Wichita city council campaign finance reform

Some citizen activists and Wichita city council members believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

On December 1, 2015 the Wichita City Council considered an ordinance regarding campaign finance for city elections. A Wichita Eagle article on the topic started with: “A proposed change in city ordinance would allow corporations, labor unions and political action committees to have a greater influence on Wichita politics. For years, city elections have remained insulated from the power of those groups, unlike national and state elections, because Wichita ordinance specifically forbids them from contributing to local campaigns.” 1

The city believed the proposed action was necessary to comply with recent court rulings. Under the proposed ordinance — which was passed by the council — corporations, labor unions, and political action committees would be able to make a single campaign contribution per election cycle of up to $500, the same limit as for individuals.

During the council meeting, citizens testified as to the terrible consequences should the council pass this ordinance. Here are a few excerpts taken from the minutes of the meeting:

  • “Citizens United has unleashed Frankenstein monsters purchasing our government with their pocket money.”

  • “Stated corruption and conflicts of interest have become institutionalized and what City legal counsel suggests will sell the Council and the City of Wichita to the highest bidder.”

  • “Stated according to a lengthy report last week, by the Pew Research Center, across party lines people are distrustful and concerned about big money in politics.”

  • “Stated big money does not donate, it invests and buys democracy. Stated she is asking the City Council to keep big money out of the City Council elections.”

  • “Allowing big money into City elections is a concern.”

  • “Stated the City has been independent and has a freedom from influence that the state and the nation do not enjoy. Stated you will then be under the thumb of people who want to control you. which is scary to those of them who are highly opposed to this situation and hopes that the Council will think of them and how this vote will benefit them.”

  • “Stated the League [of Women Voters] has studied campaign finance over the years at all three levels. Stated they are currently involved in the study of money and politics and their position currently reads that they want to improve the methods of financing political campaigns in order to ensure the public’s right to know and combat corruption and undue influence, which is their biggest concern.”

In its reporting after the meeting, the Eagle reported more concern: 2

But those who oppose the measure said they were concerned about opening up local elections to party-affiliated groups like PACs and about transparency since PACs do not have to report their individual donors.

“Individuals should decide elections, not corporations,” Frye said.

Several members of the public spoke against the changes.

“People in the shadows are going to be pulling your strings,” said Russ Pataki.

“It’s very worrisome what big money has done to state and national politics. The city has been independent (of that),” said Lynn Stephan to the council before the vote. “You have a freedom from influence the state and nation don’t enjoy.”

So, people are concerned about the corrupting influence of political campaign donations from corporations and political action committees. Citizens — and the Wichita Eagle — believe that currently the city council is free from this influence.

But the reality of city council campaign financing is different.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
In my testimony at the December 1 meeting, I explained that there are a few corporations that stack campaign contributions in a way that circumvents prohibitions. Although I did not mention it at the meeting, sometimes campaign finance reporting laws allowed this to happen without disclosure until after relevant action had happened. To illustrate, here is a timeline of events involving just one company and its campaign contributions.

2008 and 2009
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $3,000.

2010 and 2011
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Carl Brewer campaign, totaling $4,000. Brewer was Wichita mayor running for re-election in 2011.

Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign, totaling $4,000.

2012
The City of Wichita is preparing to build a new airport terminal with a cost of around $100 million. Key Construction and Dondlinger and Sons Construction are two bidders. The contract is controversial. Dondlinger submitted a lower bid than Key, but it was alleged that Dondlinger’s bid did not meet certain requirements.

January 24, 2012
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the James Clendenin campaign, totaling $3,000.

Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
April 2, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission, totaling $4,000. At the time, Longwell was a Wichita city council member.

April 17, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $4,000.

July 16, 2012
An executive of a Michigan construction company and his wife contribute $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for county commission. The company, Walbridge, is partnering with Wichita-based Key Construction to bid on the Wichita airport terminal contract.3

July 17, 2012
The Wichita city council votes in favor of Key Construction and Walbridge on a dispute over the airport terminal contract, adding over $2 million to its cost. Brewer, Longwell, Williams, and Clendenin participated in the meeting and voted. City documents state the job of the council this day was to determine whether the staff who made the decision in favor of Key Construction “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.”4

July 20, 2012
An additional $2,250 in contributions from Walbridge executives to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission campaign is reported.

January 2013
Williams and Clendenin file campaign finance reports for the calendar year 2012. This is the first opportunity to learn of the campaign contributions from Key Construction executives and their spouses during 2012. For Williams, the Key Construction-related contributions were the only contributions received for the year. Clendenin received contributions from Key Construction-related individuals and parties associated with one other company during the year.

Is there a pattern? Yes. Key Construction uses its executives and their spouses to stack individual contributions, thereby bypassing the prohibition on campaign contributions from corporations. This has been going on for some time. It is exactly the type of corrupting influence that citizens are worried about. It has been taking place right under their eyes, if they knew how or cared to look. And Key Construction is not the only company to engage in this practice.

