Tag Archives: Economic development

In Wichita, will Southwest save our city?

Talk that low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines might enter the Wichita market has the usual cast of government bureaucrats, centralized planning advocates, and their boosters in a tizzy.

The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman has Wichita director of airports Victor White saying that if the necessary subsidies are offered, the popular airline will consider serving Wichita.

(Oops. White actually used the word “incentives,” not “subsidies.” There are some who believe there is a difference in meaning between the two words. These are the types of nuances you have to become comfortable with when politicians and government bureaucrats try to direct and control economic development.)

Holman’s editorial makes a case for subsidizing another low-cost airline at Wichita’s airport, citing some remarkable economic development statistics:

Two recent studies supported the view that Southwest would build on the current affordable airfares program in leveraging low fares and boosting ridership at Mid-Continent — forecasting 33.5, 37 and 39 percent increases in airport activity and 7,000 additional direct and indirect jobs over such a carrier’s first three years in Wichita, as well as $29.5 million annually in savings for travelers.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, these numbers are not believable. As I wrote two weeks ago, while more air service options are good for Wichita travelers, we need to be suspicious of the lofty claims of thousands of jobs and huge economic impact like the numbers claimed in this case. A few years ago I reported on a whopper of a economic impact figure given for the Wichita airport. It turned it the figures was based on some unrealistic assumptions, and used numbers likely to be counted a second time as part of someone else’s economic impact.

In the present case, the claim of 7,000 jobs to be created is a very large number. According to figures provided by the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, only one company in the greater Wichita area has over 7,000 employees. The company with an employee count nearest 7,000 is Cessna, with about 6,000 employees.

Can anyone seriously claim that adding one more airline to the many already serving Wichita will result in the addition of more jobs than what exists at Cessna?

This is particularly true in that while there is one (or maybe two, depending on your definition) low-cost airlines receiving subsidies to serve Wichita, the other major airlines pretty much meet the discounters’ prices. This was the rational for bringing a low-cost airline to Wichita: by bringing in even one, it would force all other airlines to lower their fares.

This goal being largely achieved, it’s hard to fathom that adding one more discount airline would have a huge impact.

These economic development studies deserve scrutiny, and not just by eco-devo boosters and their cheerleaders who believe the government should heap money on anyone or anything that hints they might locate in Wichita — or leave Wichita. I asked Jeremy Hill of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research if I could see the study that purportedly supports paying for more airline service. He, citing a non-disclosure agreement, would not send me the report or comment on its content. So I have a request pending at city hall.

There’s another angle to this story that hasn’t been reported in the Wichita Eagle news stories and editorials: Charleston was able to obtain Southwest Airlines service without paying a subsidy. The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper and owned by the same McClatchy Company that owns the Wichita Eagle, reports that there was a lot of wooing, but there were no economic incentives.

In the Charleston situation, there evidently won’t be the massive state-supplied subsidy as we have in Kansas. But Southwest will still get a leg up: A USA Today story quotes a Charleston airport official saying “Southwest didn’t want a state subsidy, but was interested in the airport’s incentives a temporary waiver of landing fees, up to $10,000 to market new flights, and up to $150,000 for other start-up costs.”

Correction: The Wichita Eagle reported in its May 13 article that Southwest service in Charleston is not contingent of state subsidies.

Wichita economic development to be topic of meeting

This Monday (May 17), economic development tools and incentives in Wichita will be discussed at a meeting sponsored by the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

Susan Estes, AFP Field Director and John Todd, AFP Volunteer Coordinator will lead the meeting, whose topic is “Local government economic development incentive tools with particular emphasis on the proposed Bowllagio STAR bonds project.”

The meeting is from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm on Monday, May 17. The location is the Alford Branch Wichita Public Library (private meeting room), at 3447 S. Meridian.

For more information, contact John Todd at [email protected] or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at [email protected] or 316-681-4415

Wichita economic development claims deserve scrutiny

Reports that Southwest Airlines may be considering adding service in Wichita have lead to enthusiasm for the economic development that this service would add.

In the current case, reporting by Molly McMillan of the Wichita Eagle tells of a study produced by Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research. She reports “In a worst-case scenario, the entrance of the airline in the study would add roughly 7,000 direct and indirect jobs in Wichita over a three-year period.”

An editorial in today’s edition of the Eagle repeats this number.

While more air service options are good for Wichita travelers, we need to be suspicious of the lofty claims of huge jobs and economic impact like the number claimed in this case.

In particular, 7,000 jobs is a very large number. According to figures provided by the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, only one company in the greater Wichita area has over 7,000 employees. The company with an employee count nearest 7,000 is Cessna, with about 6,000 employees.

Can anyone seriously claim that adding one more airline to the many already serving Wichita will result in the addition of more jobs than what exists at Cessna?

These economic development figures need to be looked at closely. In 2005, I noted in the article Stretching figures strains credibility that the Center for Economic Development and Business Research has overstated the case before. In particular, the center included all the employees of Cessna and Bombardier in calculations of the economic impact of the Wichita airport:

By reading this study I learned that the employees of Cessna and Bombardier — 12,134 in total — are counted in determining the economic impact of the airport. Why? To quote the study: “While it might appear that manufacturing businesses could be based anywhere in the area, both Cessna and Bombardier require a location with runways and instrumentation structures that allow for flights and flight testing of business jet airplanes.” This is true, but it is quite a stretch to attribute the economic impact of these employees to the airport.

For one thing, if we count the economic impact of the income of these employees as belonging to the airport, what then do we say about the economic impact of Cessna and Bombardier? We would have to count it as very little, because the impact of their employees’ earnings has been assigned to the airport. This is, of course, assuming that we count the impact of these employees only once.

Or suppose that Cessna tires of being on the west side of town, so it moves east and starts using Jabara Airport. Would Cessna’s economic impact on Sedgwick County be any different? I think it wouldn’t. But its impact on the Wichita airport would now be zero. Similar reasoning would apply if Cessna built its own runway.

Wichita mayor speaks on economic development

At last week’s Wichita City Council meeting, Mayor Carl Brewer spoke in favor of the city’s economic development policy, specifically as it related to a downtown Wichita development partly financed with tax increment financing, or TIF.

The mayor disagreed with those who have appeared at city council meetings to testify against the use of TIF. He told of how the city called mayors’ associations and the National League of Cities, and they said that most large cities use incentives. He learned that cities use some incentives that that Wichita has not yet heard of, which undoubtedly will give city staff some additional tools in the toolbox in the future.

He said “Incentives are available, and we’re on the right track.”

The mayor mentioned that Harvard and Yale experts said that Wichita had too much parking downtown. This is in agreement with the Goody Clancy proposal presented to the city last October. Wichita selected that firm to lead the planning process for the revitalization or redevelopment of downtown Wichita.

He said that in a recent meeting of mayors he attended, he learned that the mayors of other cities are trying to figure out how to use incentives and recruit business. They’re not turning their backs on incentives, he said, adding that “What we’re doing is nothing new.”

He told the audience that “We as a city are going to have to endure change, and we as a city are going to have to understand any time there’s change, there is going to be some pain.”

He added that he appreciated input from those who oppose the various subsidies and incentives the city gives to developers, and the city did check to see if the information they provided to the city was correct.

Commentary

The National League of Cities, one of the organizations the mayor consulted with regarding the use of incentives for the purpose of economic development, promotes an expansion of the powers of cities to engage in taxpayer-funded economic development subsidies. Its mission statement sounds noble: “Its mission is to strengthen and promote cities as centers of opportunity, leadership, and governance.” But citizens should not be deceived. It promotes interventionist practices rather than economic freedom. An example is its celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which the Wall Street Journal described as “one of the worst in recent years, handing local governments carte blanche to seize private property in the name of economic development.”

The mayor’s refusal to embrace economic freedom — which he has described as a “philosophy” that is not viable in the real world — means that Wichita is likely to continue to engage in the same competitive practices as do almost all other cities. It means that deals like the subsidy granted to Real Development is a template for other taxpayers-funded giveaways. As Council Member Paul Gray has warned, the plans for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita are likely to require many millions — perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars — of public assistance or investment. Since there isn’t enough tax increment financing available to pay for this, we can expect to see proposals for tax increases, such as a new city sales tax of perhaps one cent on the dollar, to pay for downtown redevelopment.

