Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.