Just to summarize: The Wichita city council was charged to decide whether city officials had “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.” That sounds almost like a judicial responsibility. How much confidence should we have in the justice of a decision if a majority of the judges have taken multiple campaign contributions from executives (and their spouses) of one of the parties?

In some ways, it is understandable that citizens might not be aware of this campaign contribution stacking. The campaign finance reports that council members file don’t contain the name of contributors’ employers. It takes a bit of investigation to uncover the linkage between contributors and the corporations that employ them. For citizens, that might be considered beyond the call of duty. But we should expect better from organizations like the League of Women Voters.

Certainly there is no excuse for the Wichita Eagle to miss or avoid things like this. Even worse, it is disgraceful that the Eagle would deny the problem, as it did in its November 23 article quoted above.

In summary, some citizen activists — most council members, too — believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

Political campaign contributions are a form of speech and should not be regulated. What we need are so-called pay-to-play laws, which regulate the linkage between campaign contributions and council member participation in matters that benefit donors.5

Either that, or we need council members with sufficient character to recognize when they should refrain from voting on a matter.


Notes

  1. Ryan. Kelsey. Wichita City Council considers changes to campaign finance, salaries. Wichita Eagle, November 23, 2015. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article45993895.html.
  2. Ryan, Kelsey. Wichita council votes to change local campaign finance law, raise council salaries. Wichita Eagle, December 1, 2015. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article47329045.html.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell. Voice for Liberty. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/michigan-company-involved-in-disputed-wichita-airport-contract-contributes-to-jeff-longwell/.
  4. Wichita City Council agenda packet for July 17, 2012.
  5. Weeks, Bob. *Kansas needs pay-to-play laws.” Voice for Liberty. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/kansas-needs-pay-to-play-laws/.

In Wichita, bad governmental behavior excused

A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell.

A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell. From May 2015.

In a column just before the April 2015 Wichita election, Bill Wilson, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, reported on fallacies during the mayoral campaign, fallacies he called “glaring.” 1 But only a juvenile interpretation of the facts surrounding the events could find them fallacious. This is especially troubling since Wilson covered city hall as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.

The first reported fallacy concerns the award of the contract for the new Wichita airport terminal. Jeff Longwell, then a city council member, had received campaign contributions from executives of Key Construction, the local company bidding on the contract. He also received contributions from Walbridge, the Michigan partner of Key. The Walbridge contributions are problematic, as they were made just a few days before the vote. More arrived a few days after Longwell’s vote. 2

In his column Wilson had an explanation as to why the council voted the way it did. That explanation was a matter of dispute that the council had to resolve. But the validity of the explanation is not the point. The point is something larger than any single issue, which is this: The Wichita city council was asked to make decisions regarding whether discretion was abused or laws were improperly applied. It is not proper for a council member to participate in decisions like this while the ink is still wet on campaign contribution checks from a party to the dispute. Jeff Longwell should not have voted on this matter.

For that matter, several other council members should not have voted. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received substantial campaign contributions from Key Construction executives several months before he voted on the airport contract. So too did Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) . In fact, the only contributions Williams received in 2012 were from Key Construction interests. 3

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
Then we have Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Here he’s pictured fishing with his friend Dave Wells of Key Construction. Do you think it is proper for the mayor to have voted in a quasi-judicial role on a matter worth millions to his fishing buddy? How do you feel about the mayor voting for no-bid construction contracts for his friend? Contracts that later were found to be overpriced? 4

In Wichita, city council members receive campaign contributions while participating in a quasi-judicial proceeding involving the contributors. This doesn’t seem to be improper to the Wichita Business Journal. But it isn’t alone. The Wichita Eagle doesn’t object to any of this. Well, maybe once in a while it does, but not very strenuously or for very long.

Another problem: Wilson dismisses the claim that Longwell was able to exert much influence over the other six council members in order to benefit a project in his council district. But during the campaign, Longwell eagerly took credit for the good things that the city council did. Though Longwell was but one of seven votes, his commercials made it seem like he performed these deeds all by himself. But when things go wrong, well, he’s just one of seven votes.

The last fallacy Wilson objects to is this: “The idea that a $500 campaign contribution buys a vote, a specious claim by Americans for Prosperity that inexplicably lives on. If a council member’s vote is for sale for $500, their stupidity trumps their corruption. And yet some of these false claims remain in political advertising, despite being debunked by two media outlets — and here.”

A few points: First, it’s not just a $500 contribution. We find many examples of individual $500 contributions from executives of the same company, along with spouses and other family members. The contributions are effectively stacked. Second, sometimes campaigns are funded to a large extent by these stacked contributions from just one or two firms. 5 Third, if these contributions are not seen as valuable to those who make them, why do the same small groups of business interests make the maximum contributions year after year?