A sales tax is the model for economic development in Oklahoma City. This has been promoted to Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders as a good idea for Wichita to pursue.

What Wichita is missing out on is a way to truly distinguish itself from all the other cities and counties that are all using the same economic development tools. Presently about all we can do is offer subsidies that are larger than what other cities offer. But if we decided to forgo the use of the usual economic development subsidies and incentives, that would be something very unusual. It could really put Wichita on the map as a place to locate to.

Since these economic development incentives and subsidies require other taxpayers, both individuals and businesses, to pay for their cost, Wichita could reduce the cost of doing business in Wichita for everyone. A company considering locating to Wichita could be confident that it would be operating in a low-tax environment. It wouldn’t have to hope that it fits into the city’s economic development policy guidelines. It wouldn’t have to hope that politicians and bureaucrats view its application favorably.

Further, once a company locates here, it wouldn’t have to worry that other companies will receive incentives and subsidies that it will have to pay for. It would not need to worry about the other costs that subsidies impose, such as subsidized companies having lower overhead and are therefore better able to compete for employees.

Eliminating interventionist policies from city hall could have other benefits. Is there a “good ‘ol boy” network of insiders that use Wichita city hall as their personal piggy bank? By eliminating the practice of granting incentives and subsidies, we could reduce or eliminate the cynical attitude of many citizens towards city government.

We wouldn’t have to worry whether the campaign contributions made by those seeking favor from city hall were made in the interest of good government, or made in the hopes of getting a TIF district or other subsidy passed through the council.

These ideas, however, are not seriously considered by the mayor or any city council members, at least to my knowledge. Instead, we in Wichita are doomed to finance an escalating economic development arms race. The economic freedom of Wichitans will decline.

This is noteworthy in light of the mayor’s curious assertion in his remarks that we will have to “endure pain” caused by change. We’ve changed nothing.

On Wichita’s Exchange Place TIF, Janet Miller speaks

Last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council featured a message from Council Member Janet Miller that illustrated her firm belief in centralized government planning for the purposes of economic development. It also contained a material mistake in the understanding of the facts of the project.

In her remarks from the bench, Miller disagreed with those who testify at council meetings against tax increment financing (TIF). She said there is much information that says this type of economic development incentive is effective.

She said “Sometimes I wonder what city folks are living in when they talk about the negative, or the lack of results from TIFs.” She then named several Wichita TIF districts that she said performed well.

If her remarks were aimed at me and some of the other people who have testified at city council meetings against the formation of TIF districts, council member Miller may not have been listening very carefully. We do not deny that TIF districts produce results — within the district itself. Things get built, buildings get renovated. It is the effect of TIF on the city as a whole that we are concerned with.

It’s the observed effects of TIF, as economists Dye and Merriman have found and I have mentioned to the city council, including Miller, several times: “We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.”

It’s also the unobserved effectsthe things that don’t happen because Wichita props up developers in politically-favored areas such as downtown. This form of centralized planning from Wichita city hall overrides the decisions that the citizens of Wichita make with their own pocketbooks, and concentrates power in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians.

As Randal O’Toole has written: “TIF today is often part of a social engineering agenda that Americans should reject.”

Miller praised the amount of office space Real Development has brought online in downtown Wichita. To the extent that this has been done without government assistance, this should be praised.

She agreed with Vice Mayor Longwell’s assessment of this project, saying “This is not a tax abatement project.” She is just as wrong as is Longwell and other council members who believe this.

In discussing the risk involved in this project, Miller told of how the disbursements from a HUD-guaranteed loan that will finance much of this project will made directly to contractors, not to Real Development. City of Wichita documents indicate that the City’s payments will be made in the same way. This is a quite peculiar arrangement: we are placing a huge bet of the success of downtown Wichita redevelopment in the hands of the principals behind Real Development, but evidently we don’t trust them enough to write them a check and be confident they will pay their bills.

Miller also spoke of the jobs that will be created by this project. Implicit in her argument is that this project, or something similar, would not occur without the city’s subsidy. Her argument also ignores what economists tell us — that TIF districts simply transfer development from one part of town to another.

What Wichitans should be most concerned about, however, is a misstatement by Miller that other council members may have relied on in making their decision on how to vote. Miller said: “The property tax increases, the increment that’s being calculated in this project, includes only the buildings in this project.”

This statement directly contradicts the facts. In the Longhofer study, other properties owned by Real Development — the Petroleum Building, Sutton Place, 105 S. Broadway, and others — are used to support the TIF loan for the Exchange Place project. In response to my question, Wichita’s urban development director Allen Bell confirmed the same.

In her message from the bench, Miller said that city staff and council members have had enough time to go over this proposal. Her mistaken remarks indicate, however, that the project is still not understood very well by the council, neither its mechanics or its economic effect.

Tax increment financing is not free money

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole has written extensively on the subject of urban planning, development, and tax increment financing (TIF) districts. The following article contains many points that the Wichita City Council may wish to consider as it considers expansion of a downtown Wichita TIF district at tomorrow’s council meeting.

O’Toole was in Wichita earlier this year. Coverage of a lecture he delivered at that time is Randal O’Toole discusses urban planning in Wichita.

The author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, O’Toole’s latest book is Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.

TIF is Not “Free Money”

By Randal O’Toole

Originally created with good intentions, tax-increment financing (TIF) has become a way for city officials to enhance their power by taking money from schools and other essential urban services and giving it to politically connected developers. It is also often used to promote the social engineering goals of urban planners.

TIF is based on the idea that public improvements to a neighborhood or district will lead developers to invest in that district. To finance such public improvements, cities are allowed to keep the “increment” or increased property taxes collected from the area. Typically, planners estimate in advance how much new property tax the city can collect and then sell bonds that will be repaid out of those taxes. The revenues from the bonds are used to pay for the improvements.

Read the rest of the article at the North Dakota Policy Council.

Tax increment financing questions topic at Wichita city council meeting

On Tuesday the Wichita city council heard a request by Real Development for a $2.5 million increase in tax increment financing on a downtown project. Discussion during the meeting revealed how little is known about the numbers that the city uses in deciding whether to participate in the project. Numbers that don’t make sense, plus the fact that the applicant has not responded to the city’s request for new numbers, indicate that this proposal should be rejected.

A question that I asked referred to some numbers presented by in the materials supplied to council members in the public, specifically the total investment and market value for the project. When the project was revised for the first time in 2008, the plan called for total investment of $27,800,000, producing a project with market value of $33,803,000. In this plan the market value is greater than investment, which seems like a good thing.

In the second revision presented to the council this week, here are the values: Total investment is $46,491,728, while the market value is $41,695,000. Now the market value is less than investment. In fact, it is ten percent less than the amount invested.

I asked how are these market values determined, and is it wise to have investment that is so much greater than market value? In the video below, I think we can agree that a satisfactory answer was not provided.

In particular, the city’s economic development chief Allen Bell said that he had asked the applicants for updated information on these figures, but had not received it. This was revealed at the time the council was being asked to make an investment of some ten million dollars of taxpayer funds.

The fact that there was confusion, and data not made available to the city, at the time the council is being asked to make a decision casts quite a bit of doubt on the entire decision-making process.

A second question I asked had to do with the fact that the TIF district is quite a bit larger than the specific buildings that are the subject of the TIF financing request, and not all the property in the district is owned by the applicants. I asked that as property values — and therefore tax payments — in the other property in the district rises, does its increased valuation go towards paying off the TIF bonds? The answer from Bell was no.

A second question was what if these other property owners in the TIF district wanted to obtain TIF financing of their own. Does the fact that their property is already in a TIF district prevent them from receiving TIF financing? The answer from Bell was no.

Sweatshops best alternative for workers in many countries

While sweatshops are not the place most Americans would choose to work, they are often the best alternative available to workers in some countries. Pay is low compared to U.S. standards because worker productivity is low, and the process of economic development will lead to increases in productivity and pay. But most policies promoted to help the purported plight of sweatshop workers actually lead to harm.

That’s the message of Benjamin Powell, who spoke to a group of university students and citizens last night in Emporia on the topic “In Praise of Sweatshops.” Powell is a professor of economics at Suffolk University in Boston and is affiliated with The Beacon Hill Institute. His appearance was part of the Emporia State University “Lectures on Liberty” series.

