Corporate virtue and corporate subsidies
By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest
For a speech that was supposed to focus on the plight of low-wage workers, President Obama's State of the Union contained a surprising number of favorable references to specific large corporations. I counted seven plugs -- for Apple, Costco, Ford, Google, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon. The Ford mention, which alluded to "the best-selling truck in America," sounded like a high-level product placement.
Most of these companies were cited for their supposed acts of corporate virtue, such as the role of the telecoms in helping to bring high-speed broadband to schools. There's something else these firms have in common: they've all been recipients of substantial economic development subsidies from state and local governments.
My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First issued two reports last week that take a critical stance toward these types of financial aid to business. In one of the reports, Putting State Pension Costs in Context, we look at how the revenue loss from subsidies and corporate tax breaks and loopholes compare to the cost of public employee pensions in ten states where those retirement benefits have been under attack.
We find that in every one of the states the corporate giveaways far outweigh the current costs of providing pensions to state workers. In the case of Louisiana, for example, the giveaways are more than five times the retirement costs.
State legislators and governors have a tendency these days to get frantic about pension costs. Our research suggest that they should be more concerned about the larger revenue losses stemming from what are often ineffective "incentives" given to business.
The other report, Show Us the Subsidized Jobs, is the latest in our series of surveys on the performance of state governments in disclosing online which companies are getting financial assistance and what they are doing with it, especially in relation to job creation. There are two main messages that emerge from the study.
First is the fact that there is now at least some online recipient disclosure in all but a handful of states. The number has doubled since we did the first of these surveys in 2007. That's the good news.
The other message is not so encouraging: There are vast discrepancies in the depth and the quality of the disclosure. Some states such as Michigan and North Carolina provide reasonably good disclosure for all their major programs, while others such as Nevada and South Carolina provide bare-bones disclosure -- meaning company names only -- for only one key program. In many cases no information is reported on the number of jobs subsidized companies are creating or the wages being paid.
To enable detailed comparisons of programs, we rate them on a scale of 0 to 100. Points are given for providing details on subsidy amounts, on job and wage outcomes, and on the inclusion of key information about subsidized projects and companies. We also rate programs on how easy it is to find and use the data.
Based on this system, the states with the best average scores for their key programs are Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina. Being best in relative terms does not mean that the absolute scores are very impressive. Top-ranking Illinois has an average of only 65 and Michigan comes in at 58. Every other state has an average below 50 percent. The average program score is only 21 (or 39 if you leave out those with no disclosure at all). Only seven programs score 75 or above.
These scores are so low mainly because so many programs fail to provide good reporting on outcomes, which account for a large portion of the points in our scoring system. Fewer than half of the 246 programs we examine include any reporting on jobs or wages in subsidized companies. And many of those that do provide only projections rather than the actual amounts. Less than one-tenth of the programs provide actual amounts for both jobs and wages.
In the report we emphasize that transparency does not equal effectiveness or complete accountability. A program can disclose all the essential details but still be a waste of taxpayer money. Transparency is what allows the public to determine when that is the case.
Our interest in disclosure is not only for abstract reasons of accountability. If states put more information online, there were will more for us to capture for our Subsidy Tracker database, a national search engine covering more than 500 programs.
This month we will introduce Subsidy Tracker 2.0. Along with the raw data, we will add information on the parent company of the recipient firms. This will make it possible to see at a glance how much large companies such as the seven cited above have received across the country. The Dirt Diggers Digest will provide wall-to-wall coverage.