As far as the claims being debunked: A few weeks ago I showed you the inexplicably bad reporting from the Wichita Eagle. 6 The Business Journal didn’t do any better.

Wilson’s op-ed seems more like an audition for a job at city hall than a critical look at the campaign and its issues. Making a move from news media to a government job in communications is a common career move. There are three former journalists working in Wichita city hall. One former Wichita Eagle reporter went to work for the Wichita school district. There are many examples in Topeka. It’s a problem when journalists who are supposed to be exercising watchdog duty over government agencies end up working for them. We can also recognize when journalists are auditioning for jobs in government.

Spirit Aerosystems tax relief

Wichita’s largest employer asks to avoid paying millions in taxes, which increases the cost of government for everyone else, including young companies struggling to break through.

Wichita’s largest employer asks to avoid paying millions in taxes, which increases the cost of government for everyone else, including young companies struggling to break through. From May 2016.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider offering Spirit Aerosystems economic development incentives that will allow the company to avoid paying some $45 million in taxes. This will be accomplished through the authorization of $280 million of Industrial Revenue Bonds. 1

Industrial Revenue Bonds are a vehicle for generating and conveying tax exemptions. 2 In the IRB program, government is not lending money, and Wichita taxpayers are not at risk if the bonds are not repaid. In fact, in the present case the applicant company plans to purchase the bonds itself, according to city documents. Instead, the purpose of the IRB process is to allow Spirit to escape paying property taxes and sales taxes.

Cost of Spirit Aerosystems incentives.
Cost of Spirit Aerosystems incentives.
Usually the agenda packet the city prepares for council members and the public contains the amount of tax expected to be foregone. For this item that summary is missing, and the sales tax exemption is not mentioned. I have prepared a table summarizing data from the analysis prepared for the city by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

Of note, the share of the cost of the incentives born by the City of Wichita is small, slightly less than one percent. The bulk of the cost is born by the State of Kansas, with the Derby School District and Sedgwick County facing smaller shares of the cost.

Also, the city is forcing a decision on a neighboring jurisdiction that it would not accept for itself, unless it uses one of many exceptions or loopholes. This adverse decision is forced upon the Derby School District. It faces a benefit-cost ratio of 1.16 to 1, which is below the city’s standard of 1.30 to 1, unless an exception is cited. 3 The Derby School District is not involved in this action and has no ability to affect the issuance of these bonds, should it desire to.

Besides this, the granting of these tax breaks calls into question the validity of taxation. If a company can be excused from tens of millions of dollars in taxes, can we say there is equal treatment under law?

Effect on young companies

When large companies receive tax abatements and exemptions, others must pay the cost of government. In particular, small and young business firms are usually not eligible for incentive programs like that being offered to Spirit, and therefore must bear a disproportional share of the cost of government. This is an important consideration, as Wichita is relying on entrepreneurship as a principle method of growing its economy.

The cost of these tax abatements burdens 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. This action — the award of incentives to an established company — is harmful to the Wichita economy for its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As this company and others receive incentives and escape paying taxes, others have to pay.

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.

Additionally, 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. But as we’ve seen in the unfortunate news emanating from several local companies, this is not the case. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Taxes for you, but not for me

Based on documents supplied by the city, Spirit will avoid paying $6,620,025 in sales tax through its participation in the IRB program. Kansans should be aware that our state has one of the highest sales taxes in the nation on groceries. The effect of this falls disproportionally on low-income households. 4

Spirit Aerosystems contribution to Yes Wichita

While Spirit seeks to avoid paying millions in sales tax, it campaigned for ordinary Wichitans to pay more sales tax. When Wichita placed a one cent city sales tax on the ballot in November 2014, Spirit Aerosystems contributed $10,000 to the group campaigning in favor of the sales tax. 5 Spirit’s immediate past president contributed $10,000 to the same effort.

Small business

This week American City Business Journals presented the results of a study of small business vitality in cities. 6 Wichita ranked at number 104 out of 106 cities studied. Awarding incentives to large companies places small business at a disadvantage. Not only must small business pay for the cost of government that incentivized companies avoid, small companies must also compete with subsidized companies for inputs such as capital and labor.

Finally, research has found that the pursuit of large companies doesn’t produce the desired growth: “The results show that large firms fail to produce significant net benefits for their host communities, calling into question the high-stakes bidding war over jobs and investment.” 7


Notes

  1. City of Wichita. Agenda for May 3, 2016. Available at wichita.gov/Government/Council/Agendas/05-03-2016%20City%20Council%20Agenda%20Packet.pdf.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  3. Sedgwick County/City of Wichita Economic Development Policy. Available at www.wichita.gov/Government/Departments/Economic/EconomicDevelopmentDocuments/City%20of%20Wichita%20Economic%20Development%20Policy.pdf.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Wichita sales tax hike harms low income families most severely. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-sales-tax-hike-harms-low-income-families-severely/.
  5. YES WICHITA INC. Receipts and Expenditures Report. December 30, 2014. On file at Sedgwick County Election Office.
  6. Wichita Business Journal. The State of Small Business: Wichita scores low in small biz vitality. Available at www.bizjournals.com/wichita/print-edition/2016/04/29/the-state-of-small-business-wichita-scores-low-in.html.
  7. William F. Fox and Matthew N. Murray, “Do Economic Effects Justify the Use of Fiscal Incentives?” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 71, No. 1, 2004, p. 79.

