February 20, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

What is Kansas Department of Commerce hiding from public scrutiny?

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Two requests filed by the Sentinel under the Kansas Open Record Act (KORA) with the Kansas Department of Commerce for studies related to the efficacy of state incentive programs and economic development have been rebuffed by the department.  That begs the question – what is Commerce Secretary and Governor Laura Kelly trying to hide from public scrutiny?

The first request filed on November 14, 2019, was for reports done internally or contracted out since January 2017 examining the efficacy of Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), TIF, STAR bonds, and High-Performance Incentive Program (HPIP).  Ryan Brinker, the Public Information Officer for the Kansas Department of Commerce replied, “We are currently working to identify and review any records which may be responsive to your request and will need additional time to complete that review. The earliest date records may be available to you is November 26, 2019.”  There’s been no further response to this request.

Another KORA request submitted on December 16 asked for studies related to STAR bonds or economic development.  Commerce responded, “There was a study commissioned in 2018 which has not been completed and is exempt from disclosure under KSA 45-221(20) as a draft and research data in the process of analysis.  There have been no subsequent studies commissioned since then.”

Follow-up questions, including the expected completion date and whether the study was about STAR bonds or economic development, were ignored by Commerce.

STAR bond effectiveness

Information regarding the City of Wichita and the use of STAR bonds was received from the city according to James Franko, President of the Kansas Policy Institute, the parent company of the Sentinel.  KPI is undertaking an effectiveness analysis of STAR bond projects in the Wichita area.

“Last fall we requested information from the City of Wichita about some of their historic economic subsidy programs. We’ve received the initial data and will probably be going to back to the City with additional requests to get a better understanding of each project. Our hope is to have something published this spring,” said Franko.

State economic development study

Given that the state is spending $800,000 on an economic study to be completed by McKinsey & Company, the possible existence of another economic study from a state university is notable.

The last economic development study, the Redwood Crider report done in the 1980s, was done by two University of Kansas professors with consultancy by Wichita State.

State Senator Richard Hilderbrand (R-District 13) attended one of the McKinsey workshops and expressed concern that McKinsey is pushing a pre-determined outcome.

“It appeared to gear everything toward government picking winners and losers,” said Hilderbrand.

Was McKinsey, an out of state consultancy firm, chosen instead of Kansas’ publicly funded universities because the state didn’t like the recommendations of universities (if in fact, that’s the nature of the secret study)?  Or is the Kansas Department of Commerce withholding a study on STAR bonds or some other subsidy that’s critical of a favorite government handout?

One way or another, Franko says KPI will work to force disclosure of this important information.

“Citizens – even policymakers for that matter – need good information to help them make decisions. This is as true in finding the right school for your kid as it is for understanding if some effort to boost economic growth worked. Our whole organization is geared to providing this sort of good information in Kansas and local communities around the state,” said Franko.

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