In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita sells a hotel, more subsidy for downtown, Kansas newspaper editorialists fall for a lobbyist’s tale, how Kansas can learn from Arizona schools, and government investment. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 131, broadcast October 30, 2016.
Tip to the Wichita Eagle editorial board: When a lobbying group feeds you statistics, try to learn what they really mean.
When investigating the claims of a lobbying group, Kansas Policy Institute found that the statistics — when examined closely — do not support the narrative the group promotes. Unfortunately, the Wichita Eagle editorial board did not examine the group’s claims closely enough to determine their validity.
At issue is the claim that transfers from the Kansas highway fund have lead to the loss of highway construction jobs. It’s repeated not only by the state’s highway construction lobbyists, but also by others. The statistics that are cited deserve further investigation, which is what KPI did on its article Media and highway contractors mislead again. KPI’s Dave Trabert found:
Had the Eagle bothered to examine Mr. Totten’s claim, they would have learned that only 2 percent of the construction job decline was attributable to highway construction and that the loss of 100 jobs is less than 1 percent of total highway jobs.
In addition to learning that Mr. Totten was grossly exaggerating, they would have learned that employment for construction of new homes and non-residential buildings showed very nice growth and the real problem is in specialty trade contractors for non-highway projects.
Trabert is referring to the Wichita Eagle editorial board citing figures from a self-interested lobbying group — in this case, Bob Totten, executive vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association — without investigating the true nature of the figures.
I’ve taken the same numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because these values are available only in not seasonally adjusted form, I’ve created a chart using the moving average of the past 12 months. A second chart shows the change from the same month of the previous year. The charts confirm what KPI found, which is employment in the “Heavy and Civil” category is not responsible for the decline in Kansas construction jobs. In fact, employment in this category is on an upward trend over the past 18 months. It is employment in the category “Specialty Trade” that has fallen. This isn’t related to highway construction.
This data is available in an interactive visualization which you may access here. For more information on highway spending in Kansas, see Kansas highway spending.
The depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena.
The true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters cite a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.
There hasn’t been much talk of the arena’s finances this year. But in February 2015 the Wichita Eaglereported: “The arena’s net income for 2014 came in at $122,853, all of which will go to SMG, the company that operates the facility under contract with the county, Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said Wednesday.” A reading of the minutes for the February 11 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission finds Holt mentioning depreciation expense not a single time.
In December 2014, in a look at the first five years of the arena, its manager told the Wichita Eagle this: “‘We know from a financial standpoint, the building has been successful. Every year, it’s always been in the black, and there are a lot of buildings that don’t have that, so it’s a great achievement,’ said A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager.”
I didn’t notice the Eagle opinion page editorializing this year on the release of the arena’s profitability figures. So here’s an example of incomplete editorializing from Rhonda Holman, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.” (Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle in 2013 did not mention depreciation expense, either.)
All of these examples are deficient in some way, and contribute only confusion to the search for truthful accounting of the arena’s finances. As shown below, recognizing depreciation expense is vital to understanding profit or loss, and the “net income” referred to above doesn’t include this. In fact, the “net income” cited above isn’t anything that is recognized by standard accounting principles.
The problem with the reporting of Intrust Bank Arena profits
There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.1
This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2105, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $1,150,206, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share was $375,103.
While described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”2
That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.
A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County.3 This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially last year. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”
Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:
The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any, and naming rights fees. The Arena Fund had an operating loss of $4.1 million. The loss can be attributed to $4.4 million in depreciation expense.
Financial statements in the same document show that $4,443,603 was charged for depreciation in 2015, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $30,791,307.
Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $4,443,603 to pay depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.
But not many of our public leaders recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”
Earlier in this article we saw examples of the Sedgwick County Assistant Manager, the Intrust Bank Arena manager, and several Wichita Eagle writers making the same mistake.
The contention — witting or not — of all these people is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) in the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to this view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds. Since Kansas is one of the few states that adds sales tax to food, low-income households paid extra sales tax on their groceries to pay for the arena — an arena where they may not be able to afford tickets.
Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently. The Wichita Eagle aids in promoting this deception.
We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.
Management Agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG. August 1, 2007. Available here. ↩
The Operations of INTRUST Bank Arena, as Managed by SMG. December 31, 2015. Available here. ↩
Sedgwick County. Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of the County of Sedgwick, Kansas for the Year ended December 31, 2015. Available here. ↩
Another nonsensical editorial from the Wichita Eagle.