Kansas Justice Institute launched

The Kansas Justice Institute will be there to fight for citizens on school choice, civil asset forfeiture, personal property rights, occupational licensing and many other invasions of personal liberty.

A press release from Kansas Policy Institute.

Accountability For Outcomes Needed In New Formula, System Failing Too Many Kids

New Legal Organization to be Launched, Fight for Right of Individual Students & Other Kansans
May 1 — Topeka – A major announcement on school finance greeted legislators in the statehouse today as they returned from their April break. Legislators left early last month for their annual break without addressing the on-going Gannon school finance litigation and a group of Kansans made an announcement today that may impact how the legislature moves forward. Kansas Policy Institute, former Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, and education reform activist Pastor Wade Moore joined together to let all Kansans know that a new Kansas Justice Institute will be fighting for equal access to education established under state constitutional provisions as well as other constitutional issues (i.e., civil asset forfeiture, occupational licensing). Given the current status of the proposed new school funding formula, its first case could be representing students who are not being given access to the education they deserve.

Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute, offered the following, “We’re delighted and honored to be working with the Institute for Justice — the nation’s law firm for liberty.  Each year seems to bring more government encroachment on Kansans’ liberty, and something needs to be done.  The Kansas Justice Institute will be there to fight for citizens on school choice, civil asset forfeiture, personal property rights, occupational licensing and many other invasions of personal liberty.”
Specifically on K-12 finance and the current session Trabert said, “We hope the legislature will craft a formula that holds schools accountable for outcomes and requires any new money to be used for the exclusive, direct benefit of the 25% of students that the Court correctly identified as not meeting standards. But, if the legislature does not and students are not getting the education they deserve, then KJI will be there to represent parents and students as they fight to get the education each Kansas kid deserves.”

Kansas Justice Institute will be a new litigation center modeled on the renowned Institute for Justice (IJ), a national non-profit law firm that litigates to limit the size and scope of government power and to ensure that all Americans have the right to control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society.  The Kansas Justice Institute will do much the same for Kansans including fighting for equal access to public education established under state constitutional provisions.

Among many topics covered at today’s press conference, held in the Kansas Statehouse, is the need for more accountability for outcomes in K-12 education and in potential legislative remedy to Gannon. Over the life of the old formula school funding increased from $2.3 billion to $6.1 billion, setting another record for per-pupil spending last year and increasing 40% above long-term inflation. Despite this enormous funding increase, achievement remains unacceptably low for many students, especially low income students.What’s more, At Risk funding for low income kids increased by about $350 million since 2005 with no requirement that the money be used for the direct, exclusive benefit of the At Risk students. Meaning much of it was spent elsewhere.
Mike O’Neal, former Speaker of the Kansas House, addressed the legal aspects at today’s press event, “Between the Montoy and Gannon rulings, much has changed since 1993. There is a recognition of a constitutional right and new definition of “adequate” coupled with statutory standards. The Court has essentially paved the way for students in under-performing schools to have a legal remedy if their schools’ allocation of resources is not directed to addressing their educational needs and outcomes. We’re here to call attention to this constitutional guarantee of an education as a personal guarantee for each individual student.”

Pastor Wade Moore of Success for Kansas Students and founder of Urban Preparatory Academy in Wichita spoke at the press conference and said, “Our current educational system is to failing too many Kansas kids. All kids can learn and Urban Prep. is seeing success in helping the low income students who walk through our doors. This is a demand for change. We cannot just keep pushing kids along. Not only is a quality education a legal, constitutional right, it is a moral right. It is a moral right that our state is not honoring.” Pastor Moore pointed out the success their students are having is based on the STAR testing, an evaluation method used by public schools both within Kansas and around the country.

The Institute for Justice, the National Law Firm for Liberty, said the following upon learning about the launch of KJI, “The Institute for Justice enthusiastically welcomes a new member in the fight for liberty in America’s courts. We look to exploring opportunities to collaborate in the fight to bring greater protection for individual liberty to the people of Kansas.”

# # #

Kansas Policy Institute is an independent think-tank that advocates for free market solutions and the protection of personal freedom for all Kansans.  Our work centers on state and local economic policy with primary emphasis on education, fiscal policy and health care.  We empower citizens, legislators and other government officials with objective research and creative ideas to promote a low-tax, pro-growth environment that preserves the ability of governments to provide high quality services.

Clarifying the cost of tax breaks

Good Jobs First today lauded the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) for its latest formal guidance on how localities and states should disclose the costs of economic development tax breaks.

