State Corporate Welfare Programs Under Fire

One positive outcome of the recession, as the states struggle to find revenue to spend, is that state subsidies to businesses are facing increased scrutiny.

This week the New York Times reported that states are looking at reducing or ending programs that hand out taxpayer money to television and movie producers. In Pennsylvania, some last-minute handouts from outgoing governor Ed Rendell are under fire, including a $10 million state grant to rehabilitate a former Sony plant for new tenants. According to the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nate Benefield, this is the fourth time Pennsylvania taxpayers have subsidized the site:

Sony moved out in 2007, despite getting more than $40 million in corporate welfare under Gov. Robert P. Casey to come to Pennsylvania, then another $1 million grant under Rendell to stay in the state—a mere two years before shutting down its plant.

Before Sony, the site was occupied by Volkswagen, which got $70 million in state aid in the 1970s under Gov. Milton Shapp. This was touted as a great success – until Volkswagen moved out in 1987, after 10 years of operation.

Pennsylvania is merely renting jobs with this “economic development” spending, burdening other businesses with higher taxes. Hopefully, Gov. Tom Corbett can learn from the failed policies of the past and work on improving the state’s economic climate rather than trying to pick winners.

New Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett could learn a lesson from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which received another black eye this week. I’ve written previously on problems with the IEDC, which is the state’s corporate welfare arm. As a former budget official with the State of Indiana, I can attest that the IEDC’s string of embarrassments is as unsurprising as it is appalling.

On Tuesday, investigative report Bob Segall of WTHR-TV in Indianapolis released the latest in a series of reports on the IEDC’s exaggerated job creation claims. (Intrepid journalists take note: Bob and his team just received a prestigious Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award for their investigatory work on the IEDC.)

Bob took the findings of a recent audit and ascertained that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and the IEDC haven’t been giving Hoosiers the full story.

From the report:

The “Summary of Incentive Program Review” prepared by audit firm Crowe Horwath examined 597 job-creation projects outlined in IEDC annual reports from 2005 to 2009. The projects were listed as “Indiana Economic Successes” that would bring new jobs to Indiana.

According to the report, those projects were expected to create 44,208 jobs by late 2010 and, based on the most recent information available to auditors, have so far resulted in 37,640 actual jobs — a realization rate of 85%.

But the state’s job realization rate is actually much lower than 85%, according to additional data reviewed by WTHR.

The numbers cited above are based solely on data for “reporting companies,” and they do not include job data for 200 other projects also listed as “Indiana Economic Successes” in IEDC annual reports. Including those projects, as well, the number of newly-created jobs the agency had anticipated to materialize by the end of 2010 is 57,088 (not 44,208), according to the report. Using that figure, IEDC’s job realization rate is 66%.

And nowhere does the audit report mention the 98,683 total new job commitments announced by IEDC from 2005 to 2009. Using that number — which IEDC and the governor have repeatedly promoted in their press releases, speeches and annual reports – the audit data suggests, so far, only 38% of jobs announced by IEDC have resulted in actual jobs. While that percentage is expected to increase in coming years (some of the companies are not expected to fulfill all of their job commitments for several more years), the overall numbers show IEDC’s real job realization statistics are much lower than the agency portrays to the public by citing far more limited data.

Two words in this selection from the report stand out: “press releases.” My observations of the IEDC from within the Daniels administration led me to coin the phrase “press release economics” to describe what Indiana government officials were really practicing.

Programs that hand out taxpayer money to businesses to lure or retain jobs are popular with state politicians, and Governor Daniels is no different. Better policies, like cutting business taxes across the board, require a willingness to expend substantial political capital without an immediate payoff. (I recently read that Daniels would sign a cut in the state’s high corporate tax rate if a proposal in the state legislature makes it to his desk. Daniels had turned down the idea of cutting the corporate rate while I was there, so the change of heart is curious but nonetheless welcome.)

Targeted business subsidies, on the other hand, are cheaper and generate immediate, favorable press. Unfortunately, this form of central planning is unsound as it merely transfers economic resources from taxpayers – including businesses – to businesses favored by government officials. And because government officials are inherently inferior to the market when it comes to directing economic activity, the results are far from ideal – and often downright counterproductive.