“Often when people say there’s something wrong with sweatshops, implicitly what they’re saying is ‘while this is bad, the alternative must be better.’ Often the alternatives in these countries are much, much worse.” The alternatives are often subsistence agriculture and working in farm fields, Powell said.

A sweatshop, according to Powell, is a workplace with low wages (compared to U.S. standards), and poor, possibly unsafe, working conditions and benefits, again compared to U.S. standards. The sweatshops that Powell is defending are those where people voluntarily choose to work. Sweatshops where workers are forced to work under the threat of violence constitute slave labor, which cannot be defended. These are not better than the alternatives available to the forced workers, the evidence being that the workers are forced to work in these sweatshops.

As evidence of non-sweatshop working conditions is some countries, Powell mentioned the case of a Cambodian girl and her working conditions, as reported by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times in 2004:

Nhep Chanda is a 17-year-old girl who is one of hundreds of Cambodians who toil all day, every day, picking through the dump for plastic bags, metal cans and bits of food. The stench clogs the nostrils, and parts of the dump are burning, producing acrid smoke that blinds the eyes.

The scavengers are chased by swarms of flies and biting insects, their hands are caked with filth, and those who are barefoot cut their feet on glass. Some are small children.

Nhep Chanda averages 75 cents a day for her efforts. For her, the idea of being exploited in a garment factory — working only six days a week, inside instead of in the broiling sun, for up to $2 a day — is a dream.

Generally, sweatshop workers are paid much more than most other workers in the country, and their working conditions are much better. Powell mentioned that working inside — rather than outside — is very desirable in most countries. The fact that sweatshops pay higher wages and have better working conditions than the workers’ alternatives is important to remember.

Powell explained the factors that determine how much workers are paid. The upper bound that employers are willing to pay workers is based on the amount of value that a worker can create. In economic terms, this is called the marginal productivity of labor.

The lower bound, the minimum employers can pay, is the value of workers’ next best alternative.

If we want to increase the earnings of sweatshop workers, we have to create policies that raise both the upper and lower bounds, Powell said, adding that about three-fourths of the variation in earnings across countries is explained by the upper bound. This points to the importance of increasing worker productivity.

In one debate, Powell said his opponent wanted to take the question of sweatshop wages off the table, admitting that pay is higher in sweatshops. Instead, she wanted to focus on worker health and safety. But it’s important to remember, Powell told the audience, that working conditions, even those related to health and safety, are part of a total compensation package. Wages and working conditions are interconnected and can’t be separated.

Sometimes people ask why apparel companies — the largest users of sweatshops — can’t simply pay the workers more, pointing to large profits and highly paid executives at these companies. But Powell said that apparel companies usually aren’t excessively profitable.

Additionally, businesses are not charities. Forcing them to pay workers more means that companies will begin to look at ways to reduce the amount of labor they use. They may replace workers with machines, or use more productive workers in other countries. The result is sweatshop workers will lose their jobs.

Powell reminded the audience that it’s important to remember that in most countries where sweatshops are used, these jobs are much better — both in terms of pay and working conditions — than what the workers face as alternatives. Anything that causes companies to shut down sweatshops or employ fewer workers, then, means that workers lose these better jobs and return to harder work at lower wages, or perhaps no work at all.

In discussing the anti-sweatshop movement, Powell said that some groups sincerely want to help sweatshop workers, but don’t understand the economic realities in sweatshop-using countries. But labor unions such as UNITE do understand economics. The policies they advocate to help sweatshop workers — international labor standards and minimum or “living” wages, for example — increase the cost of sweatshop labor, causing companies to use less of it. It also makes unionized garment workers more attractive, and may lead to more employment in developed countries like the United States.

“So unions advocate this not out of love for third world workers. They do it quite maliciously, actually, to unemploy third world workers for the benefit of already relatively wealthy union members in the United States and Western Europe countries.”

The worst thing that advocates for sweatshop workers can do is to call for boycotts of products produced in sweatshops. If a boycott decreases demand for a product, the company must reduce its price, and the upper bound of what sweatshop workers can earn goes down. Then workers either have their wages reduced, or they lose their jobs.

Powell presented the results of his research examining sweatshop wages. In many countries that use sweatshops, wages are very low, compared to U.S. wages. But that isn’t the appropriate comparison. Instead, when comparing the wages of sweatshop workers to the average income in the workers’ own country, we find that sweatshop workers do very well, often earning from two to seven times as much as the average worker in each country.

Powell said that “ethical branding” is an idea that might help sweatshop workers. This is a marketing strategy where a company uses the fact that products are produced in sweatshops as a way to increase demand and prices. This, in turn, would increase the demand for sweatshop workers and increase their wages. But this has to be a voluntary strategy, Powell said. Companies must see this as a business success. If it is not successful in increasing demand but companies are forced to implement this strategy, it will lead to less sweatshop employment.

Also, demand — in terms of the number of units sold — must not fall. This is a problem with “fair trade” coffee, where people purchase less of the more expensive fair trade coffee.

The real solution for improving sweatshop wages and working conditions, Powell said, is the process of economic development. Sweatshops existed in Great Britain and the United States at one time. As capital is accumulated, better technologies are developed, and workers become more educated, workers become more productive and earn more, both in income and better working conditions.

This process took over a century in the U.S., but countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, which were sweatshop countries in the 1950s and 1960s, made very rapid improvements in wages and working conditions. Capital and technology is available from abroad, Powell said, and this process can be repeated. But anti-sweatshop policies risk stalling this development, resulting in a permanent sweatshop country with low incomes.

The real question, Powell said, is not why some countries are poor, but why some countries are rich. Rule of law, respect for property rights, and respect for individual liberty and economic freedom are policies that promote rapid economic growth. Countries that do not have these stagnate and do not increase their standard of living.

In conclusion, Powell said that sweatshop wages and working conditions are better than what many workers face as alternatives, and that’s why people voluntarily choose to work in them. While wages are low compared to developed countries, this is because productivity is low. The process of economic development is the way to raise productivity and wages. Much of the work of anti-sweatshop groups risks undermining the economic development processes that will raise living standards.

A question from the audience asked about the proliferation of sweatshops abroad leading to the loss of American jobs. Powell replied that sweatshops lead to the decline of the American apparel industry. But it is in the interest of America, he said, to get garments at lower cost overseas, freeing up high-skilled U.S. labor and capital to do what we’re relatively better at. This increases the wealth of America.

Another question referred to the human costs of sweatshop labor, contrasting those workers to Nike executives who earn millions. What is the cost in terms of damage to human dignity? Powell replied that businesses are not charities, and they don’t pay executives high salaries simply because they want to. The extremely high pay of the top executive serves as an incentive for underlings to work harder in jobs that are hard to observe quality of effort. Most people do not understand this, Powell said.

He also said that if we’re concerned about the dignity of sweatshop workers in third world countries, we should be even more concerned about those who don’t have sweatshop jobs. These people either have no jobs, or jobs with much lower pay and worse working conditions than sweatshop workers.

Another question asked if it would help the economies of third world countries if we simply raised the wages of sweatshop workers, referring to companies that are making millions in profits. Powell said that laws mandating higher wages will change the behavior of sweatshop companies, resulting in a loss of sweatshop jobs. But voluntary programs like ethical branding could work.

Related material on this topic by Powell includes a Christian Science Monitor op-ed Don’t get into a lather over sweatshops, a working paper titled Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?, and an article In Defense of “Sweatshops.”

The ESU Lectures on Liberty was conceived by Greg Schneider, professor of History at Emporia State University, to bring in important academics who support the idea of research and scholarship on critical issues regarding liberty in American history. The lecture series is underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation in Wichita.

Wichita economic development incentives discussed

At today’s meeting of the Wichita city council, economic development incentives were a topic of discussion.

In his remarks, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer ignores evidence that targeted economic development incentives — the type being considered — don’t produce economic growth for the community. He also expresses his disdain for free market concepts and those who believe in them.

It was a bad day for economic freedom in Wichita. Not a single council member voted in favor of economic freedom over corporate welfare.

Related: Wichita targeted economic development should end, Wichita Warren Theater IRB a TIF district in disguise.

