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The harmful effects of Wichita’s special tax favors

In the past few weeks a handful of companies in Wichita have asked to be exempted from paying property taxes on investments they have made. This week Wichita may decide to grant special tax treatment to a large development in downtown Wichita.

Is it wise for the City of Wichita to grant these special tax favors?

Because capital for investment is in short supply, it is important that our economy allocate it where it does the most good, where it is valued most. Markets do a very good job of this when they operate free of government meddling. When government intervenes, however, decisions about how to allocate investment capital will be made for all sorts of non-economic reasons.

Here in Wichita, for example, there are some who believe that downtown Wichita suffers from underinvestment when compared to some of the city’s outlying areas. These people — many of them holding political office or a quasi-governmental position — seek to use government and its ability to tax (or not to tax) to achieve their goals. They have passed measures like the sales tax to fund the downtown Wichita arena. Downtown developers and businesses are given tax breaks, tax abatements, and they may obtain low-interest loans backed by the credit of the City of Wichita. A special tax district overlays downtown, with the proceeds being used to promote downtown’s interest in receiving more governmental largesse. Downtown is also filled with special tax increment financing or TIF districts, where property tax revenues that would normally be used to fund the general operations of government are instead diverted to enhance the profitability of the developer’s project.

All this favorable treatment means that projects that would not be feasible on their own merits are undertaken because they satisfy a political agenda. This results in misallocation of scare capital. It’s also not fair to those who risk their own capital without receiving special government favor, meaning that we may have less investment overall in Wichita because of reluctance to compete with tax-favored investors.

This interventionism is also harmful in that it creates a special class of firms: those firms who have asked for and received government favor. They gain a competitive advantage over their direct competitors. As Karl Peterjohn of the Kansas Taxpayers Network has taught me, these firms also have a competitive advantage over other firms of all types in Wichita. That’s because firms of all types that don’t receive special tax favors have higher overhead, and therefore may not be able to compete with the tax-favored firms in paying attractive wages to obtain employees.

This interventionism is harmful again because it creates a class of political entrepreneurs rather than market entrepreneurs. Instead of seeking to create products and services that please customers, they seek to please politicians and bureaucrats. This behavior, called rent-seeking, produces nothing of value to the economy as a whole.

Furthermore, if what those who seek special tax treatment say is true, that is, that the projects they propose would not be feasible if they had to pay their taxes, we have a serious problem: we have taxes that are so high that they inhibit private investment.

Finally, when government reduces someone’s tax and doesn’t reduce its own spending, the rest of the taxpayers have to make up the difference.

I propose a partial solution to this problem that will help our leaders become aware of the cost of this problem, and will also alleviate some of the inequity. When the City of Wichita (or any other taxing authority) grants special tax treatment, it must reduce its spending by the same amount. By following this simple rule, the City can be reminded of the cost of granting special tax favors, and the rest of us won’t have to pay for them.

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