The border war is back: It’s Kansas vs. Missouri in a pointless battle for USDA jobs

A costly competition between Kansas and Missouri over hundreds of federal jobs is the height of foolishness, and it needs to end.

Last week, the Department of Agriculture announced plans to move more than 500 jobs from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area. Many of the soon-to-be-moved employees are unhappy, and there is some political resistance. But in general, the move is good news — not every federal job belongs in the nation’s capital.

Where will the transferring employees report for work? No one is sure. “We don’t know exactly whether it will be Missouri or Kansas at this point,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters.

His ambivalence has apparently touched off a ridiculous but utterly predictable competition between the two states to land the jobs. As usual, taxpayers will pay the price.

It’s a horrible idea. Competing for private sector jobs with public money is bad enough, but using state funds to offer the federal government tax incentives essentially shifts public costs from the whole nation to taxpayers in just one state.

Why is the USDA pitting the two states against each other? What difference does it make whether the federal government opts for office space in Kansas or Missouri? The transferring employees will find homes in both states, contributing taxes to both Topeka and Jefferson City.

As Greg LeRoy, executive director of the watchdog group Good Jobs First, noted, the Department of Agriculture is acting like Amazon, staging a bidding war that puts pressure on state and local governments to offer more incentives.

“This is an ugly, extreme version of Uncle Sam imitating Jeff Bezos. Yuck,” he said. “If I were a Missouri or Kansas taxpayer, I would never stand for this.”

The expensive tug-of-war is about bragging rights and nothing more.

It isn’t as if the federal government is opening a new car factory. It’s renting an office. The USDA’s decision — made in consultation with the General Services Administration — should be based on cost, quality and convenience. The host state is largely meaningless.

There are other reasons to be deeply suspicious of incentives for the USDA jobs. In his announcement, Secretary Perdue said state and local governments had offered $26 million in “generous relocation incentives packages,” according to the news release.

Pressed on the issue, Perdue would not say what the incentives are. Missouri and Kansas won’t say, either. Kansas City is mum. The Kansas City Area Development Council also clammed up.

Great. Not only is the region forking over money to the federal government, it’s doing so in secret.

Taxpayers are right to be befuddled over this. Didn’t Missouri Gov. Mike Parson just sign a bill calling a truce in the border war? Didn’t Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas agree to the truce and promise an executive order to halt unnecessary bistate competition? What, then, is this USDA fuss all about?

The Department of Agriculture is not “an established company in Kansas City, Missouri,” Kelly told reporters. “This is completely new and different. And Missouri’s betting on that, too.”

Sorry, governor. There is nothing new or different about a meaningless subsidy battle conducted in secret in the Kansas City area. We know from decades of experience that it’s just a waste of time and money.

The Department of Agriculture should pick the location that best fits its office needs. Pay a fair rent. Don’t fan the flames of the border war. In return, we’ll welcome your workers to our schools and parks and neighborhoods. We’re confident they’ll find the Kansas City region a great place to live.