Tax-increment financing (TIF) is an increasingly popular way for cities to promote economic development. TIF works by allowing cities to use the property, sales, and other taxes collected from new developments — taxes that would otherwise go to schools, libraries, fire departments, and other urban services — to subsidize those same developments.
While cities often claim that TIF is “free money” because it represents the taxes collected from developments that might not have taken place without the subsidy, there is plenty of evidence that this is not true. First, several studies have found that the developments subsidized by TIF would have happened anyway in the same urban area, though not necessarily the same location. Second, new developments impose costs on schools, fire departments, and other urban services, so other taxpayers must either pay more to cover those costs or accept a lower level of services as services are spread to developments that are not paying for them.
Moreover, rather than promoting economic development, many if not most TIF subsidies are used for entirely different purposes. First, many states give cities enormous discretion for how they use TIF funds, turning TIF into a way for cities to capture taxes that would otherwise go to rival tax entities such as school or library districts. Second, no matter how well-intentioned, city officials will always be tempted to use TIF as a vehicle for crony capitalism, providing subsidies to developers who in turn provide campaign funds to politicians.
Finally, many cities use TIF to persuade developers to build “new-urban” (high-density, mixed-use) developments that are supposedly greener than traditional designs but are less marketable than low-density suburbs. Albuquerque, Denver, Portland, and other cities have each spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting such developments when developers would have been happy to build low-density developments without any subsidies.
TIF takes money from schools, fire departments, libraries, and other urban services funded by property taxes. By eliminating TIF, state legislatures can help close current budget gaps and prevent cities from taking even more money from these urban services in the future.