Wichita targeted economic development should end

Is the City of Wichita able to choose which companies are worthy of taxpayer assistance for the purposes of economic development?

This week and next, the Wichita City Council will attempt to do this several times. It starts tomorrow with a theater owner’s request to avoid paying millions in property taxes. A food processing company is asking for similar treatment.

Several downtown buildings are receiving special assessment financing for improvements. An ordinance allowing a downtown hotel to keep its guest tax collections for its own exclusive benefit will be voted on.

The city will also decide whether to implement community improvement districts. These districts let a business add up to two cents on the dollar of sales tax, and keep that extra revenue for its own benefit. (One wonders why the business doesn’t simply increase its prices by two percent.)

That’s all in one day’s work.

The question Wichitans need to ask is simply this: Do these targeted economic development incentives work? The answer is, almost always, no.

In 2008 the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit looked at the use of economic development incentives in Kansas, examining some $1.3 billion in spending over five years. In examining the literature, the auditors found: “Most studies of traditional economic development incentives suggest these incentives don’t have a significant impact on economic growth.”

It also found: “The majority of research concludes there is a lack of demonstrated impact from the typical types of economic development assistance, and that incentives aren’t cost-effective.” The audit can be read at Economic Development: Determining the Amounts the State Has Spent on Economic Development Programs and the Economic Impacts on Kansas Counties.

Recently Alan Cobb wrote of the harm that targeted incentives cause, using Detroit as an example: “While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three’s trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up.”

Wichita is taking the same path. Instead of competing in the market, businesses look to city hall for special treatment. When applicants ask government for special treatment at the expense of others, the economic term for that activity is rent seeking.

The term rent, or more precisely, economic rent is somewhat unfortunate, as the common usage of the term — paying someone money for the use of an asset for a period of time — contains no sinister connotation. But economic rent does carry baggage.

So what is rent seeking? Wikipedia defines it like this: “In economics, rent seeking occurs when an individual, organization or firm seeks to earn income by capturing economic rent through manipulation or exploitation of the economic environment, rather than by earning profits through economic transactions and the production of added wealth.”

This explanation doesn’t do full justice to the term, because it doesn’t mention the role that government and politics usually play. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics adds this: “The idea is simple but powerful. People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena. They typically do so by getting a subsidy for a good they produce or for being in a particular class of people, by getting a tariff on a good they produce, or by getting a special regulation that hampers their competitors.”

It’s thought that Wichita needs to dish out economic development subsidies so that we can attract new companies to our town, or, as is often the case, retain existing companies. So we grant special tax treatment — usually through industrial revenue bonds, but also in other ways such as tax increment financing — to these companies. Or sometimes we may dispense with these cumbersome processes and simply give companies money or make loans that don’t need to be repaid.

These benefits — representing economic rent and rent seeking behavior — are great for the lucky companies that received them. But what about considering the city or region as a whole? In that case, something different emerges. Here’s an excerpt from “Rent Seeking and Economic Growth: Evidence From the States,” Harold J. Brumm, Cato Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999):

The present study finds the growth rate of real gross state product (GSP) per capita to be negatively correlated with the initial level of real GSP per capita, the burden of state tax structure, and — most notably — the level of rent-seeking activity in the state. On the basis of the estimates obtained for the standardized coefficients of the explanatory variables in the growth rate equation, the conclusion reached here is that rent-seeking activity has a relatively large negative effect on the rate of state economic growth. An implication of this finding is that a state government which promulgates policies that foster sustained artificial rent seeking does so at considerable expense to its economic growth.

In simple terms, rent seeking activity harms economic growth.

This study also states: “The private returns of rent seekers come from the redistribution of wealth, not from wealth creation. The tax that rent seeking imposes on the productive sector reduces the output growth rate by reducing the incentives of entrepreneurs to produce and innovate.”

This study looked at state governments and their activities, but there’s reason to suspect that the findings apply to cities and counties, too.

So should we simply give up and not grant preferential tax treatment and other subsidies to companies to induce them to locate in Wichita? No. Instead, as I’ve outlined in Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth, we should offer preferential tax treatment to all new investment in Wichita.

A broad policy like this, where everyone benefits, eliminates the harmful effects of rent seeking. All companies can benefit, not only those that fit into certain categories or make special pleadings to politicians or bureaucrats. All companies can plan with certainty on receiving the benefit — there won’t be the risk whether the city council and bureaucrats will approve the benefit.

This is the type of policy we should follow to increase economic growth in Wichita.

Wichita Warren Theater IRB a TIF district in disguise

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive for a local business. The process the city is using to grant this incentive bypasses the scrutiny that accompanies the formation of TIF districts while providing essentially the same benefit.

The proposal provides Industrial Revenue Bond financing to American Luxury Cinemas, Inc., d.b.a. 21st Street Warren Theatre, a company owned in part by Wichita theater operator Bill Warren. Under the city’s IRB program, no city money is lent to Warren, and the city does not provide any guarantee that the bonds will be repaid.

Instead, the benefit of the IRB to Warren is that he will escape paying property taxes on the new theater. Also, he will likely avoid paying sales taxes on purchases made with the bond money. (The city-supplied material doesn’t mention the sales tax exemption, but this incentive is commonly granted, and mention of it was likely omitted by mistake from the agenda report.)

This project is a TIF district in effect. It has the same economic benefit to the applicant. But the way this deal is structured means it doesn’t have to go through the normal approval process of a TIF district. Specifically, the Sedgwick County Commission will not have a chance to consider approval of these incentives. That approval would probably not be granted.

The process being used also allows the city to bypass the 30 day notice of a public hearing required for formation of a TIF district.

In a TIF district, the city borrows money and spends it immediately for the benefit of the TIF district. What the city spends money on isn’t important, as long as it’s spent on things that the owners of the property in the TIF district would have to pay for themselves, if not for the city. This is important to remember, as defenders of TIF districts say that the city money is spent “only on infrastructure,” as if most developers don’t have to pay for their own infrastructure.

As improvements to property in the TIF district are made — buildings being built or renovated, etc. — the property taxes on the property go up. This increase in the tax payments — that’s the increment in TIF — goes to pay off the borrowed money that was spent on the TIF district.

Since the TIF district spending was for the exclusive benefit of of the TIF district applicant, and the increased property taxes are paying off the bonds that provided that spending, TIF districts, in effect, let the applicants keep the increase in their own property taxes for their exclusive benefit.

Whenever anyone else improves their property and has to pay higher taxes, those taxes go to fund the general operations of government.

(If this sounds confusing and complicated, it is. It is confusing by design. A while back I told the council: “I’ve come to realize that this confusion serves a useful purpose to this council, because if the people of Wichita knew what was really happening, they’d be outraged.”)

In the Warren deal that the council will consider on Tuesday, no TIF district is being created. But because the property is in the IRB program, property taxes will be forgiven. Warren is agreeing to make payments equal to the present tax bill on the property (plus a small annual increase).

The net effect is that the Warren group will not pay property taxes on the value of the new project. It’s the same economic effect as a TIF district, without the scrutiny that accompanies formation of a TIF district.

Some city politicians and bureaucrats — particularly Mayor Carl Brewer, council member Jeff Longwell, and the city’s economic development chief Allen Bell — have complained that the city doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” when it comes to dishing out economic development incentives.

This applicant has been the recipient of economic development incentives, including a TIF district formed for its benefit. When that business was failing, the city created a special tool for Warren’s benefit: a no-interest and low-interest loan.

Here we see another new tool being created — the formation of what is, in effect, a TIF district without accompanying scrutiny.

Warren IMAX Theater Project

Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas

Recently the Kansas legislature and governor decided to authorize the Kansas Secretary of Transportation to establish and implement a passenger rail service program in the state. This service would most likely be implemented through Amtrak, the federal passenger rail authority.

This service, true to the nature of Amtrak, would require subsidy from taxpayers in order to survive. Most of the arguments of rail supporters boil down to “other things get subsidy, so we want ours too.” The proper response to this is to advocate for ending all subsidy to all forms of transportation. In this way, we can fully learn which forms of transport are truly valued, and by what relative margin. Then private sector investment can be channeled to where people — not politicians, government bureaucrats, and rail enthusiasts — value it most.

