2014: A Landmark Year for Subsidy Accountability

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Two-thousand fourteen was a banner year for our movement, hands down. The first move to require standardized subsidy-cost reporting! The first half of a legally-binding two-state cease fire deal! The first state ban on tax-break commissions! A big surge found in state disclosure of subsidies! Big improvements to our Subsidy Tracker, enabling first-ever mash-ups! And a governor apparently shamed to stop his partisan job piracy forays!

GASB Finally Weighs In: After a decades-long conspicuous absence, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) announced in October that it would soon issue a draft standard to require states and localities to account for the revenue they lose to economic development tax breaks.

This is a truly tectonic event in the decades-long struggle to rein in corporate tax breaks. When states and localities start issuing the new data in 2017, we predict it will enable massive new bodies of analysis and policymaking: in state and local finance, tax policy, government transparency, economic development, regionalism and sprawl, public education finance, and campaign finance.

The day the Exposure Draft was published on October 31, we swung into action, issuing a critique of it, speaking on two webinars and answering many queries. We are posting exemplary comments here.  If you haven’t filed a comment with GASB yet, the deadline is January 30. Contact us ASAP if you need help.

FASB Enters the Debate, Too! In late December, GASB’s sister group, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which effectively regulates private-sector bookkeeping, revealed that it too is debating whether and how to require disclosure of state and local tax breaks by the recipient corporations. The FASB process is well behind that of GASB, but this is equally tectonic.  See “Disclosures by Business Entities about Government Assistance.”

Missouri Enacts Half of a Bi-State Cease-Fire: In July, Missouri’s “red” legislature and “blue” governor agreed on legislation that is the first time a state has enacted a legally binding half of a two-state “cease fire” in the economic war among the states. Kansas has until July 2016 to reciprocate: the ball is in your court, Gov. Sam Brownback!  Credit for this victory belongs to a group of 17 Kansas City-area businesses, led by Hallmark, who went public in 2011.

Disclosure Found in 47 States plus DC: In January, we issued our latest 50-state “report card” study on state transparency of company-specific subsidy data. We found that only three states—get with it, Delaware, Idaho and Kansas!—are still failing to disclose online (more than double the 23 states we found disclosing in 2007). But we also found that reporting of actual jobs created and actual wages paid is still lagging: only one in four major state subsidy programs discloses actual job-creation outcomes and only one in eleven reports wages.

First-Ever Ban on Tax-Break Consultant Commissions: In September, California became the first state to ever ban consultant commissions on an economic development tax break. It’s a reform we have long called for and would become commonplace if states registered and regulated tax-break consultants as lobbyists.

Subsidy Tracker “2.0” Upgrade: In February, we unveiled a massive upgrade to Subsidy Tracker, linking more than 30,000 subsidy awards to their ultimate corporate parents and issuing “Subsidizing the Corporate One Percent,” showing that just 965 companies have received three-fourths of recorded subsidy dollars. Later in the year, we mashed up Tracker data with the Forbes 400 and with low-wage employers to reveal more than $21 billion in subsidies fueling economic inequality.

Perry Quits Partisan Job Piracy: 2014 was also notable for what didn’t happen. After our September 2013 study chastising Texas Gov. Rick Perry for making interstate job piracy a partisan sport and for issuing deceptive disclaimers about who funded his highly publicized trips to six states with Democratic governors (Texas taxpayers are footing part of the bill)—and a follow-up blog basically daring him to do it again—he never did, and will leave office January 20th.

Truth in TIF Taxation: In July, Cook County, Illinois started showing property taxpayers how much (in both dollars and percent) of their taxes are going to tax increment financing (TIF) districts, the largest jurisdiction known to be doing that in the U.S.

Property Tax Losses Revealed: In studies covering Chicago and Memphis, we revealed that property tax losses—either to TIF in Chicago or PILOTs in Memphis—are costing enormous sums that could be meeting other needs: 1/10th and 1/7th, respectively, of their entire property tax bases. The studies helped block a tax hike in Chicago and changed the debate in Memphis.

Privatization Slowed: Only one more state privatized its economic development agency: North Carolina. After our October 2013 study, Creating Scandals Instead of Jobs, documenting scandals nationwide, provoked editorials in three of the Tarheel State’s leading newspapers, Gov. Robert McCrory’s plans to fast-track a new privatized entity were slowed. It was later created, but with many of the safeguards we recommend if a state chooses such a structure.

Transit Investments as Economic Development Done Right: In case studies in St. Paul and Normal, Illinois, we documented the broad job-creation benefits for more than a dozen Building Trades crafts when transportation investments build transit hubs that spur massive new transit-oriented development. We even gave cautious approval to Normal’s use of a related TIF district.

It was also the year Tesla ran a five-state public auction for a battery plant. Kudos to the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, California Budget Project, Southwest Organizing project in New Mexico, Arizona PIRG and Texans for Public Justice who staged a high-profile outcry with us, calling out Tesla for its Old Economy whipsawing behavior. Ultimately, Nevada overspent for the trophy deal at $1.3 billion and will go down in history as the birthplace of what we dubbed the “tax credit capture zone,” a new benchmark for tax-break greed.

Almost a Record Year for “Megadeals.” As we found in an update of our “Megadeals” study and entries in our Subsidy Tracker database: we now have 298 such deals documented over $60 million and some over $1 billion. Only 2013, with its record Boeing megadeal of $8.7 billion, cost more than 2014.

Finally, 2014 was the year we said goodbye to Bettina Damiani after her stunning 13-year streak of achievements at Good Jobs New York: the best local disclosure law in the country (won in 2005 and later improved); an online database of >41,000 deals; a radical overhaul of the process by which the NYC IDA relates to the public (enabling project interventions from diverse grassroots groups); $11 million in improper rent deductions disgorged by the New York Yankees; a racetrack defeated on Staten Island wetlands; and assistance to hundreds of community groups, unions, environmentalists and journalists challenging the status quo. One of Bettina’s tangible legacies: the space for new mayor Bill de Blasio to do things like saying no to JP Morgan Chase’s demand for $1 billion to move across Manhattan (with our database documenting its huge past subsidies and job shortfalls).

If you like what we do, please support Good Jobs First: we have a lot in the works for 2015, too!

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