April 11, 2014

Tell Taxpayers Where Their Money Is Going

On Thursday, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., disclosed that the city is ponying up another $65,000 to woo the 2016 Republican convention. Jackson Co., Mo., Wyandotte Co./Kansas City, Kan., and Johnson Co., Kan., also are chipping in an additional $65,000 each. This $260,000 total is in addition to the $100,000 that Kansas City, Mo., already spent. We participated in a KSHB TV story about the spending and asserted that taxpayers ought to be told what is being promised in their name.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James argued that hosting the convention is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he may be correct. Certainly, we all are proud of Kansas City and eager to show off on the 40th anniversary of the last time we hosted. Those are arguments for spending the money — they are not arguments for not telling taxpayers how the money is being spent. If the mayor is so confident about his choices, there is no reason to hide who is getting the money and for what. Furthermore, taxpayers ought to know what additional commitments the city is making to the convention committee. Remember, the $165,000 spent so far is just for the bid to host. Hosting itself will cost millions.

The city claims that the convention will have a large economic impact. We previously have written that those estimates are largely useless as they assume that without the convention there would be no economic activity — which is just silly. The city’s “fact sheet” suggests the economic impact to Kansas City would be similar to Tampa’s in 2012: $214 million. The city likely is getting that from a Tampa Tribune story in which they cited a University of Tampa analysis:

The total impact takes in $214 million in direct spending by the groups that put on the convention, including the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the City of Tampa, the convention’s Committee on Arrangements and corporate sponsors.

Note that in addition to ignoring any economic activity that would have happened without the convention, this impact includes spending from Tampa’s taxpayers.

Lastly, it was gratifying to read in their “fact sheet” that the city thinks we have sufficient hotel rooms and bus service to accommodate the convention, and that our airport has more than 50 direct flights. Let’s hope city officials remember this the next time they advocate committing public funds to convention hotels, streetcars, and new airport terminals.

April 8, 2014

New On Show-Me Sunshine: School District Collective Bargaining Agreements

In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court overruled 60 years of case law and determined that teachers have the right to organize and collectively bargain. At the Show-Me Institute, we wanted to determine how many districts have entered into collective bargaining agreements (CBA), so we requested CBAs from every public school district in Missouri with more than 1,000 students. Approximately one-fifth of the districts we contacted have a formal CBA. In the interest of transparency, we have posted those agreements online here.

April 4, 2014

Airport Advisory Group Not Really Interested In Input

A previous post detailed the Kansas City Airport Terminal Advisory Group’s effort to avoid open records laws in their meetings with Kansas City public officials. This post deals with the group’s unwillingness to even hear from those skeptical of a new terminal. On Jan. 30, I wrote the following email to Airport Terminal Advisory Group leaders Bob Berkebile and David Fowler:

I was able to attend the Advisory Group presentation before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week, and the slideshow contained four statements that are either incorrect of very misleading. These include (1) the ‘firewall’ between airport funds and the city, (2) whether city funds can be used by an airport, (3) that all city bonds require a public vote and (4) that no airport has ever defaulted and that the city is not a guarantor.

The Show-Me Institute has conducted a great deal of independent research into the Aviation Department’s claims and the wisdom of large airport projects in general. We would welcome the opportunity to present our findings to the Advisory Group, so that they need not lean so heavily on presentations from the department whose claims they are investigating.

That same day, Fowler forwarded the message to a city staffer with this addition:

Can you have your folks at the city look into these matters, please ?

I am sure this group is looking for exceptions to the general rule and will try to discredit what we have heard in testimony from the Aviation Department and the City finance group.

These are certainly policies and broad statements about the legal ramifications of the airport revenue bonds. Whether there are exceptions, loopholes, etc may be called into question.

Maybe have [the City Attorney] look into potential exceptions, etc.

A few days later, on Feb. 2, Fowler forwarded my note to one of the consultants at Frasca and Associates, who is working with the advisory group, with this addition:

Please see the email we received from a special interest group contesting certain facts we have heard from either the Aviation Department and/or representatives of Kansas City.

