New York Times, December 1, 2012
Headline: As Companies Seek Tax Deals, Governments Pay High Price
By LOUISE STORY
In the end, the money that towns across America gave General Motors did not matter.
When the automaker released a list of factories it was closing during bankruptcy three years ago, communities that had considered themselves G.M.’s business partners were among the targets.
For years, mayors and governors anxious about local jobs had agreed to G.M.’s demands for cash rewards, free buildings, worker training and lucrative tax breaks. As late as 2007, the company was telling local officials that these sorts of incentives would “further G.M.’s strong relationship” with them and be a “win/win situation,” according to town council notes from one Michigan community.
Yet at least 50 properties on the 2009 liquidation list were in towns and states that had awarded incentives, adding up to billions in taxpayer dollars, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Some officials, desperate to keep G.M., offered more. Ohio was proposing a $56 million deal to save its Moraine plant, and Wisconsin, fighting for its Janesville factory, offered $153 million.
But their overtures were to no avail. G.M. walked away and, thanks to a federal bailout, is once again profitable. The towns have not been so fortunate, having spent scarce funds in exchange for thousands of jobs that no longer exist.
One township, Ypsilanti, Mich., is suing over the automaker’s departure. “You can’t just make these promises and throw them around like they’re spare change in the drawer,” said Doug Winters, the township’s attorney.
Yet across the country, companies have been doing just that. And the giveaways are adding up to a gigantic bill for taxpayers.
A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.
The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.
“How can you even talk about rationalizing what you’re doing when you don’t even know what you’re doing?” said Timothy J. Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The Times analyzed more than 150,000 awards and created a searchable database of incentive spending. The survey was supplemented by interviews with more than 100 officials in government and business organizations as well as corporate executives and consultants.
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.
Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.
The Times analysis shows that Texas awards more incentives, over $19 billion a year, than any other state. Alaska, West Virginia and Nebraska give up the most per resident.
For many communities, the payouts add up to a substantial chunk of their overall spending, the analysis found. Oklahoma and West Virginia give up amounts equal to about one-third of their budgets, and Maine allocates nearly a fifth.
In a few states, the cost of incentives is not significant. But several of them have low business taxes — or none at all — which can save companies even more money than tax credits.
For Mr. Hall and others in Kansas City, the futility of free-flowing incentives has been underscored by a border war between Kansas and Missouri.
Soon after Kansas recruited AMC Entertainment with a $36 million award last year, the state cut its education budget by $104 million. AMC was moving only a few miles, across the border from Missouri. Workers saw little change other than in commuting times and office décor. A few months later, Missouri lured Applebee’s headquarters from Kansas.
“I just shake my head every time it happens, it just gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” said Sean O’Byrne, the vice president of the Downtown Council of Kansas City. “It sounds like I’m talking myself out of a job, but there ought to be a law against what I’m doing.”
Outgunned by Companies
For local governments, incentives have become the cost of doing business with almost every business. The Times found that the awards go to companies big and small, those gushing in profits and those sinking in losses, American companies and foreign companies, and every industry imaginable.
Workers are a vital ingredient in any business, yet companies and government officials increasingly view the creation of jobs as an expense that should be subsidized by taxpayers, private consultants and local officials said.
Even big retailers and hotels, whose business depends on being in specific locations, bargain for incentives as if they can move anywhere. The same can be said for many movie productions, which almost never come to town without local subsidies.
Nationwide, billions of dollars in incentives are being awarded as state governments face steep deficits. Last year alone, states cut public services and raised taxes by a collective $156 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning advocacy group.
Incentives come in many forms: cash grants and loans; sales tax breaks; income tax credits and exemptions; free services; and property tax abatements. The income tax breaks add up to $18 billion and sales tax relief around $52 billion of the overall $80 billion in incentives.
Collecting data on property tax abatements is the most difficult because only a handful of states track the amounts given by cities and counties. Among them is New York, where businesses save an estimated $1.1 billion a year in property taxes. The American International Group, the insurance company at the center of the 2008 financial crisis, continued to benefit from a $23.8 million abatement from New York City at the same time it was being bailed out with $180 billion in federal money.
Since 2000, The New York Times Company has received more than $24 million from the city and state.
In some places, local officials have little choice but to answer the demands of corporations.
“They dictate their terms, and we’re not really in a position to question their deal terms,” Sarah Eckhardt, a commissioner in Travis County, Tex., said of companies she has dealt with recently, including Apple and Hewlett-Packard. “We don’t have the sophistication or the resources to negotiate with a company that has the wherewithal the size of a country. We are just no match in negotiating with that.”
Caterpillar has received more than $196 million in local aid nationwide since 2007, though it has chastised states, particularly its home base, Illinois, for not being business-friendly. This year, Caterpillar announced a new plant in Georgia, which offered $44 million in incentives. Local counties chipped in free land and other aid, including $15 million in tax breaks and $8.2 million in road, water and sewer repairs.
The company, whose profits are soaring, recently froze workers’ pay for six years at several locations, arguing that it needed to remain competitive. A spokesman for the company, Jim Dugan, said it employed more than 50,000 people and invested billions of dollars nationwide.