This is contained in an editorial urging Sedgwick County government to “stop messing” with the zoo.1
Nor is there any justification for a “non-disparagement clause” in the proposed operating agreement about the zoo director’s public statements, including a prohibition against doing anything to bring the county or society “unwanted or unfavorable publicity.” Even if the county is right — and the society wrong — about the constitutionality of such a gag rule on a public employee, it’s an insult to longtime director Mark Reed’s professionalism and another case of the county trying to pre-empt criticism and punish critics.
It’s common for employees, especially those in managerial and executive positions, to have such agreements. Companies don’t want their employees bad-mouthing the company. I would not be surprised if Holman herself has such an agreement with her employer, the Wichita Eagle. Even if there is no such agreement, can you imagine how long she would last in her job if she started complaining in public about her low pay, her drab office, how her editor censors her best editorials, the crappy publisher, etc.
Employees have protection through whistleblower laws, so if there is corruption or criminality, employees can report it. And the fact that the zoo director is a government employee: I don’t know if that makes a difference, constitutionally speaking.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: New outlets for news, and criticism of the existing. Is Kansas government “hollowed out?” Ideology and pragmatism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 124, broadcast July 17, 2016.
Wichita’s mayor pens an op-ed that is counter to facts that he knows, or should know.
In the pages of the Wichita EagleWichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “The city of Wichita has held its mill levy steady for the past 22 years.”1
That’s the mayor’s opinion. The facts, as can be easily found in government documents, are that the Wichita mill levy rises nearly every year.2 Since 2005 it has risen every year.
The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say they have not taken action to raise the mill levy. They also say the mill levy is set by the county. All this is true.
But the county sets the mill levy based on two factors, one the city controls: The amount it decides to spend. The other factor, the assessed valuation of property, is not controlled by the city. So it is understandable that the mill levy may vary by small amounts from year to year when the two numbers are melded to form the actual mill levy. Some years the levy might rise, and in some years, it may fall. If it is a truly random matter, we should expect that over time the number of rising years and falling years should be equal, and that the overall change should be near zero.
But in Wichita, the mill levy rises nearly every year. And over time, since 1995, it has risen by 4.46 percent.
(Besides that, there has been a shift in the application of property tax revenue, with revenue was diverted from debt service to current spending. As recently as 2007 the city devoted 31 percent of property tax revenue to debt service. In 2015 it was 26 percent.)
What should concern Wichitans about their mayor’s op-ed is that he knows these facts. Or, at least he should. Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, Mayor Longwell has chosen to remain misinformed and/or uninformed, and to spread that to citizens.
Following are excerpts from the minutes of the August 7, 2012 council meeting, which Jeff Longwell attended as council member, and following that, video.
Wichita City Council, August 7, 2012
Bob Weeks 2451 Regency Lakes Court stated we say the City has not raised its mill levy in a long time and thinks it is true that this Council has not taken action to raise the mill levy, but it has increased. Stated in 2002 the City’s mill levy was 31.845 and last year 32.359, which is an increase of about half a mill or 1.6 percent. Stated we should also recognize that property tax revenue increased from about $83 million to $118 million dollars or 42 percent. Stated we did not experience anything near that in the rate of growth of population or inflation? even the two put together. Stated in the City sales tax collection for the same years, $41 million to about $55 million or 34 percent increase. Stated City revenues have increased quite a bit even though the Council has not taken explicit action to increase either the sales tax rate or the property tax rate. Stated another thing he is concerned about is shifting one mill of property tax revenue from the debt service fund to the general fund. Stated over the past years since 2007 there has been a shift of about 2.5 mills, which is more than the explicit policy of one mill, which will be ending over the next two years. Stated we have not delayed paying off debt in the sense that we have not made our scheduled bond payments but that 2.5 mills could have been used to retire debt instead of supporting current spending. Stated we could have repurchased some of our outstanding bonds or we could have used that money to pay for things that we borrowed for. Stated we need to realize that we have been not taking advantage of opportunities to retire longterm debt and had been redirecting that spending to current fund spending, which is where Cowtown and the Nature Center come from. Stated we need to be aware of these types of things as we make the policies going forward.
Mayor Brewer asked staff to explain the figures that Mr. Weeks was talking about.