Which one of these points would you be credentialed to respond to or could research without much additional time (so we don’t blow our Frasca budget) and which ones would you suggest are more legal issues best handled by independent attorneys ? In other words, are some of these questions Kansas City airport-specific, Missouri law-specific or are they all generic facts around most public airports ?

I would like to discuss this during our planned call on Feb. 4, but wanted to give you advance notice that we need answers on these asap either from you or someone else who is independent. We may be able to get our FAA representative to clarify as well and we intend to pose to him too.

Two weeks after that, on Feb. 17, Fowler sent this note to the same city staffer to whom he initially forwarded my email:

Can you please confirm back to me that someone from the City has followed up with Patrick Tuohey on his email below so he feels like we are paying attention to his messages.  I don’t want him ever saying he reached out to us and nobody ever responded.

Let me say loudly that we reached out to them and nobody ever responded. On March 24, I again sent to advisory group leaders Berkebile and Fowler the following note:

On January 30, I sent the note below indicating that the Show-Me Institute has compiled a good deal of independent research on the proposed new terminal. This research includes matters that ATAG has never covered, including financing and the impact of debt servicing.

My note received no response. Therefore, I am asking that the original January 30 email be considered testimony and be distributed to all members of the Advisory Group and included in whatever testimony is made public.

As of this writing, we have heard nothing. They received our note but apparently were more interested in circling the wagons — and seemingly protecting the Aviation Department from being contradicted — than actually collecting information on the new terminal proposal. Perhaps as a result of failing to accept pertinent testimony, Kansas City Mayor Sly James stated falsely in his State of the City address that funds raised at the airport must remain at the airport.

We cannot know what other groups have asked to present information to the Advisory Group and been rebuffed or ignored. We do know that some groups, such as airport concession operators, have not been heard from and we know that the consultants downplayed important testimony from Southwest Airlines. Observers of the advisory group have complained that it gives the appearance of being one-sided and uninterested in legitimate public dialogue. These internal communications only confirm those fears.

April 3, 2014

Airport Advisory Group Seeks To Avoid Public Scrutiny

Avoiding public scrutiny is no way to conduct the people’s business.

We have been critical of the Kansas City mayor’s airport terminal advisory group, including when leadership met with the Kansas City Aviation Department’s PR firm. We also have been critical of its conflicted make-up and its treatment of opponents. Prior to that, we were critical of the Aviation Department and of the Kansas City City Council for refusing to answer questions. We’re not alone; some have called for the airport director to go.

But this is something new. In a recent email sent from the advisory group’s leader, Bob Berkebile, including to several city employees, he seeks to circumvent Missouri’s open meetings law (emphasis added):

On another note we have offered to meet with members of the city council who may want to offer input or to hear from us about how we are doing with our deliberations.  Cindy Circo has extended an invitation to members of the council to meet with us between 9:30 and 11 either this Thursday or on April 3rd.  Our assumption is that these will be informal and that only a few will schedule interviews (to date John Sharp is the only one to request time).  We have also assumed that they will be small (one to one sessions or two of us and two of them in a session).  Cindy and Travis will help us manage the times and any potential conflicts with committee structures to avoid creating a public meeting. Please let us know if you are interested in representing us with your council representative or any of them, and if you are interested please identify what dates/times you are available.

In other words, city council members want to offer input, but they don’t want to do so publicly. This is not new or unique to Kansas City government — all levels of government seek to work around the open record or sunshine or freedom of information laws that apply to them. However, it is disheartening to learn that the group supposedly appointed to bring the public into the discussion about a $1.2 billion new terminal is complicit in keeping things from them.

At every ‘town hall’-style meeting the advisory group hosted that I attended, people said they were frustrated with the process and that they felt locked out of meaningful discussion. Unfortunately, the advisory group’s actions seem to confirm the worst of these fears.

March 19, 2014

A Victory For Government Accountability In Kansas City

When the Missouri Legislature considered creating a land bank for Kansas City, the Show-Me Institute was opposed. We argued in testimony before the legislature that the existing Jackson County Land Trust was as effective as any similar agency across the country. We testified that:

There does not appear to be any evidence that the Jackson County Land Trust is doing a poor job of getting vacant property back into private, productive use.