Local officials typically have scant information about the track record of corporations, like whether they lived up to job assurances elsewhere. And some officials acknowledged that they did not know to what extent incentives were a deciding factor for companies.
“I don’t know that there’s a way to know other than talking to the businesses, and the businesses telling us that that was a factor in creating jobs,” said Ken Striplin, the city manager of Santa Clarita, Calif., which gives tax breaks in a designated enterprise zone. “There’s no box that says ‘I would have created this job without the enterprise zone.’ ”
California is one of the few states that have been cutting back on incentives. But that does not mean its cities are following suit. When Twitter threatened to leave San Francisco last year, officials scrambled to assuage the company.
Twitter was not short on money — it soon received a $300 million investment from a Saudi prince and $800 million from a private consortium. The two received Twitter equity, but San Francisco got a different sort of deal.
The city exempted Twitter from what could total $22 million in payroll taxes, and the company agreed to stay put. The city estimates that Twitter’s work force could grow to 2,600 employees, although the company made no such promise.
A Twitter spokeswoman said the company was “very happy to have been able to stay in San Francisco.” City officials did not respond to inquiries.
Like many places, San Francisco has been cutting its budget. Public parks have lost about $12 million in recent years, though workers at Twitter will not lack for greenery. The company’s plush new office has a rooftop garden with great views and amenities. Enjoying the perks, one employee sent out a tweet: “Tanned on Twitter’s new roof deck this morning as some dude served me smoothie shots. This is real life?”
The guest of honor was Gov. Rick Perry, but the man behind the event was not one of the enclave’s boldface names. He was a tax consultant named G. Brint Ryan.
Mr. Ryan’s specialty is helping clients like ExxonMobil and Neiman Marcus secure state and local tax breaks and other business incentives. It is a good line of work in Texas.
Under Mr. Perry, Texas gives out more of the incentives than any other state, around $19 billion a year, an examination by The New York Times has found. Texas justifies its largess by pointing out that it is home to half of all the private sector jobs created over the last decade nationwide. As the invitation to the fund-raiser boasted: “Texas leads the nation in job creation.”
Yet the raw numbers mask a more complicated reality behind the flood of incentives, the examination shows, and raise questions about who benefits more, the businesses or the people of Texas.
Along with the huge job growth, the state has the third-highest proportion of hourly jobs paying at or below minimum wage. And despite its low level of unemployment, Texas has the 11th-highest poverty rate among states.
“While economic development is the mantra of most officials, there’s a question of when does economic development end and corporate welfare begin,” said Dale Craymer, the president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, a group supported by business that favors incentives programs.
In a state that markets itself as “wide open for business,” the lines are often blurred between decision makers and beneficiaries, according to interviews with dozens of state and local officials and corporate representatives. The government in many instances is relying on businesses and consultants like Mr. Ryan for suggestions on what incentives to grant and which companies should receive them, as well as on other factors that directly affect public spending and budgets, the interviews show.
Mr. Ryan does not claim to be neutral on where the money should go. “It’s widely known that I represent a lot of taxpayers,” he said in an interview. “I have client relationships with people who hopefully, if they invest in Texas, they’ll receive incentives.”
To help balance its budget last year, Texas cut public education spending by $5.4 billion — a significant decrease considering that it already ranked 11th from the bottom among all states in per-pupil financing, according to recent data from the Census Bureau. Yet highly profitable companies like Dow Chemical and Texas Instruments continue to enjoy hefty discounts on their school tax bills through one of the state’s economic development programs.
In the Manor school district, which comprises the town and part of Austin, Samsung has been awarded more than $231 million in incentives from state and local officials. But the recent budget cuts have left the district with crowded classes and fewer programs.
Mr. Perry, who took office at the end of 2000, has been a longtime proponent of lowering taxes. He said in an interview that companies could put the money to better use than the government and would spend it in ways that would create jobs and help Texans.
“Facebook, eBay, Apple — all of those within the last two years have announced major expansions in Texas,” Mr. Perry said. “They’re coming because it is given, it is covenant, in these boardrooms across America, that our tax structure, regulatory climate and legal environment are very positive to those businesses.”
He acknowledged that the state’s job growth was not erasing persistent poverty, saying that “we are going to have people that fall through the cracks.” He said creating jobs was the best way to help Texans, who “don’t want government assistance when they can do it themselves.”
But relying on companies does not always turn out well. When Amazon set up a distribution center outside Dallas, it received incentives from the state. Six years later, when the company got into a tax dispute with the state, it shut the warehouse, which employed as many as 2,000 people during its peak season.
Nationwide, a whole industry of consultants has grown up around state efforts to lure companies with incentives. Companies like Ernst & Young, Deloitte and Automatic Data Processing, a payroll company, have divisions dedicated to helping companies search for the best deals.
Mr. Ryan’s Dallas-based firm, Ryan LLC, operates in 27 states and seven countries and represents numerous Fortune 500 companies. Texas alone is a big source of business for Mr. Ryan, who has won tax refunds of more than $20 million each for ExxonMobil and Raytheon. This year, he sought similar amounts for Verizon, Freescale Semiconductor and several other companies, according to state documents obtained through an open records request.