Kelly Carpenter Finance Director stated regarding the mill levy, they started out at 10 mills in the capital improvement plan. Stated they reduced that down to 7.5 mills and now we are gradually increasing that mill levy back up in the debt service fund to 8.5 mills over the next two years.
Council Member O’Donnell stated he was referring that the mill levy has actually increased.
Kelly Carpenter Finance Director stated the overall mill levy has not increased within the last 19 years. Stated there has been a shift between the general fund and the debt service fund but the overall mill levy of the 32 mills has not increased.
Council Member O’Donnell asked Mr. Weeks to return to the podium and asked where his figures are from.
Bob Weeks stated from the 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, page H17. Stated they are the numbers that he extracted from that report. Stated it may not be that this Council took an action to raise the mill levy but somehow it did increase.
Council Member O’Donnell asked staff to answer that.
Mark Manning Finance Department the mill levy is set by the county and what they tell the Council each year is that the mill levy in the proposed budget is not changed from the mill levy certified by the county, the prior year. Stated they do not know what the mill levy will be for 2013 right now and will not know until November when the county finalizes its evaluation. Stated it may be slightly higher or lower and that is why you see those annual fluctuations. Stated Mr. Weeks is correct? some years it goes up and some years it goes down a little bit. Stated it does fluctuate and there is nothing we can do to control that but the general policy has been to keep it level for the last 19 years.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Was it “Trump” or “Bernie” that incited a fight, and how does the Wichita Eagle opine? Economic development in Wichita. Blight and property rights. Teachers unions. Explaining capitalism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 117, broadcast April 24, 2016.
An event in Wichita that made national headlines has so far turned out to be not the story news media enthusiastically promoted.
When two Wichita State University students — one a Muslim and also a student leader — reported they were victims of a hate crime, national news media took up the story. A Washington Post headline read “‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ attacker allegedly yelled as he beat Hispanic man, Muslim student.” USA Today headlined with “Muslim student claims attacker yelled ‘Trump, Trump!”
From the Wichita Eagle: “A Muslim student at Wichita State University says he and a Hispanic friend, who also is a student, were attacked over the weekend by a man who shouted racial epithets and ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ before riding away on his motorcycle.” 1
The Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Kansas) demanded that the incident be investigated as a hate crime.
On this matter, Wichita Eagle editorialist Rhonda Holman opined “Yet, regrettably, Wichita is making national headlines this week for an incident early Saturday at the KwikShop at 21st and Oliver that’s being investigated by the Wichita Police Department as a hate crime. … As described, the deplorable incident further confirms that GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s divisive, nativist talk is finding an audience willing to not only vote for him but also target Muslims and ethnic minorities for verbal abuse and even violence.” 2
But now it is reported that one of the two student “victims” has been charged with a crime. 3 The police report charges that one of the students — not the Muslim student — “provoked another to commit battery or breach of peace by shouting ‘Bernie Sanders’ at Joseph Bryan, rolling up his sleeves and stepping toward him.” 4 Bryan, who is the motorcycle rider alleged to have used the word “trump” in a hateful manner — has been charged, also. But apparently not for using the word “trump,” as that word does not appear in the police report. No one has been charged with a hate crime.
So shouting “Bernie Sanders” doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a hate crime, while yelling “Trump” does. Go figure.
But there’s something else. The Wichita Eagle jumped all over this story, both the newsroom and opinion page. But so far I haven’t seen an Eagle story on the actual charges that have been filed. (Oh. As I write this, the Eagle has belatedly filed a small story.)
Now we have to wait and wonder whether the Eagle editorial staff will walk back its — shall we say, “regrettable” — conclusions drawn before facts were known.
Who knows what really happened? Does it really matter? Does a scuffle involving three young people in Wichita rise to the level of national news, and does it really say much about the state of race relations in America?
But if the police report accurately describes the event, I have to wonder what charges will be filed against the two WSU student “victims” for lying to the police and the public. Will the Eagle editorial board pursue this deception with the same enthusiasm it showed for covering the original purportedly “deplorable” act?
State and local leaders need to help meet Cargill’s needs2
The second headline was in response to the news story “Cargill plans to move its Wichita headquarters — but where?” 3 In this story, Carrie Rengers reports “Cargill is looking to move its Wichita headquarters, but whether that’s within downtown, where it already is, or outside of it or even outside of Kansas is unclear. … City and state officials are working in full gear to make sure Wichita — downtown specifically — is the option Cargill selects.”