From Good Jobs First.

Good Jobs First Lauds Accounting Board for Clarifying Tax-Break Sunshine Rule

Washington, DC — Good Jobs First today lauded the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) for its latest formal guidance on how localities and states should disclose the costs of economic development tax breaks. Noting that the guidance apparently corrects at least one state auditor and some accounting firms, Good Jobs First called upon state officials and firms to publicize the new guidance and, if necessary, to revise and re-issue any erroneous instructions they may have given.

GASB’s latest Implementation Guide, released today, makes it clear that some forms of tax increment financing (TIF) and similar tax diversions or tax rebates are what GASB defines as “tax abatements” and therefore must be disclosed under GASB’s Statement No. 77. (See the Guide here, at Question 4.40.)

“Just because a government briefly receives a tax payment doesn’t mean the tax wasn’t abated. If the revenue is then diverted or rebated as part of an economic development agreement, and not for debt service, that’s an abatement,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, the watchdog group that advocated for Statement No. 77.

GASB’s guidance supports Good Jobs First’s criticism last week of Columbus Ohio for failing to report at least three tax-break programs as tax abatements in its 2016 financial report. The guidance appears to correct official advice recently issued to local governments by Ohio State Auditor David Yost, as well as statements from some private accounting firms in various states.

Oversight of local governments’ compliance with GASB’s rules is legally the domain of state auditors, comptrollers or treasurers. Private accounting firms often are retained by local governments to write their financial reports, following GASB’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP, to which Statement No. 77 is an amendment.

“We urge all concerned state officials and private accounting firms to be sure their instructions on Statement No. 77 are correct on TIF,” LeRoy said. “If they have issued erroneous instructions, we hope they will amend and re-issue them.”

Good Jobs First noted that the guidance will unfortunately not apply to the first round of Statement 77 disclosures now unfolding, because it does not take effect until reporting years starting after June 15, 2017. However, GASB (at Paragraph 6) encourages earlier adoption of the guidance. And because a majority of governments are on fiscal years starting July 1, the guidance means that most of the disclosures issued in 2018 will be covered by this clarification.

In its new guidance, GASB states in part (answering a hypothetical example):

The developer is promising to take the specific action of constructing a building for purposes of economic development, and the government is forgoing tax revenues to which it is otherwise entitled by providing some or all of the additional property tax revenues above the baseline to the developer. Although many tax abatements directly reduce the amount of taxes paid and do not involve the actual collection and return of taxes, the mechanism used to conduct the transaction is not relevant to determining whether a transaction meets the definition of an abatement. Therefore, the fact that the developer pays property taxes and subsequently receives amounts from the government related to the additional property tax revenues means that the government did, in substance, forgo tax revenues. [Emphasis added]

“We applaud GASB for its clarity in this matter,” said LeRoy. “It is consistent with GASB’s recurring advice that function matters, not labels. And because TIF is such a large tax expenditure in some states, today’s guidance augurs well for better disclosure nationwide.”

Besides TIF, also at issue are programs in which states or cities rebate incremental personal income taxes to companies. These “paying taxes to the boss” programs, as Good Jobs First has dubbed them, have the same effective structures and are therefore also reportable abatements, Good Jobs First believes.

States and localities also sometimes divert or rebate incremental sales taxes. In its 2016 Implementation Guide, GASB made it clear that, except when such revenues are used for debt service, they are also abatements to be reported under Statement No. 77.

Good Jobs First noted that when TIF revenues are applied to debt service, GASB has ruled that they are not subject to the new Statement No. 77-mandated disclosure. That’s because TIF bond debt service is already required to be disclosed in a different part of Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) under GAAP.

Good Jobs First’s newly revised summary of Statement No. 77 is here.

Good Jobs First is a non-profit, non-partisan resource center promoting accountability in economic development. Based in Washington DC, it was founded in 1998.

 

Economic development incentives in Wichita

Wichita politicians, economic development officials, and civic leaders bemoan the lack of incentives Wichita can offer. From April 2015, a deal under consideration illustrates what is available.

Wichita politicians, economic development officials, and civic leaders bemoan the lack of incentives Wichita can offer. From April 2015, a deal under consideration illustrates what is available.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider a forgivable loan to Figeac Aero North America related to its expansion of its Wichita facility. Following is an explanation of the various incentives and benefits planned for this company.

Figeac will receive forgivable loans of $250,000 each from Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita, with the State of Kansas adding $500,00, although it is not clear if that is a grant or forgivable loan.

City documents don’t mention this, but a letter from the Kansas Department of Commerce indicates that Figeac will benefit from the Promoting Employment Across Kansas program, commonly known as PEAK. This program rebates 95 percent of the state withholding taxes back to the company. An investigation from earlier this year showed that PEAK incentive payments can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions who earns $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week (for weekly payroll), or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children earning the same salary, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

Briefcase with moneyWe don’t know how much withholding tax Figeac employees will generate. An estimate is that with 200 employees earning $40,000, averaging the two withholding scenarios illustrated above, Figeac would receive $1040 * 200 * 95% = $191,900 per year in PEAK payments.