Considering the Saint Louis example, any effort in Kansas City was likely to fall prey to Kansas City politicians who might direct the city to hold onto property on behalf of favored constituents or special interests. We are glad to report that the Kansas City Land Bank has addressed these concerns. On March 3, the Board of Commissioners adopted the following resolution:

The Land Bank supplements the Code of Ethics with the additional requirement, that any Commissioner that receives a contact from an elected official or staff lobbying for or against particular application for a property held by the Land Bank shall disclose such contact to the Land Bank staff within a reasonable time thereafter, and shall disclose that contact to the other Commissioners prior to voting upon the particular application for which such contact was made.

The board also will start listing the reasons for any application rejection in the minutes so that applicants and others can understand the commissioners’ decision-making process. This is a great win for transparency in government, and we congratulate the land bank board for taking this important step.

March 12, 2014

Hospital Price Transparency Bill A Bold And Necessary Reform

In the coming days, the Show-Me Institute will release a policy brief about what Missouri can do to improve access, cost, and quality of care for Medicaid patients. Authored by yours truly, the paper outlines five serious reform ideas, and one of those ideas focuses on price transparency from hospitals.

One of the biggest obstacles to greater competition and lower prices in the health care arena is the absence of readily accessible and easily comparable pricing information for common medical procedures. For as many things as the Affordable Care Act got wrong, it got right its requirements for greater price transparency. A review of the data last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hammers this point home.

For example, average inpatient charges for services a hospital may provide in connection with a joint replacement range from a low of $5,300 at a hospital in Ada, Okla., to a high of $223,000 at a hospital in Monterey Park, Calif.

Even within the same geographic area, hospital charges for similar services can vary significantly. For example, average inpatient hospital charges for services that may be provided to treat heart failure range from a low of $21,000 to a high of $46,000 in Denver, Colo., and from a low of $9,000 to a high of $51,000 in Jackson, Miss.

There are numerous reasons costs can vary wildly from hospital to hospital, and quality of care is almost certainly a component. But if you’re from California and could travel to Oklahoma instead to pay less than 3 percent of the cost of a joint replacement, wouldn’t you want to know that? If you could travel across town to another hospital to pay one-fifth the cost for a procedure, wouldn’t it be important to have that information? With few exceptions, state transparency requirements for hospital pricing are pretty awful nationwide, and consumers are hurt when that information is effectively withheld.

That is why I am very much a fan of Missouri Senate Bill 684, sponsored by Missouri Sen. Jason Holsman (D-Jackson County), which would help deliver precisely that sort of information. Coincidentally, the bill will be heard in a Senate committee later this week — right about the time we release my policy brief. I intend to submit testimony on the bill.

SB 684 would be a great stride forward for Missouri health care consumers. I hope Sen. Holsman’s colleagues take the proposal very seriously.

February 11, 2014

Audio Recording Of Legislative Hearings Should Be Standard Operating Procedure At Missouri Capitol

This weekend, longtime statehouse reporter Phill Brooks penned a commentary for the Columbia Tribune examining the history of broadcasting the proceedings of the Missouri Legislature. I commend to you the whole piece, but I think Brooks intends to leave us with a warning that we should not take the unintended consequences of recording legislative proceedings for granted — not only the potential of legislators hamming it up for the camera, but also the concerns about the potential for lobbyist pressure if every official move of our representatives is documented. I appreciate those concerns; after all, we want our legislators focused on their job of legislating well, not putting on a performance.

However, I think one section of Brooks’ piece deserves to be highlighted for why erring on the side of recording should be preferred to erring on the side of what are really the political concerns of our legislators.

It is difficult to realize how different the Senate was some four decades ago.

The chamber even banned taking notes in the visitors’ gallery overlooking the chamber. A couple of senators said they didn’t want lobbyists using their quotes against them. The note-taking ban was dropped when it was exposed by a newspaper story that made the chamber look silly.

The “note-taking ban” was news to me, and it’s appalling that the Senate chamber at some point in its history felt that such a rule was appropriate. Thankfully, both the House and the Senate now livecast their floor debates online. As someone who is rarely in Jefferson City, that service is invaluable not only to my work but also to all Missourians. If legislators are concerned that constituents might hear what they said at a public hearing . . . well, they better get used to that idea, because that’s the whole point of a public hearing.

Likewise, requiring that House and Senate committee hearings to be broadcast in the same way as when the full House and Senate are in session — or, alternatively, recorded and made available online afterward — should be a no-brainer when it comes to promoting transparency in government. It’s why I think the audio recording of the legislature’s public hearings should be on this year’s reform agenda. Missourians with full-time jobs across the state deserve to be able to hear the committee debates that, these days, are only accessible to “note-taking” Jefferson City lobbyists.

Let the sunshine in.

January 29, 2014

Recording Public Hearings? Let The Sunshine In

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted that “[p]ublicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Transparency, in other words, helps society avoid some of the social ills that could be promoted or concealed by obstruction and secrecy, and as a general matter, public policy should be decided with as many people watching as possible.

That is why I found this story so troubling.

The chair of the Senate General Laws Committee banned video coverage of the final debate and vote of his committee approving a bill that seeks to declare Missouri exempt from some federal gun laws.

Earlier, a reporter for an NBC affiliated television station had his camera physically removed by a Senate staffer from the committee on the second day of hearings on the bill.

The committee chair … had warned TV reporters the week before that he would ban cameras on tripods and restrict access to areas where it would be impossible to get a full view of anyone testifying before the committee.

Only the Senate’s official photographer was allowed to use a tripod at the committee hearing. One reporter holding a camera by hand behind the committee witnesses also was permitted to record video.

Seriously, does this look obstructive to you?

Briefly, as to the bill itself, my view on nullification is well-documented, so I won’t rehash it here. But suffice to say, it is highly problematic that the rules for covering a high-profile bill could reduce public exposure to shaky cam coverage like this.

Our democracy is better than that, and if our public bodies are not going to record these meetings themselves, they should be allowing far greater latitude for the public at large to record them in their stead. Let the sunshine in.

November 28, 2013

We Are Thankful For Data

Debate over public policy is rife with stories about individuals who will benefit or suffer from proposed legislation. It can be a difficult thing with which to wrestle. And because much of what is offered is anecdotal, it could be true and yet not at all representative of the impact of the regulation at hand.

Debate in Missouri about Medicaid, education, and taxation is filled with anecdotes that give an either incomplete or misleading picture of policy proposals. That is why we here at the Show-Me Institute love data. Spreadsheets may not make for an impressive photo opportunity, but data analysis is necessary if we are going to improve the lives of Missourians.

To that end, our colleague Michael Rathbone has been shepherding our new website: ShowMeData.org. This new interactive tool allows you to generate all sorts of data on property taxes, population, Gross State Product, labor force, employment, unemployment, and more over the years. And not just in Missouri but the entire country. For example, is it true when Missouri politicians complain that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is poaching people and  jobs? This chart shows that Texas’ population has been growing for decades while Missouri’s remains stagnant. Want to research cigarette tax rates in Missouri and neighboring states? That’s here.

Should you be locked in a political discussion this holiday with that irascible brother-in-law, visit Show-Me Data for some valuable context. We’re all grateful for the stories of America’s greatness, now we have the data to back it up.

October 25, 2013

The EPA And Kansas City

Most people know that as a result of foot dragging from Kansas City politicians, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sued the city over our antebellum sewer system. As a result, our already inefficient and Byzantine water department will be increasing our rates in order to pay for the overhaul — whenever that happens.

