WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita outreach, city council, and entrepreneurship

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at Wichita community outreach and communications, rewriting city council history, and entrepreneurship. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 102, broadcast December 6, 2015.

Shownotes

In Wichita, running government like a business

In Wichita and Sedgwick County, can we run government like a business? Should we even try? Do our leaders think there is a difference? From December 2014.

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Gary Schmitt, who is an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40” that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”

WichitaLiberty.TV: Senator Jim DeMint and Convention of States

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Former United States Senator Jim DeMint joins Karl Peterjohn and Bob Weeks to talk about the Convention of States. David Schneider, regional director for Citizens for Self-Governance also appears. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 175, broadcast December 9, 2017.

Shownotes

Historic preservation tax credits, or developer welfare?

A Wichita developer seeks to have taxpayers fund a large portion of his development costs, using a wasteful government program of dubious value. From December 2015.

When you hear of a program titled “historic preservation tax credits” you might find yourself in agreement. Preserving history: Who can be against that? And tax credits: Aren’t those just technical adjustments on someone’s tax form?

The Colorado-Derby Building, now renamed and used by the Wichita public school district.
The Colorado-Derby Building, now renamed and used by the Wichita public school district.
If you look closely, however, you’ll find that the historic preservation tax credits program can include buildings with only the slightest historic significance, and has great cost to taxpayers.

The Colorado-Derby Building at 201 N Water Street in Wichita has been nominated for placement on the Register of Historic Kansas Places. It’s a nondescript building which currently houses administrative offices for the Wichita public school district and is known by a different name. Still, it is eligible for placement on the register for being an “example of this private investment trend,” that being the building of office buildings midcentury. A laudable accomplishment, but hardly notable.

The real reason for seeking placement on the register of historic places is money. By using historic preservation tax credits the developer of this building can get taxpayers to pay for much of the costs of rehabilitation. Almost half, which will be millions in this case.

Under the program this building is entering, its owners will receive 25 percent of rehabilitation expenses. The federal government provides tax credits of 20 percent. It’s likely that the owners of this building will also seek these credits.

So with both tax credit programs, 45 percent of the cost of rehabilitating this building could be paid for by taxpayers. And, given the history of the developer, it’s likely he will find other ways to get taxpayers to pay for even more.

Tax credits

USD 259 Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center 2008-04-07 11Tax credits may be a mystery to many, but there is no doubt as to their harmful effect on state and federal budgets. When using tax credits, the government, conceptually, issues a slip of paper that says something like “The holder of this document may submit it instead of $500,000 when making a tax payment.” So instead of paying taxes with actual money, the holder of the credit pays with, well, a slip of paper worth nothing to the government treasury.

This is a direct cost to the government, according to both reason and the Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit. Last year, after conducting an audit of Kansas tax credit programs, auditors explained: “Tax credits, which the government offers to try to induce certain actions by the taxpayer, reduce income tax revenues because they are subtracted directly from the amount of taxes due.” (emphasis added)

The confusing nature of tax credits leads citizens to believe that they have no cost to the state or federal government. But tax credits are equivalent to government spending. The problem is that by mixing spending programs with taxation, some are lead to believe that tax credits are not cash handouts. But not everyone falls for this seductive trap. In an article in Cato Institutes’s Regulation magazine, Edward D. Kleinbard explains:

Specialists term these synthetic government spending programs “tax expenditures.” Tax expenditures are really spending programs, not tax rollbacks, because the missing tax revenues must be financed by more taxes on somebody else. … Tax expenditures dissolve the boundaries between government revenues and government spending. They reduce both the coherence of the tax law and our ability to conceptualize the very size and activities of our government. (The Hidden Hand of Government Spending, Fall 2010)

The use of tax credits to pay for economic development incentives leads many to believe that what government is doing is not a direct subsidy or payment. In order to clear things up, perhaps we should require that government write checks instead of issuing credits.

Back to Kansas: The audit of the historic preservation tax credits program found that in 2001, when the program was started, the anticipated cost to the state was about $1 million per year. By 2007, the actual cost to the state was reported at almost $8.5 million.

