Steve Rose

Phony numbers meant to smear superb Kansas services

Charles Koch speaks in his office at Koch Industries in Wichita. He and his brother are reportedly behind the funding for the Kansas Policy Institute.
Charles Koch speaks in his office at Koch Industries in Wichita. He and his brother are reportedly behind the funding for the Kansas Policy Institute. The Associated Press

The Kansas “Fallacy” Institute, er, I mean Kansas Policy Institute, headquartered in Wichita, is called a think tank.

But that is a misnomer because the folks who crank out numbers there don’t really think about issues at all. Rather, they take a preconceived notion that government and schools are enormously wasteful and inefficient, and then concoct absurd calculations to make it seem so.

To what end does the institute spew out its gross distortions? Its stated goal is to shrink government and to dramatically lower taxes. I would add: Regardless of the possible negative effect to services. The institute never seems to conclude that the public is being served well, and that our exceptional quality of life is something worth spending a little more on.

Founded in 1996 and reportedly funded by the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers of Wichita — who hate virtually all government — the institute publicizes its phony numbers that are then embraced by vocal radicals, who spew them so often, the public starts to wonder, hmm, maybe there is truth to those claims.

The institute knows the public usually does not have either the time or inclination to get the details of the real story. The headline numbers stick, not the long, boring details of the truth.

Two of the primary targets of Kansas Policy Institute are local schools and local government, entities that have been doing a magnificent job of providing the community’s enviable quality of life. The institute has its own version of reality. For local schools, it reports that to educate a student in Johnson County costs $14,000 or more a year. It also reports that spending by Johnson County government has increased 188 percent since 1996, wastefully spending more than inflation and population growth.

As for the lies about schools, the institute counts in its preposterous $14,000 number non-operating costs such as interest on the debt from bond issues patrons passed in previous elections. It counts contributions to the retirement fund for teachers. It counts pass-through federal money that costs the state nothing. And here’s a whopper: If a school is built, the entire cost of that school is counted in one annual lump-sum expense for that year. State Sen. Jeff Melcher of Leawood loves to spew such nonsense.

With respect to the misleading numbers for county government, over the past 20 years, the population of the county soared from 411,000 to almost 600,000. But that huge increase does not tell the whole story. The county’s demographics also changed dramatically, bringing many urban problems to the suburbs, expanding expensive public safety to deal with increased crime, at costs way above normal inflation rates.

Today, the county serves 750 prisoners a day in its jails, multiple times more than in 1996. Over those years, the sheriff’s office has increased enormously, far more than normal inflation.

But even if you want to unfairly measure county expense growth by the Consumer Price Index basket of goods, there is a huge factor that has contributed to county tax increases above inflation, which the institute has conveniently omitted. Over the past 20 years, the state of Kansas has reduced its funding to the county by $337 million! That has driven up local taxes to compensate for the lost revenue.

Kansas Policy Institute spreadsheets tell an incomplete story, part of a diabolical scheme to undermine the public’s view of the excellence they are receiving.

If you listen to the institute, everything needs to be cut, cut, cut just like the state of Kansas. All that is important to the Kansas Policy Institute is slashing taxes. The superb services provided and the world-class quality of life enjoyed by citizens are dismissed as waste.

Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: