In Wichita, Southfork TIF is politics, and therefore should be rejected

Last month the Wichita City Council approved the formation of a TIF district in south Wichita. Known as the Southfork TIF District, the developer is Wichitan Jay Maxwell. This week the matter will appear before the Sedgwick County Commission, as it may, under law, decide to veto the formation of the district.

Maxwell himself rarely appears at meetings of governmental agencies, sending his agent Tim Austin of Poe & Associates, Inc. instead.

The role of politics

Maxwell and Austin have some queer ideas regarding the nature of markets and politics. In an email message to supporters of the Southfork TIF, Austin wrote: “There are many underlying political winds working against the Southfork TIF.” In another email message, he wrote: “As I mentioned previously, there are underlying political interests at play that appear to be making this a political matter as opposed to a vote the merits of the TIF, the project, and South Wichita.”

Austin has it exactly backwards. It is he who is arguing for using the political process to enrich himself and Maxwell. Those such as myself and Americans for Prosperity who oppose government interventions such as this are arguing against using the political process — against making this a political matter, that is.

The supporters of government intervention such as TIF often make claims of “market failure.” They claim that the free market system has failed to deliver what they want, so they make appeals to government to intervene. This, of course, moves society away from markets and civil society and toward the politics that Austin seems to disdain.

In reality, markets do quite well in allocating the resources of our economy, despite the claims of many, including historians who should know better. There are those who may feel they’re not getting everything they deserve through the market process, but that’s no reason to introduce the tremendous inefficiencies and distortions that the political process brings with it. In his book How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, From the Pilgrims to the Present, Thomas J. DiLorenzo explained:

Most historians also uncritically repeat the claim that government subsidies were necessary to building America‚Äôs transcontinental railroad industry, steamship industry, steel industry, and other industries. But while clinging to this “market failure” argument, they ignore (or at least are unaware of) the fact that market entrepreneurs performed quite well without government subsidies. They also ignore the fact that the subsidies themselves were a great source of inefficiency and business failure, even though they enriched the direct recipients of the subsidies and advanced the political careers of those who dished them out.

Political entrepreneurs and their governmental patrons are the real villains of American business history and should be portrayed as such. They are the real robber barons.

The idea of “market failure” is used by the promoters of this TIF district — as do supporters of TIF districts. They claim that only government — that is, politics — can make things right, at least according to their vision.

The idea that there are two classes of entrepreneurs — market and political — is explained by Helen Cochran in her book review of The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America by Burton Folsom. Cochran wrote:

According to Folsom, “political entrepreneurs” are those that seek government/taxpayer subsidy, public private partnerships, protective tariffs, special privileges, etc. Folsom makes a sound case that economic development fueled by political intervention invariably fails and undermines the very ideology it purports to serve.

On the other hand “market entrepreneurs” are those that obtain their successes by producing a product that is better and of more value to the consumer, unbridled by the government controls and restrictions that come with subsidy. No one can argue that it is the market entrepreneurs that create the wealth in this country.

The essence of political entrepreneurship is that Austin and Maxwell find it easier to convince a majority of the Wichita City Council, and now the Sedgwick County Commission, of the superiority of their plans than it is to convince others through the market process. They want to replace the collective knowledge of free people trading voluntarily in markets with the political process — that is, with the judgments of bureaucrats and politicians.

Do TIF districts work?

In deciding whether TIF districts “work” we must come to an agreement of what “work” means. Generally, most supporters of TIF — besides the obvious motivations of the developers who are directly enriched by them — claim increased development and jobs.

But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

As far as increased development: Yes, that generally happens within the TIF district. But what about the overall city? The answer is that TIF is harmful.

Regarding the effect of tax increment financing (TIF) districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied the issue extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.” More on their work is at Tax increment financing (TIF) and economic growth.

Others may support TIF for its purported positive impact on employment. Sure, it’s easy to drive by a TIF district and see people at work. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

One person who looked at the effect of TIF on employment in the entire city is economist Paul F. Byrne. He concluded this: “Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment.”

More on his work is at Does tax increment financing (TIF) deliver on its promise of jobs?

So considering the high-minded goals of politicians and bureaucrats, we must conclude that TIF does not meet the goals of increased development and/or jobs, if we consider the impact on everyone. What we’re left with is the well-known problem that public choice economics — the economics of politics — has described: Concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. It’s the reason why those who seek enrichment at Wichita City Hall and other governments make so many political campaign contributions.

This particular TIF district

In a document prepared for Sedgwick County Commissioners by the county’s Finance Division, this TIF district is analyzed.

One startling conclusion: “The Southfork area qualifies for TIF funding because most of the land is in a flood plain, and while action is being taken to reduce the magnitude of this problem most of the land will remain in a flood plain after those actions are completed.” (emphasis added)

In other words, one of the “noble” actions of the developer — fixing a flooded area — is exposed for what it is.

Another conclusion of the analysis is that the “Proposed project is economically feasible without county funding support.” In other words, the TIF district is not financially necessary.

Then: “Proposed private equity funding is insufficient to effect default risk.”

Finally: “Costs to county government are greater than benefits to county government. If, as appears possible based on the financial projections provided for county review, the project is financially feasible without TIF funding, then a substantial cost to county government is the property tax revenue diverted unnecessarily to the project.”

This directly contradicts the claims that most TIF supporters make: That TIF is without cost. Randal O’Toole and others have shown the many ways in which TIF does have a great cost. His essay “TIF is not free money” may be read as part of my article Tax increment financing: TIF has a cost.

This particular applicant

We also need to look at the characteristics of this applicant. The Wichita Business Journal reported this regarding a company Mr. Maxwell owned:

Pixius proposes to repay, over a 10-year period, $1.3 million of a $6.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, according to court documents. The loan was part of a 2002 Farm Bill pilot program that loaned more than $180 million to ISPs to expand Internet service to rural areas.

“To my memory … Pixius is the only one (to receive a loan) that’s had to file bankruptcy to work out of its situation,” says Claiborn Crain, USDA spokesman.

When the government helped out Maxwell in the past, it cost taxpayers $5.1 million. His company is set apart from other similar companies in that, according to the USDA spokesman, only Maxwell’s declared bankruptcy.

I suggest that Maxwell has had his turn at the government funding trough. Taxpayers can’t afford to give him another.

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