Rail supporters — we should be accurate and call them taxpayer-funded rail supporters — argue that the total dollar volume of taxpayer funds redirected to support Amtrak is small. That, however, ignores the context of the passenger mile. In this context, government funding of rail travel is truly alarming.

In 2008, a Cato Institute report stated “In 2006, subsidies to Amtrak totaled just over $1 billion, or about 22 cents per passenger mile.” The subsidy to highways was about one-half cent per mile.

Subsidyscope, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has a recent study about the taxpayer subsidy flowing into Amtrak. For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

This isn’t the type of business we should import into Kansas for economic development purposes. Hopefully Kansans will realize the tremendous burden to taxpayers that is Amtrak.

Will the real robber barons please stand up?

By Helen Cochran.

At the April 13th meeting of the Wichita City Council a request from downtown developer Real Development will be made for an additional $2.2 million taxpayer subsidy for its condo project Exchange Place, located at Douglas and Market. With two weeks to go before this public hearing there is still time for council members to read The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton Folsom. Folsom’s easy-to-read 134-page narrative lays out the case for entrepreneurship in America and can be read in one evening. It’s a history lesson worth reading by all.

Folsom highlights two kinds of business developers: “political entrepreneurs” and ‘market entrepreneurs.” And while Folsom focuses on the larger-than-life entrepreneurs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the lessons gleaned have far reaching implications and relevance, even on a local level.

According to Folsom, “political entrepreneurs” are those that seek government/taxpayer subsidy, public private partnerships, protective tariffs, special privileges, etc. Folsom makes a sound case that economic development fueled by political intervention invariably fails and undermines the very ideology it purports to serve.

On the other hand “market entrepreneurs” are those that obtain their successes by producing a product that is better and of more value to the consumer, unbridled by the government controls and restrictions that come with subsidy. No one can argue that it is the market entrepreneurs that create the wealth in this country.

Despite the anti-business rhetoric spewed by most historians and reinforced in school curriculums across this country, Folsom offers concrete evidence that the likes of Commodore Vanderbilt, John D Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, the Scrantons of Pennsylvania, James J. Hill, and Charles Schwab should be revered because of the consumer benefits achieved when free markets are allowed to flourish without government involvement. Folsom contrasts these successes with failure-after-failure of those in the same respective industries that received government subsidy. Government cannot do it better and most certainly cannot do it cheaper.

In Wichita, Real Development is one of several downtown “political entrepreneurs.” What was originally a $27.8 million project with an approved $9.3 million subsidy from the City of Wichita is now a $51.5 million project seeking an additional $2.2 million subsidy from the City. Real Development boasts that with approved additional City subsidy they will be able to qualify for a $30 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a government guaranteed loan. This “guarantee” is none other than you and me. Our taxpayer dollars are lost if this project fails.

According to Goody Clancy, the City’s downtown development consultant, there is a market for downtown development in Wichita. Specifically, Goody Clancy consultants found that downtown Wichita demand for residences is 1,000 units over the next five years.

If such a market truly exists where are the market entrepreneurs and why are they not clamoring to develop? Why are local banks not willing to loan these political entrepreneurs money without a government guarantee? Michael Elzufon, one of the principals of Real Development, states this is a “low risk deal.” Yes, it’s a low risk deal for Elfuzon but I suggest it is a very high-risk deal for the taxpayer.

The Wichita City Council, as with as many city councils nationwide, continues to insist that economic development in downtown Wichita requires government subsidy. Fear mongering becomes a tactic used when justifying subsidies offered to private enterprise to locate or expand here: “Everyone else is offering them” or “If we don’t subsidize, Company X will go elsewhere or relocate” or “Without subsidy this won’t happen.” Millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in the name of economic development or downtown revitalization and when projects fail, millions more are spent in an attempt to salvage the project.

Development succeeds when market entrepreneurs perceive a need and are willing to risk their own capital for success. Anything short of that has historically failed.

The Myth of the Robber Barons is a must read for anyone interested in the writing on the wall but especially for those with the power to commit taxpayer money to projects that are better left to market entrepreneurs.

Wichita legislative forum highlights differences in approach to government spending

Yesterday over 200 people packed a room at Wichita State University to attend a forum of Wichita-area Kansas state legislators. The meeting was chaired by Representative Steve Brunk, a Republican who represents Bel Aire and parts of far northeast Wichita.

One of the topics underlying much of the meeting was the subject of tax cuts to business. Proponents of government spending say the state has given up too much revenue by granting tax cuts.

Sometimes, in case of the business franchise tax, the state levies a tax simply for existing. This tax is being phased out over a five-year period starting in 2007. Government spending interests — including Governor Mark Parkinson — want to reinstate this tax, however.

There are sometimes disagreements as to what a “cut” means. In his opening remarks, Representative Jim Ward, a Democrat who represents parts of southeast Wichita and is also assistant minority leader, referred to a recent $95 million tax cut given to business, saying this is not a good thing to do when the state needs more tax revenue. Representative Brenda Landwehr, a Republican who represents parts of northwest Wichita, disagreed with Ward’s characterization.

The program referred to is an expansion of a program that lets companies keep their employees’ Kansas withholding taxes when new jobs are created. Proponents of these types of economic development incentives that are granted through the tax system argue that without the incentive, no jobs would be created, so there would be no new taxes to collect. Therefore, the program is without cost. They also often argue that the new jobs create other economic activity that is taxed, and this is a source of revenue for the state.

There is ample evidence, however, that these targeted economic development incentives often do not work as intended.

In answering one question, Landwehr referred to the Health Care Freedom Act. This possible amendment to the Kansas Constitution would allow Kansas to opt out of certain areas of possible federal health care legislation, such as the requirement that citizens purchase health insurance. Landwehr said that the issue goes back to what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights really say. Freedom and liberty are two key words, she said. “If government decides that they should be the one dictating to you what company your health issuance should be with, what benefits you should have or not have, we’re going to have less providers. … We need to be able to make these decisions ourselves.”

Addressing the number of uninsured in Kansas, Landwehr said that over half are the “invincibles” — young people 18 to 30 years old who choose not to purchase health insurance. Another segment are the underinsured.

On the recently-passed statewide smoking ban, Brunk read a question that asked “Why is smoking not bad for you in state-owned bars?” Brunk remarked that the questioner probably meant state-owned casinos, to the amusement of the audience. I thought to myself if the state can own casinos, why not bars? And if the state owned bars and taverns, would the smoking ban apply to them?

Rep. Landwehr criticized the smoking ban based on liberty, freedom, and property rights. She also mentioned problems with the bill regarding how the casino floor air — where smoking is allowed — would be kept separate from the air in the rest of the building. Representative Geraldine Flaharty, a Democrat who represents parts of south-central Wichita, said that the health issues of smoking overrode these issues.

Education, however, was the topic of interest to many in the audience.

Representative Joe McLeland, a Republican who represents parts of west Wichita and who is chairman of the House Education Budget Committee, said that education funding is a tough issue. He mentioned the large unencumbered fund balances in Kansas school districts, mentioning specifically that the Wichita school district has $252 million in its fund balances as of December. “Schools have a lot of money,” he said to disapproval of the large number of school spending advocates in the audience.

McLeland said that schools routinely transfer unspent money from the general fund — which can’t be carried forward to the next year — to other funds. These other funds generally fall into the category of restricted funds. Schools continually remind everyone that money in these restricted funds can’t be spent with the same degree of flexibility that money in unrestricted funds can. This is part of an effort by schools to treat restricted funds — which according to recent Wichita school district presentations are 59.5% of the district’s spending — as though they don’t exist and shouldn’t be counted as part of school spending.

McLeland said that this week he will introduce legislation that will reduce the number of funds from 27 to five and will prohibit transferring general fund dollars to restricted funds, including capital building funds.

McLeland also said that state law requires school districts to spend 65% of their budgets in the classroom. Since the state average is about 55%, McLeland said schools are not following this law.

Uniform accounting is a new law passed recently, McLeland said. With 293 school districts in the state, each reporting numbers differently, it is difficult to compare budgets.

