Archive for the ‘Privatized Economic Development Agency’ Category

Wisconsin’s Privatized Jobs Agency Criticized Again

May 13, 2015

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The evidence continues to mount against the notion that privatized economic development agencies are a responsible means to promote state  economic development  A new audit of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) echoes previous findings in outlining missteps at the agency. For example, the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau finds that:

  • “WEDC did not report clear, accurate, and complete information on the numbers of jobs created and retained as a result of its programs.”
  • Subsidy recipients were not required to submit critical informational about job creation outcomes.
  • Subsidies were awarded to a company for jobs that had been created prior to the awarding of a tax break agreement.
  • The agency has lax implementation on wage standards.
  • A provision to steer state economic development dollars toward small businesses and rural areas was quietly eliminated in July 2014.

The audit was so embarrassing that Gov. Scott Walker dropped a plan to expand the WEDC’s authority by merging the state’s housing finance agency into it.

Despite the poor track record of agencies such as WEDC, other states including Wisconsin’s neighbor Illinois, continue to consider privatizing their state commerce agencies. They should instead heed  the lessons of Wisconsin (and Indiana, Florida, and Ohio to name a few) and acknowledge that privatization is no policy panacea.

2014: A Landmark Year for Subsidy Accountability

January 14, 2015

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!

North Carolina Conflict of Interest Controversies

September 16, 2014

As odd as it sounds, North Carolina’s ethics law allows high-level state appointees to serve on the boards of for-profit

Secretary Sharon Decker

Secretary Sharon Decker

corporations. Such officials are prohibited, however, from taking actions that might create a conflict of interest with their official duties. Sharon Decker, the state’s secretary of commerce, is taking advantage of that law but is ignoring what many observers see as an obvious conflict.

Decker has been serving on the board of Family Dollar Stores, one of the country’s largest chains of deep-discount retailers. That part-time post pays her more (nearly $150,000 last year) than her official salary ($136,000). Being a Family Dollar director these days is more challenging than usual. The company, responding to concerns about its financial performance, agreed a few months ago to be acquired by its rival Dollar Tree. But then the biggest dollar-store chain of all, Dollar General, made its own offer.

The situation remains unresolved, but it is likely that any change in ownership of Family Dollar will jeopardize jobs at the company’s headquarters in Matthews, North Carolina. In other words, Decker, whose duties include promoting job creation, might very well be taking steps in her private position that reduces employment in the state.

Decker’s situation creates serious questions about the policy of allowing high-level economic development officials to sit on corporate boards. On one hand, those officials are responsible for protecting North Carolina jobs and for representing the state’s interest in negotiations with companies. On the other hand, as directors they are responsible for maximizing profits of corporations.

Decker is not the first high-level official whose close relationship with a private company has caused public concern. For 14 years when Gov. McCrory was Charlotte’s mayor, he was also a manager at Duke Energy. The recent coal ash spill caused by the company raised questions about whether the Governor was still advancing the interests of the company.

There is another troubling aspect of this story. The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a newly created private arm of the Commerce Department, is about to start its operation. Its employees will follow the same ethics rules as legislators and executive branch officials, meaning that they could end up in similar positions to McCrory and Decker.

The next time they meet, North Carolina legislators might want to consider whether it’s time to overhaul the state’s conflict of interest rules.

North Carolina Puts the Brakes on Subsidy Spending but Moves Ahead on Privatization

August 25, 2014
North Carolina State Capitol. Image by Abbylabar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

North Carolina State Capitol. Image by Abbylabar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For the past decade, North Carolina has spent heavily on subsidies, abandoning its previous economic stinginess. In an encouraging new reversal, the Tar Heel State is returning to its old ways. In a just completed short session, the state legislature took two important steps to limit giveaways: it ended one of the country’s biggest film tax credit programs and it defeated a proposal by Gov. Pat McCrory and Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker to create a deal-closing slush fund. The defeat of the fund also meant the rejection of an expansion of several existing subsidy programs and a special deal for a paper mill.

Not everything coming out of the session was positive. Lawmakers moved ahead with an ill-conceived plan to privatize job recruitment functions of the state’s Commerce Department. The plan was approved despite warnings of problems with similar quasi-public agencies across the country and despite revelations by the N.C. Policy Watch that the Partnership’s CEO lacks experience in economic development and led his company into bankruptcy.

It was the second attempt by the Governor and Commerce Secretary to pass this bill. During the previous legislative session, a similar proposal failed when an amendment that would lift the state moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was added to the bill (the North Carolina chapter in our Creating Scandals Instead of Jobs study has more details on that plan).

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Virginia Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Ban Pay-To-Play on Subsidies

May 30, 2014

This week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have banned corporations seeking Governor’s Opportunity Fund (GOF) subsidies from making contributions or gifts to the elected official awarding those subsidies: in other words, the Governor himself. The bill had unanimous two-chamber support among both Republicans and Democrats, and members of both parties criticized the Governor’s action.

Governor McAuliffe’s primary objection cited in the veto to the bill was that state legislators ought to be held to the same standards. The statute and guidelines state that GOF subsidies are awarded primarily at the discretion of the Governor, though the General Assembly and the Attorney General have a modest oversight role. One co-sponsor of the bill stated that he hopes to re-introduce the bill again next session, though it’s unclear whether the bill will stay in its current form.

