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Wichita cheers its planned economy

While success in growing a company is welcome in Wichita, there are broader issues that affect the rest of the metropolitan area.

Tweet from Wichita city officials
Tweet from Wichita city officials
This week the Wichita City Council extended a property tax abatement for a manufacturing company in Wichita. The tax abatement was granted under the city’s Industrial Revenue Bonds program. Under this program no city money is lent to the company. The sole reason for the bonds is the accompanying property tax exemption, and in some cases, a sales tax exemption.

City documents from 2008 estimate the company will avoid paying $239,051 in property taxes for the first year. Savings for subsequent years are probably similar. This week’s action by the city council extends this benefit for another five years.

While the city’s economic development staff cheers the company’s success, important questions are not addressed. Perhaps the most important question is this: Was this tax abatement necessary for this expansion to proceed? City documents are silent on this question. At the 2008 council meeting the necessity of the tax abatement was not mentioned or discussed.

Why were the bonds necessary? The company did not lack access to credit, as city documents state the company purchased the bonds itself. The company either had cash, or access to credit.

Was it a question of feasibility? Some economic development programs require that the applicant demonstrate the necessity of an incentive. Often the city presents a “gap” analysis that purportedly shows a gap between available financing and what is necessary to make the project feasible. Something like this.

But no such claim was made for this matter.

Perhaps this proposed expansion just barely missed being economically feasible, and if the company could avoid paying the same property taxes that most everyone else pays, the project would be feasible.

But this argument was not advanced. If it had been, then we would be stuck with the question of why are Wichita industrial property taxes so high that investments like this are not feasible?

The city presents a benefit-cost ratio showing that by giving up some property taxes, it gains even more tax revenue from other sources. But a positive benefit-cost ratio is not remarkable. Economic activity generally spawns more economic activity, which government then taxes. The question is: Did the city, county, school district, and state need to give up tax revenue in order to make this investment possible? (That’s right. The action by the city affected three other jurisdictions.)

No one made that argument.

Part of the cost of this company’s investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify which firms will be successful. So we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. The action the Wichita city council took this week works against entrepreneurial firms. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

The problem with this action

A major reason why this action is harmful to the Wichita economy is its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As this company and others escape paying taxes, others have to pay. This increases the burden of the cost of government on everyone else — in particular on the companies we need to nurture.

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Wichita economy.

These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies receiving grants or escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form. Young entrepreneurial companies are particularly vulnerable.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development PolicyProfessor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”

(For a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view, see Research on economic development incentives. A sample finding is “General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).”)

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates for everyone is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like the Wichita city council used this week is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

In explaining the importance of dynamism, Hall wrote: “Generally speaking, dynamism represents persistent, annual change in about one-third of Kansas jobs. Job creation may be a key goal of economic development policy but job creation is a residual economic outcome of business dynamism. The policy challenge centers on promoting dynamism by establishing a business environment that induces business birth and expansion without bias related to the size or type of business.”

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach, especially the policies that prop up our established companies to the detriment of dynamism. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.

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