The Department of Commerce also offers tax credits through the High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP). This rebates, in the form of tax credits, 10% of the capital investment above $1.0 million. City documents state Figeac will invest about $21,000,000, with capital investment of $7,000,000 in machinery and equipment, which should qualify for HPIP credits. This means the company would receive tax credits equal to ($7000000 – $1000000) * 10% or $600,000. It’s possible that other expenditures would qualify for these credits. Tax credits are economically equivalent to a cash grant for both the state and the recipient.

The letter from Commerce also says the state will “underwrite a portion of the company’s actual expenses for training new employees.” No dollar value is given for this.

Finally, the city is issuing Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount up to $20,680,000. The city does not lend this money to Figeac. Instead, the purpose of the IRBs is to enable property tax and sales tax forgiveness. City documents are sketchy as to the amount of tax that will be saved, but documents state “After the five year exemption period, the new improvements would generate an estimated $82,470 annually for the General Fund and $29,196 for the Debt Service Fund.” This means the city alone is forgiving $111,666 per year in taxes. City documents usually give the amount of tax that overlapping jurisdictions are abating, but this information is missing. Based on relative mill levies for the county, school district, and state, I estimate the total property tax benefit at $414,000 per year.

The IRBs also carry a sales tax exemption. The $7,000,000 in machinery and equipment would be exempt from sales tax, and possibly some of the property improvements. If Figeac spent $10,000,000 in expenditures subject to sales tax, the one-time benefit to Figeac is $715,000.

The following table summarizes the benefits.

Summary of benefits for Figeac Aero

Study on state and local regulation released

Kansas Policy Institute released a study of regulation and its impact at the state and local level. This is different from most investigations of regulation, as most focus on federal regulations.

From April 2015.

Kansas Policy Institute released a study of regulation and its impact at the state and local level. This is different from most investigations of regulation, as most focus on federal regulations.

Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation coverThe study is titled “Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation.” It was conducted by the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University. Click here to view the entire document.

Following is an excerpt from the introduction by James Franko, Vice President and Policy Director at Kansas Policy Institute.

Surprising to some, the businesses interviewed did not have as much of a problem with the regulations themselves, or the need for regulations, but with their application and enforcement. Across industries and focus group sessions the key themes were clear — give businesses transparency in what regulations are being applied, how they are employed, provide flexibility in meeting those goals, and allow an opportunity for compliance.

Sometimes things can be said so often as to lose their punch and become little more than the platitudes referenced above. The findings from Hugo Wall are clear that businesses will adapt and comply with regulations if they are transparent and accountable. Many in the public can be forgiven for thinking this was already the case. Thankfully, local and state governments can ensure this happens with minimal additional expense.

A transparent and accountable regulatory regime should be considered the “low hanging fruit” of government. Individuals and communities will always land on different places along the continuum of appropriate regulation. And, a give and take will always exist between regulators and the regulated. Those two truisms, however, should do nothing to undermine the need for regulations to be applied equally, based on clear rules and interpretations, and to give each business an opportunity to comply.

Northwest High prank, some underlying facts

Instead of pranking, Wichita public school students and their leaders might consider a few facts.

Instead of pranking, Wichita public school students and their leaders might consider a few facts. From April 2016.

KSN News reported on an April Fools’ Day prank at Northwest High School in Kansas. The message is that the school is short of funds.

The KSN news story reported: “Wendy Johnson, the Director of Marketing and Communications for Wichita Public Schools also said, ‘This appears to be someone’s effort at a humorous April Fool’s commentary on the funding crisis that public education is facing in Kansas.'”

Also: “USD 259 Board of Education member Lynn Rogers called the prank, ‘very ingenious.’ Rogers says there was no harm done, but, the education funding issue is at its core, ‘no laughing matter. There’s some dark days for public education right now, and people have been very discouraged,’ Rogers said.”

When looking at this story, I wonder how the pranksters — likely students at the school — developed an opinion of issues like school funding. Who told them there was a “funding crisis?” Is that an opinion high school students developed on their own, or is it an opinion spoon-fed to them? The quotes from school district leaders provide the answer to that question.

It’s unfortunate that students are fed this opinion. Because when we look at actual numbers, the idea of a crisis doesn’t hold water. There is a lot of controversy over school funding in Kansas. Should teacher retirement fund contributions be included, or not? What counts as classroom funding? Should dollar amounts be adjusted for inflation, and at what rate? (Schools argue that their costs rise faster than the general price level.)

Schools tell us that their largest expenditure is on personnel costs. Across the country, the portion of current expenditures going to salaries and benefits hovers around 80 percent. 1

Enrollment and Employment at Wichita Northwest High School.
Enrollment and Employment at Wichita Northwest High School. Click for larger.
Looking at the number of school employees strips away most of the confounding factors and concentrates on the largest, and most important, cost schools face: Teachers and other employees.