If you like paying more for your water, wait until you learn about what the EPA wants to do to energy costs. According to the Associated Industries of Missouri, the impact of new regulations on coal “will require the reduction of emissions of toxic air pollutants from power plants in the U.S. The cost, estimated by the EPA, is expected to be $9.6 billion in 2015, and nearly that amount in 2016 and beyond.” For those of us in Kansas City, the news is especially bad [emphasis added]:

The EPA estimates rates will rise by an average of 3.1% nationally as a result of this rule alone.  Because Missouri generates a major portion of its electricity from plants that will be affected by the rule, the impact to your rates are estimated to rise by 6.3% in the far western part of Missouri, 2.8% in Eastern and Central Missouri, and 3.1% in Southeast Missouri.

The city is already struggling to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars  for the construction of a streetcar system that was adopted with a vote of about 300 people.  Now we learn that once built, thanks to the EPA, the costs of operating it are apparently going to be about 6 percent higher.

The EPA is conducting “Clean Air Act listening sessions” across the country, and one of them is scheduled for Nov. 4 just across the border in Lenexa, Kan. In order to attend and tell them what you think, you have to register in advance (no surprise there). Proponents of the streetcar are already wringing their hands about a proposed Jackson County tax — they may want to take a good look at an EPA rule that effectively taxes their pet project and would make non-electric transit even more attractive.

September 3, 2013

New CATO Report: Cracking The Books

CATO_Cracking_The_Books

The CATO Institute recently released a report, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending.” Researchers at CATO scoured the websites of each state’s department of education. They did not judge how much money each state spent, rather how well each state reported those expenditures. Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) did not fare well in the report, receiving an “F-” and a ranking of 42nd.

Among other things, DESE was marked down because the website is “somewhat difficult for the layperson to navigate.” Heck, I would say it is somewhat difficult for someone immersed in education policy to navigate. As the report notes, “There is a link to ‘School Finance’ under the ‘Financial & Admin. Services’ dropdown box on the main menu, but the expenditure data is not located there, nor at the ‘Financial Reports’ or ‘Data & Reports’ links on the menu bar.” That is certainly confusing.

The CATO report brings to light several other areas that could be improved:

  • Allow per-pupil expenditures over time to be adjusted for inflation.
  • Provide data on capital expenditures.
  • Provide data on total salary expenditures.
  • Provide data on pension contributions.
  • Provide data on employee benefits.

I think the CATO suggestions are reasonable. If implemented, they would be of tremendous help to Missourians who want to track where our tax dollars are going. Government agencies don’t always respond well to criticism. Nevertheless, I hope the folks at DESE will take this criticism seriously and look for ways to improve their presentation of data.

August 15, 2013

Who Teaches The Teachers?

The Kansas City Public Library recently hosted a presentation by and conversation with National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) President Kate Walsh. The discussion focused on the NCTQ’s new release, “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Prep Programs.” The study was supported in part by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

According to its release:

The Review looked at 1,130 institutions that prepare 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained teachers.

Overwhelmingly, it found that U.S. colleges and universities are turning out first-year teachers with inadequate knowledge and classroom management skills. On a four-star scale, less than 10 percent of rated programs earned three stars or more.

One startling finding that Walsh highlighted: There often are higher academic standards to play football than to get into a school of education. In fact, many of the report’s findings were damning of schools of education, including in Missouri and Kansas.

Walsh saved her most pointed comments for early education approaches to teaching reading. She said many schools do not emphasize the proven methods for teaching reading. Too often education students are told they will figure out their own methods of class management and reading instruction, even when there is research indicating some approaches are better than others.

University of Missouri administrators may have expected they would perform poorly, as they actually denied researchers access to teacher syllabi, claiming they were intellectual property and protected under federal copyright law. A judge has ruled in favor of the school’s refusal. That’s right, the university system did not want to share even an outline of what it teaches its students, the same outlines that are distributed to students at the beginning of the course.

That is too bad, but their resistance won’t last long. NCTQ will be conducting a study of education schools each year and publishing the results in partnership with U.S. News & World Report, which has become the standard-bearer for university ratings. Missouri will eventually have to share with everyone exactly what it teaches its would-be teachers. We can’t move forward without knowing where we are right now; universities should support this. Moreover, students should have access to this information when deciding which college they would like to attend.

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