Further, the audit found what many already knew: tax credit aren’t an efficient way of transferring subsidy to developers. Most of the time, the developers sell the credits to someone else at a discount, as the audit explains: “The Historic Preservation Tax Credit isn’t cost-effective. That credit works differently than the other three because the amount of money a historic preservation project receives from the credit is dependent upon the amount of money it’s sold for. Our review showed that, on average, when Historic Preservation Credits were transferred to generate money for a project, they only generated 85 cents for the project for every dollar of potential tax revenue the State gave up.”

It would be more efficient for everyone if the state would simply write checks to the developers instead of issuing tax credits. But then the actual economic meaning of the transaction would be laid bare for all to see.

Then, what qualifies as historic can change as political conditions require. Earlier this year the Wichita city council reversed a decision by the Historic Preservation Board and allowed a property owner to proceed with the demolition of three formerly historic buildings in southern downtown Wichita.

The historic preservation tax credit program is a government handout mechanism we no longer need. Today, most of the money goes to wealthy developers or corporations that can afford to redevelop downtown hotels and lofts with their own money — instead of asking low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries to fund their tax credits.

Material from the Kansas State Historical Society
Nomination for listing on Register of Historic Kansas Places

Colorado-Derby Building – 201 N Water St., Wichita, Sedgwick County

Constructed in 1959-1960, the nine-story Colorado-Derby Building is an early example of a Modern Movement speculative office tower erected within a pattern of development that shaped Wichita’s downtown at midcentury. New buildings erected as icons on the skyline were intended to refresh, modernize, and revitalize the downtown core through public and private investment in civic and commercial improvements. Frank and Harvey Ablah recognized the onset of this trend and constructed the Colorado-Derby Building to provide speculative office space, redeveloping the site of the Ablah Hotel Supply Company. Named for its largest and most prominent tenant, the Colorado-Derby Building was fully occupied when it opened in 1960 and maintained high occupancy rates over the following decade. The construction and subsequent occupancy of this building illustrates the continuing importance of manufacturing industries to the economy of Wichita at midcentury and the ability of these industries to contribute to the economic and physical revitalization of downtown. The blocks immediately surrounding the building continued to develop in a similar fashion over the following decade with large-scale modern buildings and parking lots replacing smaller commercial and industrial buildings built a half-century earlier. All of this development activity culminated in a formal Urban Renewal project utilizing federal funds in the late 1960s. In Wichita, private investment focused on providing office space for industrial companies, rather than public funding initiated the revitalization that transformed downtown. The Colorado-Derby Building is nominated under Criterion A an important early example of this private investment trend.

In Wichita, we’ll not know how this tax money is spent

Despite claims to the contrary, the attitude of the City of Wichita towards citizens’ right to know is poor, and its attitude will likely be reaffirmed this week. From December 2016.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider approval of a contract with Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitor bureau. Once again, citizens will be left out of knowing how the city’s tax money is spent.

In the past, I’ve asked that Visit Wichita (formerly Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau) make its spending records available. It’s the same type of information that the city will send you about its own spending. But for Go Wichita, spending must — apparently — be kept secret.

It’s not a small amount of money that will be spent in secret. This year the city will send Go Wichita almost $2.5 million.1

But that’s not all. Since the implementation of the “City Tourism Fee” Visit Wichita collects 2.75 percent of hotel bills. (Welcome to Wichita! Here’s the bill for your tourism fee!) That’s estimated to generate $3 million in 2017.2

That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. We don’t have IRS filings from Visit Wichita since the city tourism fee started, so it’s difficult to say what portion of its funding is tax money. But it’s a lot, at least 90 percent.

Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Visit Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.

I’ve appeared before the council several times to ask that Visit Wichita and similar organizations comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. See Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability, City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request, and articles at Open Records in Kansas.

The lack of transparency at Visit Wichita is more problematic than this. Visit Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Visit Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.

The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.

In the past I’ve argued that Visit Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Visit Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Visit Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Visit Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $5.5 million next year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.

The city’s official page for the current mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Now is the chance to fulfill these promises. All the city needs to do is add to its contract with Visit Wichita that the agency agree that it is a public agency spending public dollars, and that it will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Visit Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.


Notes

  1. “The 2017 Adopted Budget includes funding for Visit Wichita’s annual allocation in the amount of $2,476,166, which is to be paid from the Convention & Tourism Fund.” City of Wichita. Agenda for December 20, 2016.
  2. “For 2017 the tax is budgeted to generate $3 million.” City of Wichita. Agenda for April 19, 2016.