McLeland also referred to the voluntary efficiency audits that school districts could participate in. The Derby school district is the only local school district that participated. The audit found that Derby instructional services spending was above average for its peers, but teacher salaries were below the peer average. McLeland said that the reason for this surprising finding couldn’t be determined due to the lack of standard accounting and reporting.

Representative Judy Loganbill, a Democrat who represents parts of east and southeast Wichita and who is also a Wichita school teacher, asked the rhetorical question “how often do you visit a school?” She mentioned the battle between unencumbered and encumbered funds. “Approximately 60 percent of a school’s budget must go to certain places. It has to. … What’s left over is where we get the unencumbered funds. … When you’re looking at your unencumbered funds, that’s where your salaries come from.”

She also mentioned the difficulty of determining what constitutes spending in the classroom. Things like transportation, utilities, books, materials — all are essential to schools, she said. She also mentioned the need to produce highly qualified and educated students to lead us into the next generation. She said that businesses don’t come into our state because of the employee withholding tax break discussed above, but because of quality of life issues like schools, good roads, and safe neighborhoods.

After a short break so that many of the legislators could leave to attend a funeral of a former legislator, Representative Kasha Kelley of Arkansas City gave an overview of the Kansas budget and the budget process.

A question to her referenced the large number of unemployed in Kansas. If tax breaks to business are such a good deal, why are there so many unemployed? Rep. Jim Ward expressed similar sentiment earlier. A proper answer to this question is that yes, there are large numbers of unemployed in Kansas at this time. Our unemployment rate is lower than the nation’s, however, and we should be grateful for that. Furthermore, we don’t know what our jobs situation would be if taxes on business had not been reduced. Since taxes in all forms are a drag on jobs creation, it is certain that there would be fewer jobs in Kansas if not for some tax reductions.

Also, some of the tax breaks given are quite small in relation to the state budget. In 2007, which is when the franchise tax reductions started, that tax brought in about $4.6 million. To place this number in some context, in February alone the state fell $71 million short of projected revenue.

Another questioner who identified himself as a former family business owner and a teacher for 12 years questioned the effectiveness of tax abatements and breaks on job creation.

One questioner criticized the state’s economic forecasts, calling for an honest assessment, perhaps by different company. It has been the case that over the past year or so, actual revenues have been significantly less than forecast. Brunk responded that the projections are developed by economists from state universities. It should be noted that economic forecasting is very difficult, and very few people foresaw the tremendous decline in the nation’s and state’s economies. If someone could forecast these things with certainty, they could make trades in financial markets that would generate very high returns.

Analysis

Regarding the claim that business tax cuts are costing the state too much lost revenue: The problem with this analysis is that it presumes that the government has first claim on the income of businesses — and people too, for that matter. Those who believe in the principle of self-ownership, meaning that people own themselves and the things they produce, have a problem with this attitude.

I fully agree with the critics of targeted tax breaks. The state, as do all governments, has a poor record of being able to choose which companies or class of companies should benefit from special tax treatment and subsidy. A report by the Division of Legislative Post Audit from 2008 found that “it’s difficult to accurately assess the results of economic development expenditures.” Overall, the report was skeptical of the expenditures on economic development and its ability to produce jobs.

The school spending lobby, hungry for more tax dollars, refuses to acknowledge simple facts. The existence of the unspent fund balances is vigorously disputed, even though Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis has said that schools can use these funds if they want. This is contrary to school spending advocate and Kansas school board member David Dennis in his flawed Wichita Eagle op-ed.

The schools also have no explanation for why the unspent balances in the funds grow rapidly, from $74 million to $94 million over the last four years for the Wichita school district. Instead, the schools would rather be left alone and unaccountable. Hopefully some initiatives in the legislature, such as the common accounting requirements, will lead to greater transparency and accountability.

The school spending lobby must also face the fact that the Kansas state achievement tests, which show large increases in school performance, are almost certainly fraudulent, as is the case in most states. The link between the huge increase in Kansas school spending and these test scores is used as an argument not to cut schools spending.

We also saw again the school spending lobby’s claim that restricted funds don’t count, as though schools are totally hamstrung when it comes to this money.

The contentiousness in the audience between the school spending lobby and the rest of the audience should lead us to question why we turn over such an important matter to government.

Kansas historic preservation tax credits: the hearing

On Wednesday, the Taxation Committee of the Kansas House of Representatives heard testimony on HB 2496, which would expand the historic preservation tax credit program. This program provides tax credits to qualified historic preservation projects. I testified at the hearing, and my written testimony is at Kansas historic preservation tax credits should not be expanded.

The idea of tax credits confuses some people. Some may confuse credits with a tax deduction. Some may believe that tax credits are given out at no cost to the state. But in fact, the tax credits are quite costly. As I told the committee members, if the state grants a tax credit, and then does not reduce state spending by the amount of the tax credit, other taxpayers in Kansas have to make up the difference.

That’s one of my core reasons for opposing the tax credits. Since the state does not — and is not likely to — reduce spending by the amount of credits granted, the result is a transfer of money from Kansas taxpayers to the recipients of the credits. But even if the state did reduce its spending, the result would still be a implied decision by the state that it can better decide how to spend money than its citizens can.

Besides this, the arguments of those in favor of the historic preservation tax credits are self-serving and in some cases misleading. Some of the conferees are involved in projects that were to receive tax credits. They are not happy now that they may not get them.

Other conferees were local units of government such as Dale Goter, lobbyist for the City of Wichita. Wichita has a big stake in the tax credits, as the renovation of the Broadview Hotel is on hold because the developers may not receive the tax credits. The developers and the city claim that the project is not economically feasible without the tax credits. We don’t really know whether this is true. When government subsidy is available, people have a way of designing project budgets in a way the requires the subsidy. Why would someone turn down free money?

It should also be noted that the tax credits the Broadview developers are seeking — perhaps $3 million to $4 million — are on top of many millions in subsidy the city has already approved.

The arguments of other conferees must be questioned. Brenda Spencer of Wamego, who owns a preservation consulting business, told of a project in Leavenworth that will house a company employing 400 people. This results, she said, in an annual payroll of $26 million, with resultant tax dollars flowing to the state and local government.

The problems with this illustration of the purported success of the historic preservation tax credit program are these: Would the jobs not have been created unless there was a historic property to house the workers? Could the workers work somewhere that wouldn’t require tax credits? These jobs: are they new jobs? Were the workers formerly unemployed, or did they leave other jobs to work in the historic building? To the extent that happened, the jobs, with their tax payments to the state, can’t be counted as new.

Christy Davis, owner of another preservation consulting firm, testified that since 2001, the tax credit program has leveraged $264 million in private dollars, which she said is a 400% return on investment for the state. The problem with this analysis (it was made by others, too) is that it assumes that none of the projects would have proceeded if not for the tax credits. It credits the program as being the only reason why this activity took place. This is undoubtedly false.

Further, this analysis treats the state as though it were the owner of these properties. That isn’t true, either.

Davis also testified that since work on historic buildings is 50% more labor intensive than new construction, the tax credit program has the effect of a jobs creation program. I doubt that the developers of historic preservation projects see creating a lot of jobs as a benefit. To business, workers are a cost to be controlled, not a benefit to be expanded. If the state wants to view historic preservation as a jobs creation program — meaning that more jobs are better than fewer jobs — let the state mandate that, say, power tools can’t be used on these projects. Then even more workers will be needed.

Can we also agree that owners of firms that profit from a government program qualify as a special interest?

Goter, Wichita’s lobbyist, also stated in his written testimony: “The return on investment for the public dollar spent on historic renovation is totally recovered in a 10 year span from increased property taxes alone. That return is shared by local and state governments through their respective mill levies.”

This statement reveals the flaw in the reckoning used by government in making economic development calculations. To government, the return is in the form of increased tax revenue. Many citizens don’t view things the same way. For government to make an investment of taxpayer funds just so it can receive even more tax revenue is appealing to government bureaucrats and politicians who want to expand their sphere of influence and control. But not so much for everyone else.

For me a lesson I learned from the hearing is how easily those who consider themselves fiscal conservatives can become derailed by programs like this. Olathe Representative Arlen Siegfreid, a member of the Taxation Committee as well as Speaker Pro Tem of the Kansas House of Representatives, offered written and oral testimony in favor of this bill.

