On the November 2, 2004 ballot the voters of Sedgwick County approved an additional one percent sales tax to fund an arena in downtown Wichita.
I opposed the taxpayers funding an arena for this reason: Proponents claimed that the arena would pay for itself (and be a good ting for Wichita) through various forms of economic benefit, both direct and spillover. But I found no research that supported this claim, except for one report prepared by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. I was able to find, however, much research that showed that these facilities rarely provide the promised benefit. Therefore, to ask all the taxpayers to pay for something that benefits just a few is not right.
The Wichita news media, in my opinion, did a woeful job covering the issues relating to the arena. In particular, it seemed as through the Wichita Eagle had as its corporate mission the passage of the arena tax. The Eagle did print many letters and “Opinion Line” comments that oppose the arena, and they still do even today. But the clear editorial stance was to press for passage of the arena tax.
As an illustration of the bias on the Eagle’s editorial page, consider this example: Mr. Phillip Brownlee, opinion editor for the Eagle, wrote an editorial that said the true cost of the Kansas Coliseum renovations would be $122 million instead of $55 million because of interest costs. I wrote a letter that said that since some of this money wouldn’t have to be paid until the distant future, we should consider the effects of the time value of money and inflation. Mr. Brownlee wrote to me and said that I was correct, and my letter was published.
At the time I assumed that Mr. Brownlee, probably having majored in journalism in college, wasn’t aware of the time value of money and things like that. After the election, though, someone told me, and I confirmed by reading his biography on the Eagle’s website, that Mr. Brownlee was a certified public accountant in a previous career. A person with that type of education and experience certainly does know about the time value of money. We have to ask, then, why Mr. Brownlee would disregard such an important factor when editorializing.
Eagle reporter Mr. Fred Mann, in an article titled “Arena’s financial impact cloudy” published on September 5, 2004, provided good information about the doubts surrounding facilities such as these. This article, however, appeared nearly two months before the election, and I saw little coverage of these issues again. I uncovered much other research (most of it is posted in my blog) and supplied it to reporters at the Eagle, but they didn’t act on it.
Other people in Wichita’s news business appeared to lack basic factual information about the arena vote. As part of its election night coverage, one prominent Wichita television news anchor interviewed Mr. Karl Peterjohn of the Kansas Taxpayers Network. Mr. Peterjohn mentioned something about how now the story moves to the Kansas Legislature. The news anchor expressed surprise to learn that the ballot issue was merely an advisory referendum instead of a binding resolution, and that the legislature would have to pass a law allowing Sedgwick County to raise its sales tax. A Wichita television news personality being so poorly informed about such a basic factual matter tells us that we shouldn’t expect important news reporting from our television stations.
KSN Television had a panel show a week before the election. The members of the panel were Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans, Sedgwick County Commissioner Ben Sciortino, and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Ed Wolverton. Each has been quite clear and outspoken in their support of the proposed downtown arena. I do not remember the media panel members asking very many tough questions. I wrote to several people at KSN pleading for some balance either on the guest panel or the media panel.
I supplied most local television stations and radio stations with some of the research that I found. This was information that could be verified independently if the reporters chose to do so. It made a compelling case against taxpayer-funded facilities like the proposed downtown Wichita arena. Nearly everyone I showed it to wondered why this information wasn’t being reported. But I had difficulty gaining the attention of anyone in the Wichita new business.
One exception is Mr. Erik Runge of KWCH Television. He interviewed me, independently verified some of my research, interviewed someone else with an opposing view, and prepared three different segments that were broadcast about a week before the election. I thought he did a good job.
I also appeared as an arena opponent on the radio show “Sports Daily” on KFH Radio. I had heard the hosts advertise for someone to appear on their show as an arena opponent. I applied and appeared for 30 minutes.
Why did the Wichita news media do such a poor job covering the arena tax issues? I do not know. But it is easy to be swept up in the excitement of a new facility. The arguments that arena supporters used seem to make sense until you investigate their truthfulness. It took a lot of effort to uncover contradictory evidence. I suspect that many didn’t look very hard and therefore never found what I did, or if they did find it, since it said what they didn’t want to hear, they ignored it.