Rengers reports that Wichita city officials say no specific incentives have been offered to Cargill, but “any incentives likely would involve infrastructure help, such as with parking, or assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says “cash incentive won’t be an option,” according to Rengers.
A Cargill official says that the company needs to attract millennials and younger people, who are not attracted to “traditional office space and office-type buildings.”
Now, consider the first opinion headline: “Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive.” In this op-ed, Phillip Brownlee writes “It’s encouraging that investment in downtown Wichita is continuing — and that it is mostly privately funded. A vibrant downtown is important to the city’s image and to attracting and retaining young adults. More than $1 billion in private and public investment has occurred downtown in the past decade. About $675 million of that investment has been privately funded, and $411 million has been public projects, according to Wichita Downtown Development Corp.”
Brownlee goes on to note other investments, such as 800 new apartment units “in the works.”
On the importance of downtown, Brownlee writes “City leaders have long recognized the value of a healthy downtown. Besides the symbolic importance of not having a lot of empty buildings, many young adults prefer an urban environment. That makes downtown important even for businesses not located there, because it can help or hurt their ability to recruit and retain young professionals.”
I see a discontinuity. Our city’s leaders — opinion, elected, and bureaucratic — brag about all the investment in downtown Wichita, public and private, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to retain a major Wichita employer in downtown.
At least editorialist Rhonda Holman recognizes the problem in her column: “It’s concerning that Cargill’s stated intentions to relocate and consolidate have not included a commitment to remain downtown or even in Wichita or Kansas.” What is her solution? “Elected and business leaders need to be creative and assertive in helping Cargill meet its needs.”
I share Holman’s concern. It’s very troubling that with $411 million in private investment over the past decade, downtown Wichita still isn’t attractive enough to retain Cargill, if the company’s intent to move is real and genuine. And advising the same group of people who have been in power during the decline of the Wichita economy to be “creative and assertive” is a solution?
One of the things that may be offered to Cargill, according to Rengers, is “assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” This is a big red flag on a very tall flagpole. If the city has regulations so onerous that they are a consideration as to whether to locate in Wichita, this is something that must be fixed immediately. But the instinct of the Wichita City Council and city bureaucrats is to create more regulations covering everything from the striping of parking lots to the personal hygiene of taxi drivers.
Mayor Longwell says there will be no cash incentives offered to Cargill. Instead, something like help with parking may be offered. This might take the form of building a parking garage for Cargill. We should ask: What is the difference between giving cash to Cargill and building a parking garage for Cargill’s use? There really isn’t a meaningful difference, except for Cargill. That’s because cash incentives are taxable income. Free use of a parking garage isn’t taxable. 45
Further, Cargill may qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas.6 This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. The original intent of this program was to lure companies to locate in Kansas, but in recent years the program has been expanded to include incentivizing companies to remain in Kansas. While this is a state program and not a city program under the mayor’s control, PEAK benefits are more valuable than cash.
How does Kansas state support for higher education compare to other states?
In the Wichita Eagle, Chapman Rackaway contributes a satirical look at Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and his handling of Kansas government. And, the governor deserves many of Rackaway’s jabs. But there is something that needs clarification, which is the contention that Kansas is a backwater state when it comes to higher education funding, at least compared to Washington state. (Chapman Rackaway: How about Brownback as K-State president?, April 8, 2016.)
Rackaway writes: “That Washington State could pay [departing Kansas State University president Kirk] Schulz so much more is unsurprising to anyone paying attention to states’ budget priorities.” He goes on to write that Kansas government has not prioritized higher education funding, and that Washington state recently committed to additional higher education support.
There are organizations that collect and present data on this topic. State Higher Education Executive Officers Association publishes a report titled State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) study 1 The figures used below are for the most recent year for which data is available.
According to this report, in fiscal year 2014, Kansas appropriated $5,648 per FTE. Washington’s figure is $5,700, or 0.9 percent more than Kansas. Over the past five years, Kansas appropriations per FTE fell by 15.8 percent. In Washington they fell by 20.6 percent. (Table 5)
For fiscal year 2013, higher education support per capita in Kansas was $342. In Washington, it was $197. The same table also reports higher education support per $1000 of personal income. In Kansas the figure is $7.70, and in Washington, $4.13. For Kansas, these two figures are 132 percent and 133 percent of the national average. (Table 10)
From these two data points — and these are not the only ways to compare — I think we can conclude that Kansas appropriates nearly as much as does Washington, on a per-student basis.
