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Opinion: Amazon’s bidding war sounds like a curse

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I could only groan when I read the headline: “Saint Louis Unifies to Win Amazon HQ2: A Successful Bid Would Bring 50,000 Jobs to Region.”

Here we go again, I thought – another episode in the long-running story of local and state political figures being played for suckers in offering special tax breaks and subsidies to a major corporation with a much-ballyhooed plan for moving work to another city and state.

In 2013, Boeing decided to shop the production of a new airliner (the 777X) to other states after the local International Machinists Union in Washington voted 2-to-1 to reject Boeing’s offer of an eight-year contract. Keen to wrest this piece of work away from Boeing’s giant facility in Everett, Washington, then-Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Saint Louis County officials were gung-ho participants in the bidding war, which involved 22 states and about twice as many cities.

They quickly put together a package that would award $3.5 billion in tax cuts and tax credits to Boeing, mostly over a 10-year period. A substantial portion of those tax credits would have been transferrable – meaning that Boeing could have sold them for cash to other companies wanting to shelter income in Missouri.

Boeing was promising up to 8,500 high-paying jobs. Though that may sound like a lot, it amounted to just 0.3 percent of total employment in Missouri. Where was the fairness (or the economic logic) in lavishing so much public assistance on one company – and less than half of 1 percent of the workforce – while implicitly increasing the tax burden on thousands of other companies and millions of other workers? In the end, Boeing decided to keep production in Everett – but only after the Washington legislature approved $8.5 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for Boeing. The Seattle Times called it “the largest state-tax subsidy to one company in American history.”

History repeats itself – with Amazon replacing Boeing in what promises to be another bidding war for high-paying jobs. Once again when asked to jump into the game with tax breaks and subsidies, local and state officials – here in Missouri and pretty much across the nation – are all too ready to oblige. They do not question whether they should be in the game; they only ask: How high do you, Amazon, want us to jump?

Wherever it goes with its second headquarters, Amazon is plainly looking for a ton of corporate welfare – almost certainly in the many billions of dollars. Its request for proposals states:

“A stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure will be high-priority considerations for the project. Incentives offered by the state/province and local communities to offset the initial capital outlay and ongoing operational cost will be significant factors in the decision-making process. … Outline the type of incentive (i.e., land, site preparation, tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, utility incentives/grants, permitting and fee reductions) and the amount. The initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers.”

In this case, what is good for Amazon is not good for the country – or for the state of Missouri. Let Amazon pay the “initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business” out of its pocket, just as other businesses do. Corporate welfare is a curse, not a cure.
 
Andrew Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank based in St. Louis. He can be reached at andrew.wilson@showmeinstitute.org.

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