Support of this bill is at odds with his stated positions. On his personal website, under the heading “Fiscal Responsibility” appears this sentence: “However, particularly in times of economic peril, sometimes the ‘wants’ we’ve fertilized with ample resources grow to become ‘needs’ and our well intentioned investments in promising ideas and programs become the dangerous government growth that each candidate swears to defend against at all costs on the campaign trail.”

The historic preservation tax credit program, as reported in an audit recently completed by the Legislative Division of Post Audit, has grown tremendously from its initial cost. The audit, titled Kansas Tax Revenues, Part I: Reviewing Tax Credits, identifies the historic preservation tax credit as a program that the legislature may want to re-evaluate, as the program is significantly more expensive than originally planned. The fiscal note that accompanied the tax credit legislation when passed in 2001 and revised in 2002 reported an estimated annual cost of $1 million. In 2007, the actual cost was $8.5 million.

This is an example of a government spending program growing out of control — the type of “dangerous government growth” Siegfreid mentioned above.

Siegfreid’s website also states: “My subsequent re-elections affirm that notion, and I’m now more committed than ever to reducing the strain government and it’s [sic] failed policies are placing on individual taxpayers — and our local businesses.”

As mentioned above, when the state grants tax credits, other Kansas taxpayers have to pay more taxes to make up the shortfall in revenue. This is an example of the type of strain Siegfreid says he is against.

Finally, Siegfreid has authored a tax simplification bill, stating that “Kansas tax policy is too complicated.” Tax credits are an example of increasing complexity of the state’s tax code.

Detroit, corporate welfare and Wichita’s future

The following op-ed from Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s Alan Cobb appeared in today’s Wichita Eagle (the unedited version is below).

I agree with Cobb. Wichita definitely has a problem with its economic development strategies. Instead of low taxes that will benefit everyone, the Wichita city council and Wichita city hall bureaucrats insist on dishing out subsidies to companies nearly every week. I’ve shared my ideas with the council in testimony like Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth and articles like Wichita’s economic development strategy: rent seeking.

Still, there are some council members who, along with Mayor Carl Brewer and some city staff, feel city the doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” for shoveling incentives on companies for economic development purposes.

Recently The Eagle printed an article by Molly McMillin, a well-respected aviation and business reporter.

The question asked throughout the article is one that Wichita leaders and citizens have been asking for some time: What can we do to prevent Wichita from falling into the hole that is Detroit?

A simple answer is to continue throwing money and other goodies to keep the aviation companies. A better answer is we need to get rid of the notion that our elected officials and others have so much forethought to know what will or won’t be successful in 20 or 50 years. They don’t.

Detroit became the modern tragedy it is, not just because of global competition, poor products or poor management at the Big Three. Other sectors of the Michigan economy weren’t there to pick up the slack, when the auto industry floundered. Michigan put too much focus on the auto industry, to the detriment of the overall business and economic climate.

While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three’s trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up.

It‘s the classic example of the seen vs. the unseen. We see the new factory Pontiac builds. We don’t see the businesses that reduce their size, close or just move. The irony is we will still see the Pontiac factory after it is closed and boarded up.

For each tax dollar given to the auto industry, one is taken one away from entrepreneurs trying to create the next GM, Ford, Google or Apple. This may not be too bad the first time or the second time, but over years and decades, the results can be significant. The “next big thing” will be created in a state with a better tax and regulatory climate.

Cessna, Spirit, Boeing, Learjet and Beechcraft are all great companies that produce great products known throughout the world. Kansans and Wichitans are rightly proud.

Who can predict with any certainty they’ll be in Wichita or even in business in 10 or 30 years? I hope so, and I think they will, but I am not willing to bet Wichita’s future on it.

We shouldn’t give other individual companies state or local funded goodies, either.

Lower the tax rates for everyone. After all, the tax breaks and other prizes handed out are recognition that the cost of doing business in a particular are is too high.

The Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit last year reported we spent billions of dollars in “economic development” with literally nothing to show for it. Our lawmakers aren’t very good at picking winners and losers.

When Wichita’s aircraft leaders were asked about Detroit, there was a golden opportunity to ask other business leaders in Kansas and Wichita that same question.

It is just as likely and maybe more so, that they will determine if Wichita goes the way of Detroit — or does not.

Destination ICT rollout presents a look at the future of Wichita

Destination ICT rollout 2010-02-22Destination ICT presentation.

Yesterday Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting presented “Destination ICT.” This is a program designed to “attract and retain talent to Wichita.” It’s sponsored by Young Professionals of Wichita which is an initiative of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In her talk, Ryan presented evidence that knowledge workers are highly concentrated, and that a relatively small proportion of workers create much of the economic output. “Some workers have a higher economic impact on an economy than other workers.” She said that Wichita must continue to invest in knowledge-based jobs and knowledge-based occupations.

She said that Wichita employers say that they need 3,000 professional workers over the next six to eight years. But 23 percent of the people Ryan surveyed said they are leaving Wichita in the next four years. She said this would cost Wichita $610 million over the next four years.

Ryan said Wichita needs to use “intentional design” in which we design an ICT that “people are homesick for.”

Ryan presented the seven indexes of a “next city” — referring to attributes, attitudes, and amenities that the “next generation” will get excited about. These are:

  • Cost of lifestyle. Can I afford to live here?
  • Earning opportunities. Many families or couples who locate to a town require two jobs.
  • Vitality. Is this a community that invests in parks, trails, and recreation?
  • Learning. This refers to career education for professionals as well as the K-12 public school system.
  • Around town. This refers both to in-town mobility as well as things like the number of flights.
  • Social capital. Does everyone feel they have a stake and a say in the community? Voting rates and crime count here.
  • After hours. What is there to do after work and on weekends?

Ryan showed a chart, based on a survey of Wichitans, that showed “value vs. perception,” that is, how do Wichitans feel about these indexes as compared to their measured values? Consistently, Wichitans’ perception was lower than the reality.

Wichita scores well in cost of lifestyle. Wichita scored low in “around town.” Wichita also scored low in earning opportunities. In other categories, Wichita scored about the same as its group of peer cities, which for the purposes of this analysis are Denver, Raleigh, Lexington, Kansas City, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Chattanooga, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, and Richmond.

Ryan said that Wichita’s low cost of lifestyle is “a key strength that can be leveraged, particularly in efforts to attract and retain Millennials who are in their early years of earning.”

Ryan said we need to connect people to Wichita’s career opportunities. She showed two examples — ColumbusTalent.com in Columbus, Indiana, and SmartCareerMove.com in Iowa — of cities or regions that have done this. Also, she said we need to feature employers on high-traffic websites. A “robust internship culture” is valuable, too.

She also recommended that we make Wichita a more attractive place to work and play, and that is sustainable. She mentioned — as do the downtown Wichita planners — “connectedness.” A quote from a survey participant is “There are parks [in Wichita], but there’s no way to get from one to another … there are no arteries linking the green spaces.” She said that Wichita should have many more miles of bike paths. Our bus transit system is a problem, too, as it takes a very long time to get from one place to another on a bus. She recommended a grid system rather than a hub system as Wichita presently uses.

Wichitans also needs to convince themselves that Wichita is a great place to live. She said that most people don’t realize Wichita is as large in population as it is.

She recommended a centralized place for finding information about Wichita such as events. She used OnMilwaukee.com as an example of such a site, noting that Wichita’s UploadWichita.com has not been updated frequently.

She said that we need to make sure that what people are saying about our community matches the reality. Two-thirds of the people who have moved away from Wichita have thought about coming back. These are the “convinceables,” she said.

She recommended that if people care about downtown, they should attend Saturday’s design charrette.

Analysis

Wichita’s advantage of low cost of lifestyle (is this different from a low cost of living?) is something that we must work to maintain. Actions by Wichita’s city council such as the creation of TIF districts make the burden of paying for government more expensive for everyone in the city except those in the TIF district. Other misguided economic development policies such as tax abatements make it more expensive for everyone but the recipient of the incentive.

The emphasis on bicycle paths is misplaced. A recent visitor to Wichita, Randal O’Toole, said that bicycle paths are not nearly as useful as city streets for serious commuting and traveling by bicycle.