Further, Kansans are much more generous in supporting its public universities, when measured by per-capita contribution. (Calling Kansans generous with their taxes is a falsehood, as taxation has nothing to do with generosity, except the generosity of politicians with money that belongs to other people.)
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do corporations prefer markets or big government? Legislative malpractice in Kansas. Education reform, or lack thereof. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 115, broadcast April 3, 2016.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are a few things that make Bob wonder. Then, a troubling episode for Wichita government and news media. Finally, the harm of teachers unions. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 114, broadcast March 27, 2016.
The state’s largest newspaper has no good reason to avoid reporting and editorializing on an important issue. But that’s what the Wichita Eagle has done.
In November 2014 Wichita voters rejected a proposed Wichita city sales tax. The largest portion of that tax, $250 million, would have gone towards expanding the capacity of the Aquifer Storage and Recharge, or ASR, project.
The Wichita Eagle editorial board urged voters to approve the tax. It told readers that spending $250 million on ASR would “assure a future for Wichita with enough water.” “The needs are clear,” the editors wrote, adding “Investing in the aquifer project seems the best thing to do to anticipate and meet Wichita’s water needs.” The Eagle warned of “much higher water rates” if the sales tax is not passed.
Since voters rejected the tax to support that spending, the cost of providing adequate water has dropped, and dropped a lot. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the Wichita Eagle or by relying on our city’s other mainstream news media.
If you viewed a Wichita City Council workshop on December 1, however, you’d have learned that the city can provide adequate water for much less than $250 million. The rise in water bills will also be much less than what the Eagle and the city used to frighten voters into approving the sales tax.
So why hasn’t the Wichita Eagle reported on the December 1, 2015 workshop, in which Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King presented the new plans — plans which will cost much less? Why have there been no editorials celebrating that we can provide adequate water at much less expense?
I can understand the editorial writers not wanting to admit they had been duped. That’s human nature. But for the news division of the Eagle: Why no reporting on this?
As it happens, the newsroom of the Eagle was also a cheerleader for the sales tax and ASR project. As an example, the Eagle printed a fact check article that disputed claims made by opponents of the tax. When asked why there was not a similar fact check article on the proponents, the reporter said there were no errors to be found. Nothing. That was incredulous — unbelievable — at the time. There were many questionable claims made by sales tax proponents. In hindsight, we are even more certain of that.
The Eagle has plenty of reporting capacity, barrels of ink, and lots of online bandwith to report and editorialize on issues like who gets free parking at the Wichita airport. That’s important, perhaps, but trivial in terms of financial impact. But on this issue involving over $100 million in savings, there is silence.
The state’s largest newspaper has no good reason to avoid reporting and editorializing on an important issue. But that’s what the Wichita Eagle has done. We wonder why.
The letter-writer states: “It was also no surprise to read that his solution is very small and weak government.” Reading the Koch op-ed to which the letter-writer refers, I didn’t see a call for weak government. Generally, libertarians favor a limited government that is strong in protecting our rights and liberties and exercising the enumerated powers outlined in the Constitution. A limited government is very different from a weak government.
The letter-writer states: “The very, very rich people and corporations do not check themselves. The marketplace system they embrace as the sole solution encourages the accumulation of more and more wealth and power — and using that power to accumulate more wealth.” With a few exceptions, corporations do not embrace the marketplace, if by marketplace the writer means a system of free markets. Instead, as Charles Koch correctly notes, most corporations seek to constrain and limit the power of free markets. Milton Friedman diagnosed the situation correctly: “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system. Naturally, existing businesses generally prefer to keep out competitors in other ways. That is why the business community, despite its rhetoric, has so often been a major enemy of truly free enterprise.”
It’s difficult to do the things that Friedman says business must do in a market economy — innovate, be customer-focused, and be efficient. It’s far easier to hire lobbyists at the federal, state, and local levels to gain an advantage over your competitors. The harm of this system of cronyism is explained by Koch: “Perversely, this regulatory burden falls hardest on small companies, innovators and the poor, while benefiting many large companies like ours. This unfairly benefits established firms and penalizes new entrants, contributing to a two-tiered society.” It is government, not markets, that are creating two tiers of society.
