market policy voice

Is it suddenly disreputable to advocate free-market policies? That’s the question raised by a remarkable political assault on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes reform in the 50 states. Led by former White House aide Van Jones, various left-wing activists and media are bullying big business to cut off ALEC’s funding. So much for free and open debate.

Founded in 1973, ALEC is a group of state lawmakers who meet to share and spread conservative policy ideas. ALEC’s main focus is fiscal and economic policy, notably at the moment pension and lawsuit reform, tax and spending limitation, and school choice. For years it labored in obscurity, its influence rising or falling with the public mood. But after conservatives made record gains in state legislatures in 2010, the left began to target ALEC for destruction.

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (no subscription required)

Sedgwick County should reject planning grant

Update: The county decided to participate in the grant, with Republican commissioners Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton joining with Democrat Tim Norton to pass the measure.

Today the Sedgwick County Commission considers whether to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.

One reason we ought to reject this grant and the planning process it funds is the attitude of planners. A recent example comes from the planning process for downtown Wichita, which is characteristic of government planning processes and planners.

Consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards the lifestyles that many in Sedgwick County have chosen. 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.” In other words, this planner knows the desires of people better than they do themselves.

David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division and was the principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core.

This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. Considering the members of the Sedgwick County Commission, I don’t see anyone who lives in the core area. Do the commissioners accept Dixon’s criticism?

These attitudes reflect those of most of the planning profession — that people can’t be relied on to choose what’s best for them. Instead they believe that only they — like the planners at Goody Clancy — are equipped to make choices for people. It’s an elitism that Sedgwick County ought to reject.

The irony is that when we start to look at what exactly planners like Goody Clancy are selling us, we find that we ought to reject it.

In January, Dixon 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 — and by extension, planners in general — takes.

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

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is 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 told me 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 this website.

He’s correct. Walk Score has been updated. Now for the same location the walk score is 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.

If someone would ever happen to stroll by that location, he’d find that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

Still no grocery store. Not even close.

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.

And since this January reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact 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 similar shoddy data and analysis.

Anti personal automobile, anti-mobility

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.”

This is important to know because the planning process the county is considering 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 need, and are very expensive. The last time I checked, only 22.5 percent of the costs of running the Wichita transit system is paid for by riders through the fare box. Taxpayers — most of whom don’t ride the buses — pay the rest.

But owning an automobile gives people mobility, 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 planning process you are considering adopting today, with its emphasis on government transit rather than private automobiles, will decrease mobility and economic opportunity for everyone.

Finally, consider the Wichita transit system. It is in financial crisis at this time. There are proposals floating around city hall for a sales tax to pay for transit.

Left-wing sincerity exposed

It’s often alleged by the political left that conservative and libertarian activists are nothing more than Astroturf, meaning false or fake grassroots activism. The charge is that the activists are duped into — or paid for — engaging in political activism. Which makes the following video from the Koch Industries Koch Facts site all the more interesting. Here’s the description of the video on YouTube:

“Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation is paying people like Jesse Lava to make harassing phone calls to Koch Industries as part of their ‘Koch Brothers Exposed’ propaganda videos. But when he fails to properly hang up the phone, Jesse’s true character is revealed.”

It’s worth clicking below to view this video that’s one and one-quarter minutes in length:

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday January 18, 2011

Education reformer to speak in Kansas. Next week the Kansas Policy Institute hosts education reform expert Dr. Matthew Ladner at several events in Kansas. In Wichita, he will speak at a free breakfast event on Tuesday January 25th. Information on that event and those in Topeka and Overland Park can be found at Kansas Policy Institute Upcoming Events. Ladner, of the Goldwater Institute, will speak on the topic “Good to Great — Lessons for Kansas from Florida’s education revolution.” Florida has been at the forefront of education reform in recent years, according to a study by EducationNext. Kansas, on the other hand, ranks very low in studies that look at education reform among the states. An invitation to the Wichita event is here. RSVPs are requested by January 20th.

Wichita council candidate websites spotted. This is not a comprehensive list of candidates. Instead, these are city council candidates’ websites that have been noticed. District 2, currently held by Sue Schlapp, who may not run due to term limits: Steve Harris, Paul Savage, Charlie Stevens. … District 3, currently held by Roger Smith on an interim basis: Clinton Coen, James Clendenin…. District 4, currently held by Paul Gray, who may not run due to term limits: Joshua Blick, Michael O’Donnell. … District 5, currently held by Jeff Longwell: Jeff Longwell, Lynda Tyler.

Schools’ funding claims questioned. “Much of the increase in state spending for schools since 2005 has accumulated in cash reserve funds rather than being spent in classrooms, according to an analysis of unencumbered cash reserves held by districts.” The Kansas Watchdog story by Paul Soutar continues: “Carryover cash in accessible district funds has increased by $306 million since 2005, the year the Kansas Supreme Court’s Montoy decision went into effect. Cash in these funds grew to about $743 in 2010, up $187 million since 2008. The carryover, or unencumbered cash, is money appropriated in previous years but not spent and with no claims against it for unpaid bills or other obligations. The cash accumulates in more than 30 distinct funds.” … The balances in these funds rise when money is not spent as fast as it is put in. School districts argue that they need some fund balances — and they do — but the growing balances, year after year for most districts, undermines the claims of school spending advocates.

Kansas schools rated. “Kansas elementary and secondary schools rose one spot in a new national performance ranking, but are still below the U.S. average and many other states, the publishers of Education Week reported this week. The publication’s 15th annual ‘Quality Counts’ survey of how precollegiate schools are faring across the nation, ranks Kansas’ performance 37th in the nation, up one place from last year’s assessment, but still lower than the national average.” The Kansas reporter story mentions state school board member Walt Chappell and his concern that Kansas’ state-controlled student achievement scores — which show rapidly rising performance — may not be valid or reliable: “Even so, the Education Week rankings and others like them are important, said Walt Chappell, a state board of education member who in the past has expressed skepticism about claims of educational excellence that he believes don’t square with students’ college entrance exams or the state’s double digit high school dropout rates. At the very least, ‘here is another outside observer taking another look at our schools and telling us there is room for improvement,’ Chappell said.”

Insurance costs on the rise in Kansas. From Kansas Reporter: “Health insurance premiums have gone up 5 to 7 percent in Kansas because of the federal Patient Affordable Care Act, an underwriters’ group official told lawmakers Thursday.” Mandates for increased coverage are seen as a cause.