Wichita bridges, well memorialized

Drivers on East Twenty-First Street in Wichita are happy that the work on a small bridge is complete, but may not be pleased with one aspect of the project. From December 2016.

The memorial plaque celebrating the accomplishment on East Twenty-First Street in Wichita. The flare from the sun is a defect of this photograph, not the marker. Click for larger.
The memorial plaque celebrating the accomplishment on East Twenty-First Street in Wichita. The flare from the sun is a defect of this photograph, not the marker. Click for larger.
It’s a small bridge, on East Twenty-First Street between Mosely and New York Streets. At 49 feet long it is designated a bridge by the Federal Highway Administration. And we’re glad it’s there.

But with city lane width guidelines for arterial streets at 11 feet, this four-lane bridge may not be not much longer than it is wide.1

The bridge on East Twenty-First Street. Click for larger.
The bridge on East Twenty-First Street. Click for larger.
Does it warrant the full commemorative treatment of a bronze plaque memorializing the elected officials and bureaucrats who happened to be in office at the time taxpayers paid for this bridge?

A city official told me that the plaque cost around $2500, and noted that the City Council approves them for each project.2

Why does the city spend so much on plaques for bridges that, in some cases, may not be much longer than wide? It’s a small matter, but these issues are symbolic of government’s attitude towards costs, and of some officials’ view of their own self-importance.

It’s presumptuous, that such a mundane accomplishment would be decorated so at the expense of taxpayers. More than this, it’s preposterous.

West Twenty-Ninth Street in Sedgwick County. Click for larger.
West Twenty-Ninth Street in Sedgwick County. Click for larger.
The City of Wichita is not alone. As I reported in The bridges of Sedgwick County are well marked, Sedgwick County does this, too. And doubly so. The bridge in Twenty-First Street in Wichita has one plaque, but even small bridges in Sedgwick County have two, one on each side.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita. *Street Design Guidelines, Approved by the City Council, December 2014. http://www.wichita.gov/Government/Departments/Planning/PlanningDocument/Street%20Design%20Guidelines-Final.pdf
  2. Email correspondence with Gary Janzen, Wichita City Engineer and Assistant Director Public Works & Utilities, November 28, 2016.

In Wichita, converting a hotel into street repairs

In Wichita, it turns out we have to sell a hotel in order to fix our streets. From December 2016.

Update: The Council approved these projects.

In September the Wichita City Council decided to sell the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Wichita for $20 million. Now the council will consider two proposals for spending this money.

One proposal is to spend $10 million on street repair, called “one-time pavement maintenance projects” in city documents.1

A second proposal is to spend $4 million on transit over the next four years. This is pitched as sort of a “bridge to sustainability.” That is, if the Wichita transit system can make it through the next four years, it can — somehow — become sustainable. The plan contains idea like this: “Extensive public education will be used to build ridership. Transit information will be available to a wider audience. Potential users will be engaged in more one-on-one manner.”2

Whatever the merits of these spending programs, Wichita is taking a capital asset and using it to fund current spending. In particular, street maintenance needs to be performed continuously. Here, the city has not been taking care of streets that taxpayers paid for and entrusted to the city for care. It turns out we have to sell a hotel in order to fix our streets. But street maintenance is something that needs to be performed — and paid for — every year. We shouldn’t have to rely on a sale of a capital asset to fund daily needs.

Following, from October, what the city should do with the Hyatt proceeds.

Wichita, give back the Hyatt proceeds

Instead of spending the proceeds of the Hyatt hotel sale, the city should honor those who paid for the hotel — the city’s taxpayers.

The City of Wichita has sold the Hyatt Regency Hotel for $20 million. Now, what should the city do with these funds? In a workshop this week, the city manager and council recognized that these funds should not be used for operating purposes. This is important. The Hyatt Hotel was paid for with long-term debt, which the city says has been retired. The proceeds from this sale should be used in a similar way: For long-term capital investment, not day-to-day operating expenses. But the council heard two proposals that are decidedly more like operating expenses rather than capital investment.

One proposal, presented by Public Works Director Alan King, is to spend $10 million on street repair over two years. Part of that expense is to purchase a new truck, which is a capital, not operating, expense. But King later revealed that the truck could be purchased out of the existing capital budget.

