In a presentation made to economic development officials, aviation manufacturer Bombardier LearJet speaks with pride of its investment in Kansas. But for the present project before the Sedgwick County Commission today, it appears that the company is planning to make no investment at all.
Taking the total project cost of $52.7 million and subtracting the government funding already secured, there is a gap of $16.1 million. Instead of being grateful for the $36.6 million in subsidy already (or about to be) secured, the company is asking for more: Bombardier LearJet is asking the State of Kansas to fund this gap.
What happened to capitalism?
What happened to companies funding even a portion of their capital requirements?
The proponents of economic development incentives often make their case that the incentives are just a “sweetener” to secure the deal. But in the present case with Bombardier LearJet, local governments — the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and the State of Kansas — are being asked to pay for the entire meal.
We in Kansas and Sedgwick County are already doing much for Bombardier LearJet. It is likely that we will agree to let LearJet forgo paying any property tax at all — the same property taxes that other business struggle to pay. These businesses compete with LearJet for labor and other things they need.
The State of Kansas is allowing the income taxes of Lear Jet employees to be used for the exclusive benefit of that company.
Both of these actions call into question the fundamental question of fairness in taxation: that all pay their fair share. When companies like the applicant company ask to be excused from the burden of taxation, others have to pay.
If you are not persuaded by this appeal to principle, there is evidence that chasing the big catch is often counterproductive, and that the net economic effect of these deals is overestimated. One study finds: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured.”
Perhaps the worst thing we take away from this episode is that our state is making no progress towards a concept developed by Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business. He has made a convincing case that Kansas needs to move away from the “active investor” approach to economic development. This is where government decides which companies will receive special treatment, be it in the form of tax abatements, tax credits, grants, and other forms of subsidy. This is what we are doing with the present applicant, Bombardier LearJet.
In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”
Later, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers we are considering today: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”
We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. This commission needs to advocate for policies — in this chamber, at Wichita City Hall, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. What we’re doing today is not sustainable.
A small and reasonable step towards this goal is to ask Bombardier LearJet to consider paying just $1 million themselves on a project with a cost of $52.7 million.
Sign of the times: No one wants to say “NO!”