The race to woo companies has intensified as state and local governments struggle with a slow economic recovery, sluggish new business formation and job losses resulting from automation. Many older industrial cities see tax incentives as one of the few levers they can pull.
The fight to attract and retain companies “is probably as competitive as it has ever been in the 30 years I have been doing this type of work,” said Lawrence Kramer, managing partner with Incentis Group, the consulting firm that helped Riddell with incentive negotiations.
Economic-development tax incentives more than tripled over the past 25 years, offsetting about 30% of the taxes the companies receiving incentives would have otherwise paid in 2015, compared with about 9% offset in 1990, according to an analysis of incentives covering more than 90% of the U.S. economy.
By 2015, the total annual cost of these incentives was $45 billion, according to the analysis, by Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich. The study looked at 47 cities in 32 states plus the District of Columbia.
Total incentives are likely higher because the analysis didn’t include some used by cities, including Elyria, such as city income tax rebates for companies.
Seriously, how absolutely pointless is this:
When Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda learned that Riddell Inc. was looking to leave this small city in northeast Ohio, she came up with a $14 million package of tax incentives and offered to lease land to the company for $1 a year.
It wasn’t enough. Riddell, which makes the football helmets used by many NFL and college players, decided to move its roughly 320 employees just over 2 miles down the road to a neighboring town, which offered its own bundle of incentives and lower corporate and individual income-tax rates.
You can't even argue you are trying to save jobs for local people, because the same people are working, just with a 2 mile delta in their commute.
One of the very earliest posts on this blog, waaaay back in 2005, was to compare local economic development spending to a prisoner's dilemma game:
politicians who are approached by a company looking for a handout for business relocation face what is called the prisoner's dilemma. Many of you may know what that is, but for those who don't, here is a quick explanation, via the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. "You may choose to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise, if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions, but I'll see to it that you both get early parole. If you both remain silent, I'll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer before my return tomorrow morning."
The "dilemma" faced by the prisoners here is that, whatever the other does, each is better off confessing than remaining silent. But the outcome obtained when both confess is worse for each than the outcome they would have obtained had both remained silent.
I hope you can see the parallel to subsidizing business relocations (replace prisoner with "governor" and confess with "subsidize"). In a libertarian world where politicians all just say no to subsidizing businesses, then businesses would end up reasonably evenly distributed across the country (due to labor markets, distribution requirements, etc.) and taxpayers would not be paying any subsidies. However, because politicians fear that their community will lose if they don't play the subsidy game like everyone else (the equivalent of staying silent while your partner is ratting you out in prison) what we end up with is still having businesses reasonably evenly distributed across the country, but with massive subsidies in place.
Of course, garnering positive press releases for politicians' re-election campaigns is part of the equation as well. Actually, the game is worse than a prisoner's dilemma game because politicians playing it enjoy all the positive benefits while the price is paid by others (taxpayers).
It would be great to ban this stuff entirely. But you know what, Arizona already did! In its Constitution no less. And we still can't stop this BS. Our Constitution reads that neither the state nor any municipality in it may “give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association, or corporation.” This seems pretty definitive, but as I wrote here
This has been interpreted by the courts as meaning that if a state or municipal government gives money to a private company, it must get something of value back - ie it pays money to GM and gets a work truck back. But politicians will be politicians and have stretched this rule in the past out of all meaning, by saying that they are getting "soft" benefits back. In other words, they could subsidize the rent of a bookstore because reading is important to the community.
The Goldwater Institute in AZ keeps filing suit and has been pretty successful in blocking some of the most egregious subsidies, but it takes constant vigilance, and at the end of the day, if politicians want to throw money at private companies in order to help their re-election chances, they are going to do it.