Street maintenance, however, is an operating expense.

A second proposal, from the Wichita Transit System, would use about $4 million to sustain and improve current bus service. It was presented to the council as a “bridge to a long term solution.”

This, too, is an operating expense.

As these proposals were presented in a workshop, no decision was made.

These two proposed uses of the $20 million Hyatt sales proceeds are contrary to the goal of not using the funds for operating purposes. If the city decides to use the sales proceeds in this way, a capital investment will have been sold in order to pay for day-to-day expenses.

Instead of spending on these two projects, the city should simply return the money to those who paid for the Hyatt in the first place. Those people are, of course, the taxpayers of Wichita. It would be difficult to give back the funds to individual taxpayers in proportion to the amount they supplied. So what the city should do is retire $20 million of the city’s long-term debt.

If not that, then the city should use the Hyatt proceeds to pay for another long-lived asset, perhaps the new downtown library. Either of these alternatives respects the principles of sound financial practice, and also respects the taxpayers.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita. Agenda for December 20, 2016. Agenda Item No. IV-2.
  2. City of Wichita. Agenda for December 20, 2016. Agenda Item No. IV-3.

NOTA a needed voting reform

“None of the Above” voting lets voters cast a meaningful vote, and that can start changing things.

As a voter, would you like to express your displeasure with the choices on your ballot? Are you tired of voting for the lesser of two evils? Would you like to have a reason to go to the polls even though it seems the contests are already settled?

If so, then NOTA, or “None of the Above,” may appeal to you. In this system, candidates for offices are listed on your ballot. Then, an additional choice is added: “None of the Above.” (Sometimes the language is like “None of these candidates.”)

Politicians don’t like “None of the Above.” Appearing on WichitaLiberty.TV recently, John Fund told of how a politician worried that he might lose to an empty chair, meaning that “None of the Above” received more votes. Fund retorted that would be true only if the chair was better.

What would we do if “None of the Above” won the election, having received more votes than any other candidate?

Would the second-place candidate be declared the winner and take office? This is the case in Nevada. In this case, the “None of the Above” vote’s role is advisory, indicating widespread dissatisfaction with the candidates. But that’s a powerful message.

Or, would the election be declared to have no winner? Then, would a new election be held? Could the same candidates run again, or would they be eliminated? This would be disruptive and have the cost of holding a new election. But this is better than electing someone who can’t earn more votes than “None of the Above.”

Why is voter turnout so low? One common reason given is that some people don’t like any of the candidates, so they don’t vote. But if a person doesn’t vote, what message do they send? What statement do they make? Apathy? Disgust? Adding a NOTA choice to ballots lets these dissatisfied voters cast a vote, and a meaningful vote. There is no confusion. It says to the parties: “I don’t like the choices you’ve given me. Try again.”

Other people regularly vote. Perhaps a person votes because they really like one or more candidates. These people are able to make satisfying votes. Or if they really dislike a candidate, they can cast a satisfying vote against that person. But: What if the other candidate (or candidates) are no better, or have other problems? Must a person vote for the “lesser of two evils” in order to make a statement? What statement is that? In election results, a vote for candidate A from someone who really likes him is indistinguishable from a vote for candidate A solely because the other candidates are worse.

On the choices we had in the 2016 presidential election, Zach Ruby wrote in The Federalist:

Our government’s legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed. But our elections are structured so that the only way to withhold consent is not to vote. Low turnout may signal our disinterest or disapproval, but one of the unqualified candidates will still become president. We need a way to withhold consent through voting. That means we need None of the Above (NOTA) to be on the ballot.

With “None of the Above,” voters can take a positive step that says, “we do not consent to these choices.”

(Ruby noted that there were candidates besides Hillary Clinton and Donald trump on most ballots. But votes for third-party candidates often feel like “wasted” votes. Ranked preference voting can help in this regard.)

A vote of protest is important. Often I’ve refrained from voting for any listed candidates because I felt none were worthy to hold office. Sometimes I’ve felt that there should not be an office (Insurance Commissioner comes to mind), so I did not cast a vote for that office. It’s my own little way of protesting. In election lingo this is called an “undervote.” It has little meaning, because people undervote for many reasons. But voting for “None of the Above” gives voters a meaningful choice in instances like this.