Enrollment and Employment at Wichita Northwest High School. Click for larger.
Enrollment and Employment at Wichita Northwest High School. Click for larger.
As it turns out, Wichita Northwest High School shouldn’t be complaining about a funding crisis. For one thing, enrollment at this school is falling, from 1,580 in 2009 to 1,399 in 2015, a decline of 11 percent. While the number of teachers and certified employees has varied, the ratios of students to these employees has been level or declining.

Employment ratios in the Wichita school district. Click for larger.
Employment ratios in the Wichita school district. Click for larger.
For that matter, the ratios of students to teachers and certified employees for the entire Wichita public school district is on a long downward trend, with small interruptions.

  1. National Center for Education Statistics: The Condition of Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, Finance, Public School Expenditures. Available at: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp.

Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis

A document released by the City of Wichita casts strong doubt on the wisdom of a new home property tax rebate program. The document also lets us know that city staff are not being entirely honest with the citizens of Wichita.

From March 2012, a reminder of the inability of the City of Wichita to be truthful with taxpayers.

A document released by the City of Wichita casts strong doubt on the wisdom of a new home property tax rebate program. The document also lets us know that city staff are not being entirely honest with the citizens of Wichita.

The new home tax rebate program, according to city documents prepared for the February 14, 2012 city council meeting, provides free Wichita city property taxes to buyers of qualifying new homes: “To promote additional new home construction and new home ownership, the City of Wichita, after extensive coordination and discussion with WABA, is proposing a New HOME (New Home Ownership Made Easy) Program. The program will provide a 5 year rebate of City property taxes for eligible property. To be eligible, property must be in a participating development, with all taxes through 2010 (general and special assessment) current in the development. In addition, to be eligible, the special assessment and general taxes must be paid current at the date of sale and closing of a property.”

WABA is The Wichita Area Builders Association , a trade association for home builders. The document recently released is a study or analysis of the program dated February 1 from Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

During the period of the tax rebate program, the study estimates that 787 homes would be built and sold even if there was no rebate program. It is assumed that 1,000 homes would be sold during that period with the rebate program, but that is not certain.

Following is an excerpt from a table that presents the results of analysis. The benefits and costs are to the City of Wichita General Fund. Benefits are, according to the study, “sales tax revenues, from construction worker spending and construction material purchases, and property tax revenues.” The costs are the lost revenue due to the tax rebates.

                   No Incentives    Incentives
Public Benefits       $2,364,429    $3,004,315
Public Costs                  $0    $2,032,312
Net Public Benefits   $2,364,429      $730,457
Return on Investment      N/A           1.48

Some, undoubtedly, will focus on the return on investment (ROI) ratio of 1.48 if the tax rebate incentive is used. (There is no such ratio if there are no incentives, as there is no investment.) The study explains the ratio this way: “for every dollar invested, the city will receive the initial dollar plus an additional 48 cents in return.”

That sounds like a good deal, and the ratios like this that are calculated by CEDBR are often used by the city to justify incentives.

But there is another way to look at this deal: the net value to the city. In this case, if the city doesn’t offer the incentives, the benefits to the city are $2,364,429. If incentives are used, the benefits are $730,457. This means that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 to the better.

That’s right: Even though the city has an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high ROI, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment.

The analysis concludes that with the tax rebate program, there will be more construction jobs. But, caution the study authors: “Please note, the jobs supported in 2012 and 2013 are not net new jobs — they are jobs that already exist. The analysis simply identifies a funding stream for these jobs.”

In a separate but similar analysis dated March 22, 2012 prepared for Sedgwick County, some limitations of the analysis were itemized, as follows:

It was beyond the scope of this analysis to account for:

  • Changes in household consumption due to a change in homeownership.
  • The impact of renters who become owners. The program would likely encourage renters to become homebuyers. As these individuals leave the rental market, there may be adverse effects, including falling rental rates.
  • An increase in demand. Although an increase in new home purchases, above existing demand, is likely if incentives are offered, the actual increase in demand has not been quantified.
  • Any increase in demand that offsets future home purchases. It is likely that any increase in new home purchases will simply offset future home purchases as seen in the national Cash for Clunkers program.
  • A change in the price of new homes due to additional supply or higher demand.
  • A fall in home prices, or the associated tax collections, from existing homes. There is a strong likelihood that the increased demand in new homes could lower the value of existing homes.
  • Sunk costs. All costs associated with the creation of a new development, including specials, are viewed as sunk costs. Because they have already occurred, these sunk costs are not included in the analysis.
  • Increased cost of public services. Incentives provided to rural areas could increase public costs as new services are required, including roads, sewer, fire and the like. These increased costs are location specific and not included in the analysis.
  • Cost associated with not providing incentives. The costs associated with a poor new home market have not been analyzed. Without incentives, new home purchases are expected to be lower. This could have negative consequences to builders, developers and taxing entities.