Another complaint of the writer is that the rich “fund the multitude of foundations and university professors to pitch their philosophy attacking public schools and other public services.” Well, some rich people do, and thank goodness for them. If not for the generosity of Koch and a few others in founding organizations like The Cato Institute, there might be few sources of information besides a self-serving government or those who benefit from an expansive, meddling government. The latter are the corporations that the letter-writer complains use the marketplace to gain more wealth and power, but in reality are using government to do this.
As far as funding university professors, this serves as a useful and valuable check to the multitudes of taxpayer-funded public university professors who indoctrinate and condition students to embrace more government. Shouldn’t college students be exposed to a variety of views? That doesn’t seem to be what students are receiving: “Academics, on average, lean to the left. A survey being released today suggests that they are moving even more in that direction. Among full-time faculty members at four-year colleges and universities, the percentage identifying as ‘far left’ or liberal has increased notably in the last three years, while the percentage identifying in three other political categories has declined.” (Moving Further to the Left, Inside Higher Ed, October 24, 2012)
If you’ve ever wondered when is the time to start ignoring Wichita Eagle editorial cartoonist Richard Crowson, perhaps the time is now.
Here’s what Lawrence Reed had to say on the topic of this cartoon: “The fact is, one can scour the Scriptures with a fine-tooth comb and find nary a word from Jesus that endorses the forcible redistribution of wealth by political authorities. None, period.”
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does the elimination of sales tax exemptions hold the solution to Kansas budget problems? We have a problem with overcriminalization and the criminal justice system. Then, is there a difference between government and charity? View below, or click here to watch in high definition at YouTube. Episode 96, broadcast September 27, 2015.
Can eliminating sales tax exemptions in Kansas generate a pot of gold?
Advocates of eliminating sales tax exemptions in Kansas point to the great amount of revenue that could be raised if Kansas eliminated these exemptions, estimated at some $5.9 billion per year. Analysis of the nature of the exemptions and the amounts of money involved, however, leads us to realize that the additional tax revenue that could be raised is much less than spending advocates claim, unless Kansas was to adopt a severely uncompetitive, and in some cases, unproductive and harshly regressive tax policy.
A recent advocate for eliminating some sales tax exemptions is Phillip Brownlee of the Wichita Eagle editorial board. In a previous op-ed on this topic he wrote ” And with each added exemption, the state is losing out on more revenue — $5.9 billion this fiscal year, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue. That’s money the state could be using to cover its budget shortfalls, increase funding to public schools or further reduce its income-tax rates.” At least he mentioned reducing other tax rates. Usually advocates of closing sales tax exemptions simply want more tax money to spend.
$5.9 billion dollars, by the way, is a lot of money, almost as much as the state’s general fund spending. But we need to look at the nature of these exemptions. I’ve prepared a simplified table based on data from the Kansas Department of Revenue. I simplified because there are many deductions that probably should be eliminated, but they represent very small amounts of money.
Some sales tax exemptions are for categories of business activity that shouldn’t be taxed, at least if we want to constrain the state to a retail sales tax only. An example is exemption 79-3606 (m), described as “Property which becomes an ingredient or component part of property or services produced or manufactured for ultimate sale at retail.” The tax that could be collected, should the state eliminate this exemption, is given as $3,083.24 million ($3,083,240,000).
But this exemption isn’t really an “exemption,” at least if the sales tax is a retail sales tax designed to be levied as the final tax on consumption. That’s because these goods aren’t being sold at retail. They’re sold to manufacturers who use them as inputs to products that, when finished, will be sold at retail. Most states don’t tax this type of sales. If Kansas decided to tax these transactions, it would place our state’s manufacturers at a severe disadvantage compared to almost all other states.
There are two other exemptions that fall in this category of inputs to production processes, totaling an estimated $632 million in lost revenue. Another similar exemption is “Machinery and equipment used directly and primarily in the manufacture, assemblage, processing, finishing, storing, warehousing or distributing of property for resale by the plant or facility.” Its value is nearly $159 million.
Together, these exemptions account for $3,874 million of the $5,900 million in total exemptions.
Another big-dollar exemption is “items already taxed” such as motor fuel. This is an estimated $318.90 million loss in revenue. Other exemptions are purchases made by government, or purchase made by contractors on behalf of government. These account for an estimated $624.90 million in lost revenue. If these two exemptions were eliminated, the government would be taxing itself.