Voting for the lesser of two evils is a choice we often face as voters. In the recent Wichita school board election, there was one contest between a thoroughly despicable incumbent and a challenger whose ideology is distinctly Marxist. Who to vote for in this instance? “None of the Above” would be a satisfying — and correct — choice. Voting for “None of the Above” sends a message that neither candidate is acceptable.

Voters who really need a “None of the Above” choice are those in Alabama. Do you want to send a liberal Democrat to the United States Senate? If your answer is no, then your only choice — if you want to vote — is to vote for a candidate facing credible charges of child molestation. That’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make. “None of the Above” voting lets voters cast a meaningful vote that says “I do not consent to these choices,” and that can start changing things.

Panhandling in Wichita

The City of Wichita cracks down on panhandling. From December 2017.

In today’s Wichita Eagle Chase Billingham has an excellent column explaining the recent changes to panhandling laws in the City of Wichita (Chase Billingham: New laws will criminalize homeless). An assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University, he makes important observations and warnings about the effect of these laws.

In his column, Billingham notes a problem with the ordinance designed to regulate “aggressive” panhandling: “Importantly, though, the ordinance defines ‘contact’ in an extremely vague manner.” I may have noticed the same problem in this example from Ordinance No. 50-643:

Section 2: “Contact” means the intentional action by any person which attempts to attract the attention of any other person for the purpose of inducing such other person to slow, stop or which obstructs or hinders the movement of such other person to facilitate a transfer of anything to or from either person.

Street theater in New Orleans. Would this be legal in Wichita? Click for larger.
What is an example of attracting someone’s attention to induce them to slow or stop? Busking. And it’s designed to encourage — “facilitate” — the transfer of money to the busker.

In the ordinance, the city says its purpose is to “regulate behaviors that are intimidating, threatening or harassing.” At the same time, the city takes actions that work in cross-purposes. In particular, the city has taken steps to allow — if not to encourage — more alcohol consumption. In 2016 laws were changed that both restricted and liberalized alcohol consumption. This year the city lobbied the state for laws that would establish “common consumption areas.” These are geographically-defined areas where free-range drinking is allowed. That is, you can drink outside in public, like on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Besides Old Town, the city mentioned Delano and College Hill as possible common consumption areas.

There is a reason why cities have long outlawed drinking on the streets and sidewalks. But I guess that no longer applies.

I wonder if the city is running the risk of creating a Disneyland downtown, where everything is planned, staged, and regulated. Our city planners set design standards for buildings, and then use the lure of our tax money to encourage compliance. Is there a purportedly problematic public park interfering with you plans for development? No problem. Just ask the city to redirect your tax dollars away from police and schools so that the park can be rebuilt at no cost to you — in a Disneyland style. Too much crime on the streets? The city will install expensive and obtrusive surveillance systems to protect you, and also to harvest revenue if you forget to activate your turn signal in time.

The city uses words like “vibrant” to describe its vision for downtown and other areas. In this commentary about Indianapolis we see the same issues at play. This is from Erika D. Smith: Tougher panhandling law would hurt Indy’s urban fabric:

Vibrant urban areas need organic, grass-roots use of public spaces. It’s a big part of what makes a city a city and not a carefully manicured suburb. It’s knowing that the unexpected could be around any corner and fully embracing that possibility.

Funny thing is, the entities that are pushing for this crackdown on panhandling know this. Visit Indy, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Ballard’s administration called for the promotion of organic urban experiences in the Velocity Action Plan released earlier this month.

They want a freer, livelier atmosphere Downtown. They want “guerrilla-style” takeovers of public spaces. They want visitors and residents to be surprised by randomness. In short, they want a true urban environment.

But here’s the inconvenient truth: To get that kind of organic, vibrant urban atmosphere, you cannot control everything. And part of not being able to control everything is that, to a certain extent, you have to accept the good with the bad. The pretty with the ugly.

The mime outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the man sitting quietly with a sign asking for money. The woman sprawled on the sidewalk with a cup and the saxophone-playing busker who sends people to the Chatterbox club to hear more jazz.

This is the messiness of an urban environment. It’s not always pretty. But it’s not supposed to be. The people who live Downtown know this. We understand it. It’s why we moved here and not to Carmel.