With regard to public schools, Wichita is falling behind the rest of the country in educational freedom. Our charter school law gives local boards of education total control over the formation of charter schools, and as a result, there are very few in Kansas. Furthermore, we have no school choice through vouchers or tax credits. Many cities and states are using these programs to implement choice — rather than government monopoly — in education. Wichita lags far behind in this regard. School choice programs, by the way, could be implemented quickly at very low cost, and in fact, could save money.

Ryan’s promotion of the downtown planning process shows a reliance on centralized government planning. This means a loss of economic freedom for Wichitans, as those who chose not to live downtown will subsidize those who do. Reliance on government planning means that more economic activity in Wichita will be controlled by bureaucrats and politicians. These classes of people have motivations different from entrepreneurs, who must meet the demands of consumers or go out of business. Bureaucrats, especially, do not face such a stern taskmaster.

I was also troubled by other reliance on government recommended by Ryan. The parks system — which suffers, according to Ryan, from a lack of connectedness — is a creation of government. So here’s an example of a large government program that has produced something other than what is needed, or at least is not optimal. Now Wichita has a new and ambitious program to create a new generation of parks. But what makes us think that the current generation of parks planners can do better than the past?

Reliance on websites as a way to distribute information and build community in Wichita has been problematic. Ryan noted UploadWichita.com as an example. Its most most recent story is from July 2008, and the most recently uploaded photo is from March 2009.

More recent efforts by government-sponsored enterprises to promote the city through online efforts are sputtering, too. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation’s blog — ironically titled Momentum — hasn’t had a fresh post since December 17, even though Wichita is in an intense period of downtown planning.

There are some efforts such as RokICT and Naked City Wichita that promote events in Wichita. Both sites seem to be in transition at the moment, however, and are not the fresh and copious sources of information that they once were.

David Burk, Wichita developer, overreaches

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about a well-known Wichita real estate developer that, while shocking, shouldn’t really be all that unexpected.

The opening sentence of the article (Developer won tax appeal on city site) tells us most of what we need to know: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

Some might say it’s not surprising that Burk represented himself in the way the Eagle article reports. When a person’s been on the receiving end of so much city hall largess, it’s an occupational hazard.

And when you’ve been the beneficiary of so much Wichita taxpayer money, you might even begin to think that you shouldn’t have to pay so much tax anymore.

At the state level, you might seek over a million dollars of taxpayer money to help you renovate an apartment building.

Burk has certainly laid the groundwork, at least locally. A registered Republican voter, Burk regularly stocks the campaign coffers of Wichita city council members with contributions. These contributions — at least for city council candidates — are apparently made without regard to the political leanings of the candidates. How else can we explain recent contributions made to two city council members who are decidedly left of center: Lavonta Williams and Janet Miller? Burk and his wife made contributions to their campaigns in the maximum amount allowed by law.

This is especially puzzling in light of Burk’s contributions to campaigns at the federal level. There, a search at the Federal Election Commission shows a single contribution of $250 to Todd Tiahrt in 2005.

It’s quite incongruous that someone would contribute to Tiahrt, Williams, and Miller. Except Williams and Miller can — and have — cast votes that directly enrich Burk. Politicians at the federal level don’t have the same ability to do that as do Wichita city council members. Well, at least not considering Wichita city business.

So which is it: is Burk a believer in Republican principles, a believer in good government, or someone who knows where his next taxpayer handout will come from?

Burk’s enablers — these include Wichita’s lobbyist Dale Goter, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation president Jeff Fluhr and chairman Larry Weber, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton, Wichita economic development chief Allen Bell, and most importantly Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and various city council members — now have to decide if they want to continue in their efforts to enrich Burk. Continuing to do so will harm their reputations. The elected officials, should they run for office again, will have to explain their actions to voters.

At the state level, the bill that will enrich Burk will likely be voted on in the Kansas Senate this week. Then, similar action may take place in the Kansas House of Representatives. Let’s hope they read the Wichita Eagle in Topeka.

Wichita city council signals possible change in economic development incentive policy

At today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, discussion by council members and their vote may signal a change in the city’s stance toward economic development incentives.

At issue was a request for extension of economic development incentives for a Wichita company. Five years ago the city council approved an economic development package for the company that included a tax abatement. As is the city’s policy, the council revisits the issue in five years to see if the company has meet its goal commitments. In the case of this company, one commitment — the building of a new facility — was met. The other commitment — creation of a certain number of jobs — was met early on during the period of the tax abatement, but employment has been declining in recent years, and employment is currently 100 jobs below the goal.

Recently the city council adopted new guidelines for companies that are not meeting their goals at the time of review. These guidelines make it easier for companies to qualify for the extension of the abatement. If the WSU Current Conditions Index has declined since the awarding of the incentives, the company will qualify for an extension if a majority of the goals are met. A company will also qualify for extension if their peak job creation numbers exceeded the goal, even if the number has fallen, as is the case with the company under consideration today.

Based on the new guidelines, city staff recommended to approve the extension of the incentives.

Council member Lavonta Williams asked if it was possible if, as an company receiving an incentive, could “I hire five people today and fire them by Friday and then meet my criteria?” The answer by city economic development director Allen Bell is that the policy contains no such guideline as to minimum period of employment.

Wichita city manager Bob Layton interjected that staff’s recommendation to approve the extension is a difficult one to make, as this company is in a declining pattern of employment. Additionally, the newly calculated benefit-to-cost ratios are low, and he said he is uncomfortable with that: “We’re actually subsidizing this business, so to speak, or others are subsidizing or bearing their load for debt service.”

Council member Sue Schlapp asked a question not covered by policy: if we deny the extension today, and next year the company improves its situation, could they come back and ask for the extension of the tax abatement then? There is no definitive answer to this question at this time, according to Bell and Layton.

Schlapp added that it seems like we’re “lowering the bar all the time” as to the granting of incentives.

Council member Paul Gray remarked that the council makes itself look bad in these situations, as it always grants extensions even though the city has created policies that should hold companies accountable to their committed goals. The reason for awarding the incentives, he said, was for the increase in employment, and that employment level has not been kept. “We need to start taking a harder stand on this, as we’re going to run out of money if we keep giving it all away.” Vice mayor Jim Skelton agreed.

No one from the public was there to speak on this matter.

Wichita mayor Carl BrewerWichita Mayor Carl Brewer was on the losing end of a 6 to 1 vote.

Gray made a motion to deny the staff recommendation of approval of the extension. Mayor Carl Brewer said that this vote, if it proceeds in the direction it appears to be going, will change the direction of many things that affect businesses in Wichita. He said that the intent of the council is to start holding individuals accountable, and there’s not been a track record of that. It’s been worse since the economy entered the recession, he said. He urged council members to make sure they know which way they’re going with this action. “This will be the direction that we’ll be going as we start working on policy, and it will be effective for everyone, whether it be large or whether it be small. … Just making sure that when we press that button and we head down this path, that we know what we’re doing.”

The vote was 6 to 1 in favor of Gray’s motion, with the mayor being the lone “No” vote.

Analysis

This action by the Wichita city council, being nearly unanimous, is very much different from its action just one week ago, when it employed one new method plus several existing methods to heap millions in subsidy on a downtown hotel developer.

Today’s discussion is another illustration of just how difficult it is to pick winners and losers, and how difficult it is to choose which companies the city should invest in. This is why I have recommended that Wichita grant tax abatements on all new capital investment.

Today’s action is especially cruel to the subject company. In the past, city staff has argued that withdrawing tax abatements when a company is struggling is harmful. In December 2008, economic development director Bell said this regarding a company that had not met its performance commitments: “I don’t think it would be productive at this time to further penalize them — as the market has already penalized them — by putting them back on the tax roles at this time.” This is further evidence that taxes are harmful to business and economic growth.

Council member Williams’ question about hiring and then quickly firing employees indicates that she must not be familiar with the costs of hiring and firing. Furthermore, a company’s unemployment insurance premiums are based on its history, and actions like this would certainly raise premiums by a large amount.

Extension of EDX Tax Exemption (Sharpline Converting, Inc.)

Urban planning discussed on Kansas Week

Economist, author, and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole discusses urban planning and redevelopment on the KPTS Television public affairs program Kansas Week. Tim Brown is the host.

Coverage of O’Toole’s visit to Wichita is at Randal O’Toole discusses urban planning in Wichita.