Economic development tax incentives continue to shrivel under the gaze of the green eye shades.
Recent scandals involving these corporate welfare programs in Maryland and New Jersey offer cautionary tales for lawmakers tempted to join this money-losing game.
On Thursday, an executive admitted to a New Jersey task force that his company’s application for that state’s tax incentive program contained false information. The application stated that the company, Rainforest Distribution, was considering moving to Orangeburg, N.Y.
“At that point in time we had no intention of moving to Orangeburg,” the CEO said.
The application was filled out with the help of a consultant who was familiar with the state’s tax credits. To meet the tax credit criteria, she falsely claimed that the company might move out of state. The state never verified the claim before awarding the business $2.4 million in incentives to move to Bayonne, N.J.
The New Jersey tax credit program has been plagued by scandals, more of which continue to be discovered by reporters. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week how weak controls and questionable deals allowed connected investors to make millions on a property sold for about $20 million less than market value. The building, coincidentally, had been built in the 1990s as part of another publicly funded effort to keep GE from moving. (GE moved.)
Meanwhile, in Maryland, a state audit (DOC19) published in September exposed a shocking lack of controls in that state’s numerous tax credit programs, which hand out tens of millions of dollars.
The Maryland Department of Commerce “failed to monitor recipients of its programs for compliance” with applicable laws and regulations, the audit concluded.
For programs that required companies to create certain numbers of jobs, for instance, the department did not check payroll records but took company statements at face value.
In one case, the department awarded $5.5 million for a project that was ineligible because it consisted of “a sale and purchase transaction between related parties.”
Rather than being a valuable economic development tool, state tax incentives create incentives and opportunities for insider dealing and abuse of taxpayer funds.
Companies have incentives to cozy up to elected officials and bureaucrats, and to fudge forms. Public officials famously have less rigorous standards for giving away other people’s money than investors have for giving away their own, which is why these programs are infamous for well-connected businesses getting the better of taxpayers.
Elected officials have incentives to produce headlines and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, not returns on investment.
These latest stories offer additional cautionary tales for legislators.