Not taxing prescription drugs means lost revenue estimated at $96.49 million. If the state started taxing residential and agricultural use utilities, it could gain an estimated $169.98 million. These taxes, like the sales tax on food and the motor fuel tax, fall hardest on low-income families. As Kansas is one of the few states to tax food, do we want to make life even more difficult for low-income households?
Adding these exemptions comes to about $5,084 million. There are other exemptions for which we could make similar arguments for their retention. What’s left over — the exemptions that really should not exist — isn’t much at all. The entire category of “Exemptions to Charitable Organizations by Name.” amounts to $3.05 million in exempted sales tax. These represent the organizations where a lawmaker has crafted an exemption like “Property and services purchased by Jazz in the Woods and sales made by or on behalf of such organization.”
So when the Eagle’s Brownlee writes “As is, favored groups are saving billions of dollars a year, worsening the tax burden for everybody else” he must be including broad categories of business like “All Kansas manufacturing companies” as a “favored group.” Or maybe he means prescription drug users are a “favored group.” Or families struggling to pay utility bills.
But there are more problems. Brownlee describes these sales tax exemptions as a “cost in lost revenue of $5.9 billion last fiscal year.” The only way this makes sense is if one thinks that our property (our money) first belongs to the state, and that in order to spend it, we have to give the state its cut. That’s an opinion — ideology, if you will — that you may agree with, or you may oppose. What’s remarkable — shocking, really — is that in his previous career Brownlee was a Certified Public Accountant. He ought to understand the nature of sales taxes meant to be applied to retail sales, not components of manufactured goods.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Congressman Mike Pompeo talks about passing legislation like the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, the Iran nuclear deal and his role in discovering the secret side deals, and other topics. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 94, broadcast August 30, 2015.
Sedgwick County taxpayers have been generous with funding for Wichita Area Technical College, and the former county manager has recommended reducing its funding.
During the July 16, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, county manager Bill Buchanan presented the recommended budget for 2015. It included a cut in funding for Wichita Area Technical College in the amount of $150,000. In response to a question, Buchanan told the commissioners:
“The new president has been assertive and aggressive in trying to deal with their financial issues. They have, he has turned that financial, that institution around financially. They are in pretty healthy shape. They have a fund balance that’s relatively strong, and it’s in my opinion that our subsidy, although it was critical in the beginning, is less critical in their operations now, and perhaps it would be time for us, when we face our own fiscal issues, to reduce their funding so we can address some of ours.”
Under the leadership of Chair Dave Unruh, this reduction in funding was approved.
At the January 7, 2015 meeting of the commission, again under the leadership of Unruh, the commission heard an off-agenda item to restore $50,000 of the funding for 2015, making the cut $100,000. That item passed. Being an off-agenda item, there is little or no public notice. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted this in his remarks: “I frankly would feel much more comfortable if we postponed this issue until we could get it published in the paper and have at least whatever public attention that that would generate provided, as opposed to taking another Off Agenda item that’s going to increase county spending.”
In support of Peterjohn’s motion to delay the decision for a week, Commissioner Richard Ranzau expressed concern over the lack of financial information made available to commissioners. He also repeated the manager’s recommendation that WATC needs less county funding: “Well, I’d like to have more financial information. It’s my understanding that since the state has increased funding for Vocational Ed, they’re doing very well, their reserves increased significantly, and that’s why, I mean, I was told the reason we could reduce it $150,000 was because they were doing so well. I support what they’re doing out there, but if they’ve had an influx of money from the state, a result of Vocational Ed legislation then I think it’s appropriate to adjust our spending, and I’m not prepared to increase it by $50,000 without more financial information, and that’s why I support Commissioner Peterjohn’s motion to postpone this a week so we can get more information and make a more educated decision on this. There is really no reason for hurry through this in my estimation.”
In summary, the Sedgwick County manager recommended that commissioners reduce funding to WATC, as its need for county funding has declined. Under commission chair Unruh, the commission did so, in the net amount of $100,000. The same amount is proposed for cuts this year. In light of this, the criticism of WATC beneficiaries like Spirit Aerosystems is unfounded.
By the way, the commission has been criticized for considering off-agenda items since Ranzau became chair in January, with the Wichita Eagle editorial board describing one off-agenda vote as “abrupt.” In another op-ed, Rhonda Holman complained that “The move came in an off-agenda item, with little opportunity for GWEDC and the business community to argue against it.”
Whether off-agenda items are good or bad public policy seems to depend on the whim of the Eagle editorial board.