It’s a strange moment in Virginia politics. The bill arose out of concern related to the previous Governor’s gift scandal. Just after leaving office in January, former Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted, something that had never happened before in the state.

Is such legislation needed in Virginia?

Good Jobs First previously highlighted an apparent pay-to-play issue in Virginia when McDonnell awarded Northrop Grumman $3 million in GOF subsidies after receiving major campaign contributions from the company.

While banning contributions to politicians from companies seeking subsidies is one way to encourage stronger ethics in government, another approach could be to ban companies from receiving subsidies if they have given or subsequently give contributions to officials awarding or enforcing subsidy contracts. Both would deter pay-to-play practices. Excluding subsidies to campaign contributors would be far easier to implement by shifting implementation away from elected officials and onto agencies awarding subsidies. Just as failing to create jobs can result in recapture or rescission of subsidies, a subsidy contract can undergo a clawback if the agency finds that a company has given to key public officials.

Apparent pay-to-play subsidies are not a problem isolated to Virginia. For example:

  • Texas: As we blogged previously, several newspapers have suggested that economic development subsidies controlled by Texas Governor Rick Perry are tied to fund-raising.
  • Wisconsin: Investigative Reporter Mike Ivey reported this week that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a privatized economic development agency, has awarded more than 60 percent of $975 million in subsidies to companies that have contributed to Governor Scott Walker or the Republican Governor’s Association.

For decades, state and cities have taken strong stances against allowing gifts and campaign contributions to contractors. Why not ensure the same level of integrity when it comes to economic development spending?

New ProgressOhio Report: JobsOhio Unaccountable and Ineffective

May 29, 2014

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ProgressOhio released a report today questioning the accountability and effectiveness of JobsOhio, the privatized economic development agency created by Gov. John Kasich in 2011.  The organization found that JobsOhio “exaggerated its impact, funneled state money to companies that did not create or retain the promised jobs, and has a pattern of helping companies with ties to its politically potent governing board.”

The report was released in conjunction with a discussion hosted by the American Constitution Society.    ProgressOhio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg told the event audience that “JobsOhio is secret because it is private. But we still get glimpses of the toxic mix of public money and private gain.”

Read the full report here.

Rhode Island Considers Defaulting on Bonds for Notorious 38 Studios Deal

May 22, 2014

The aftermath of Rhode Island’s biggest economic development scandal isn’t over yet. In 2010 the state’s privatized economic development agency loaned 38 Studios—a video game company founded by former major league pitcher Curt Schilling—some $75 million in subsidies which the state borrowed to provide. The firm soon failed, apparently leaving taxpayers with an obligation that has risen to $89 million (with interest), including a $12.3 million payment due next year.

Those payments are now in question. Rhode Island’s House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has scheduled meetings with Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to discuss the consequences of failing to pay. While these bonds are not backed by the full faith and credit of Rhode Island, a previous consultant to the state made dire warnings about failure to pay, claiming that the move would degrade Rhode Island to junk bond status.

Mattiello became Speaker two months ago after the FBI raided the office of his predecessor Gordon Fox, who had played a significant role in approving the loan to 38 Studios. According to recent news reports, Fox’s lawyer moved to quash a subpoena for documents related to 38 Studios, citing his client’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. No charges have been filed pursuant to the raid.

Fox also had connections to a Providence lawyer named Michael Corso, who was involved with the 38 Studios deal.  Leaked documents show that Corso was paid $300,000 by 38 Studios to interact with state agencies and officials. Additional revelations show Corso was paid $485 an hour by 38 Studios to evaluate potential incentives for the company. Corso failed to register as a lobbyist on behalf of 38 Studios. This revelation launched an additional investigation this May by State Police into potential lobbying violations.

Corso is also a tax-credit broker. His company, Preservation Credit Fund, had a contract with 38 Studios to allow it to sell tax credits secured by the company. According to Corso’s LinkedIn page, “Preservation Credit Fund works closely with developers and advisors to maximize tax credit benefits, advise on tax credit issues and provide syndication services.” Corso has been dubbed the state’s leading film tax credit broker and has even claimed to be the primary draftsperson of Rhode Island’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit.

In another strange development, the state recently hired First Southwest, a financial adviser it is simultaneously suing for “fraud, negligence, and legal malpractice” in connection with the 38 Studios loan. According to the state’s lawsuit and reported by the Providence Journal, First Southwest was paid $120,000 to pitch the 38 Studios’ loan subsidy to the privatized economic development agency’s board of directors and bond rating agencies.  The lawsuit accuses First Southwest of withholding vital information about the deal, primarily that the company was under-capitalized, thus making the loan appear less risky than it was. The company denies these allegations. New emails made public this week reveal internal discussions amongst 38 Studios executives about downplaying the under-capitalization issue.

It is a little-known fact that states and cities sometimes cover debt obligations for failed or troubled economic development transactions (including tax increment financing districts), even though they are not technically obligated to do so. But the fear of paying usurious interest rates on future deals causes them to reluctantly pay. Good Jobs First has observed that in the Great Recession, some development agencies apparently became very lax in their deal-vetting standards, as politicians were desperate to appear aggressive on jobs.  For performance-based subsidies, at least taxpayers won’t suffer from such deals; but when public debt is floated on insufficient collateral, as in the Studio 38 deal, taxpayers stand to suffer no matter what Rhode Island officials decide to do.

It’s a Teachable Moment about celebrity entrepreneurs, tax-credit consultants, and anxious politicians.