Some of these problems I presented to the city council in my testimony delivered at the February 14th council meeting. Specifically, I warned council members of the devaluing of existing homes, the “cash for clunkers” effect, the costs of providing city services to homes that aren’t contributing property tax to pay for them, and the question of how much new activity will be induced: “Related to this is the question as to how much new activity this program will induce. Often government takes credit for all economic activity that takes place. This ignores the economic activity that was going to take place naturally — in this case, new homes that are going to be built even without this subsidy program … But, the city has to give up collecting property tax on all these homes — even the ones that would be built anyway.

In the case of a new home property tax rebate program for Sedgwick County, the study concludes that the benefit of the program to the county is negative $1,832,294 — a huge cost.

Missing candor

Now that the CEDBR study is released, we can see how city staff failed to present the entire economic impact of the tax rebate program to citizens. Here’s what city staff presented to council members, and by extension, all Wichitans:

“The Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University analyzed the fiscal impact of the proposed New HOME incentive program on the City’s General Fund. The analysis compares the present value cost of incentives to the present value benefits of direct and indirect jobs created and construction expenditures. In this case, a 1.48 to one ratio of benefits-to costs is reported.”

Every word in this statement is true. But what’s missing is that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 better off.

City staff had this information. Sources tell me, however, that staff did not present it to council members or the public before the council voted on the program. We are left with this conclusion: City staff presented only the information from the study that promoted the result the city wanted. This is lying by omission.

This is not the first time city staff has misled the council and the public. Regarding the economic impact of subsidies to the Ambassador Hotel, the city touted a positive cost-benefit ratio to one fund, while ignoring a negative impact to a much larger fund. The difference was a factor of 23 times. See Fact checking the Wichita Ambassador Hotel campaign.

At some time council members and citizens need to demand that someone be held accountable for this behavior. Demands for accountability are not likely to come from the city council, as many members have shown themselves willing to overlook all facts and reason in order to promote their goals. The editorial board of the Wichita Eagle does the same. It remains important for citizens to perform this watchdog function.

Wichita Eagle reporting on this matter is at Sedgwick County won’t join property tax rebate for new-home buyers.

Kansas newspapers against the children

A Kansas newspaper editorial illustrates that for the establishment, schools — the institution of public schools, that is — are more important than students.

apple-wormA Kansas newspaper editorial illustrates that for the establishment, schools — the institution of public schools, that is — are more important than students. From March 2014. The issues are the same today.

An unsigned editorial in the Garden City Telegram proclaimed “Another attempt to undermine public schools materialized last week in the Kansas Statehouse.” (Legislators turn to ALEC for poor plan on schools, March 25, 2014.)

What was in a bill that so worried the Telegram editorial writers? According to the op-ed, the dangerous provisions are “expansion of charter schools, overhaul of teacher licensing and tax breaks for private school scholarships.”

To the Telegram, these ideas are “radical” and would “undermine” public schools. These ideas are from American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), purportedly funded by Charles and David Koch. To low-information newspaper editorialists, the source of an idea alone is sufficient evidence to condemn it. To buttress its argument, the Telegram mentions the Koch Brothers several times along with Americans for Prosperity, the tea party, and other “special interests.”

What’s curious is that the op-ed says “ALEC promotes concepts of free-market enterprise and limited government, which are worthy of discussion in legislative pursuits.” It’s good that the op-ed writers realize this. Very good.

But the next sentence criticizes ALEC’s “one-size-fits-all approach.” That’s a strange claim to make. The education reforms that ALEC supports — and the public school establishment hates — are centered around providing more choices for students and parents. The public schools that the Telegram defends are the “one-size-fits-all approach.” School choice programs foster diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurship in education. Government schools are the opposite.

Further, these school choice programs do not “target” public schools, as claimed in this op-ed. It is true that school choice programs provide competition for public schools. But to say that giving choices to parents and students is targeting public schools assumes a few things: First, it assumes that the institution of public schools is more important than Kansas schoolchildren.

Second, it assumes that public schools are somehow more worthy of taxpayer funds than are charter schools and private schools. But should taxpayer funds be spent where government school bureaucrats want, or where parents believe their children will get the best education?

Third, allowing and encouraging competition is not “targeting.” Proclaiming this reveals a lack of understanding of economic competition in markets. In the jungle, the winners kill and eat the losers. But in markets, competition is a discovery process. Competition spurs people to innovate with new products, or become more efficient. As new products and services are discovered and refined through competition, the old products and services must adapt or fall by the wayside. But the old stuff doesn’t die, as do animals in the jungles. People and capital assets from failing enterprises are recycled into the new successful enterprises, and life goes on — except everything is better.

That’s the real problem. Kansas schools are not getting better. Editorials like this are part of the problem. It doesn’t help that the Wichita Eagle excerpted this editorial.