At the same time, Mr. Ryan has become one of the state’s most generous political donors. He co-founded a political action committee last year that supported Mr. Perry’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination and donated $250,000.
Even as business leaders press local governments to give out more incentives, they warn against requiring too much in return.
In Travis County, which includes Austin, commissioners recently passed new rules for companies that receive tax abatements. One requires paying employees $11 an hour, an amount the county considers to be a living wage.
The rules had been contested by the business community. “The more stipulations you put into an agreement, the more complicated it becomes and the less competitive we become,” Gary Farmer, a local business leader who runs an insurance company, told the county commissioners at a hearing. “We’re concerned about including a living wage into the policy, as we believe that could have a chilling effect on certain companies.”
The Money Starts Flowing
When Mr. Perry became governor in 2000, Texas was not a major player in the incentives game. He quickly got his first taste during a bidding war among states when Boeing was hunting for a new location for its headquarters.
Texas ultimately lost to Illinois, which awarded Boeing $52.5 million in incentives, but the episode was a turning point. “We came back in here after we lost that,” Mr. Perry said, “and we analyzed our economic development efforts, and that’s when we started making some changes.”
Mr. Perry got the money flowing through two new cash funds created to recruit businesses. One, the Texas Enterprise Fund, awarded more than $410 million over eight years, according to the governor’s office, and the recipients said they would create more than 54,000 jobs. The fund requires companies that do not meet their job targets to return incentive money.
The state has also embraced a popular program that establishes enterprise zones where companies can receive refunds on some taxes they pay in exchange for moving there. The exemption has added up to big money for retailers like Walmart. Not coincidentally, the company has opened stores in similar enterprise zones across the country.
Walmart owed some of its other tax savings to Mr. Ryan, who counted the retailer among his earliest clients in the 1990s. Once an accounting firm, Ryan LLC transformed itself in recent years into a powerhouse focused on corporate tax breaks.
Mr. Ryan is a familiar presence at the state comptroller’s office in Austin, which must sign off on many tax breaks. He is known there for his laser focus and forceful negotiating skills. “It’s gloves-off, full-frontal assault,” said a former official, who requested anonymity because of state confidentiality rules.
Mr. Ryan agrees that he is aggressive, saying that “guys like me are all that stand between the government fleecing taxpayers.” He has at times filed lawsuits over tax rules he does not like, including one against the head of the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
In one of his most lucrative deals, Mr. Ryan in 2006 helped Texas Instruments win tens of millions of dollars in tax refunds, according to the comptroller’s office. Ryan LLC often gets to keep around 30 percent of its clients’ awards, according to former employees.
That same year, Mr. Ryan was a top donor to the campaign of the comptroller at the time, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, personally giving $250,000, according to campaign finance records. Over the course of Ms. Strayhorn’s tenure, Mr. Ryan, his employees and his company’s PAC would donate nearly $3 million, including when the comptroller ran for governor, the records show. He and his employees have made campaign contributions to the current comptroller, Susan Combs, totaling more than $600,000.
Since 2000, Mr. Ryan and his wife, Amanda, have contributed over $4 million to a variety of state officials and political causes, including the governor. Mr. Perry declined to comment on Mr. Ryan, but at a local event in 2010 he called him “the type of visionary that every community wants to have,” according to The Abilene Reporter-News.
Mr. Ryan said that he gave to candidates in many states and that his donations brought extra scrutiny, not favorable treatment.
Others see it differently. “When you give money to a state regulator who you appear before, there are potential conflicts of interest,” said Craig McDonald, the executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group. “And Texas law is way too weak in allowing those conflicts to exist.”
Mr. Perry has made corporate recruitment a hallmark of his administration. The governor frequently makes trips to cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco to lure prospective businesses.
During a visit to San Diego in June, he proudly told local officials that about a third of the companies moving to Texas were from California, said Ruben Barrales, the chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Governor Perry is here quite a bit,” Mr. Barrales said. “He meets with companies. He’s letting people know if they’re interested in further growth, Texas will greet them with open arms. He’s not very shy about it.”
Asked if he had qualms about taking jobs from other states, Mr. Perry said, “Competition is what drives this country.”
A nonprofit group called TexasOne recommends potential businesses to the governor and then pays for his travel and other expenses during the recruiting trips. The group is financed by large corporations like Shell and AT&T, as well as by consultants like Ryan LLC.
The governor’s office allocates the awards, which state records show amount to millions of dollars each year. In the enterprise zone program, 82 of the 222 awards granted from March 2008 to June 2012 went to companies represented by Mr. Ryan’s firm, according to public records provided by the governor’s office. The list included General Motors, Tyson Foods and the German chemical giant BASF.
Until recently, the cash incentives were overseen in Mr. Perry’s office by a top aide, Roberto De Hoyos. In September, Mr. De Hoyos took a new job — at Ryan LLC.
Companies Gain, Schools Lose
Lines of new students show up each August at the public schools in Manor. The town is mostly rural, with fields of hay and cattle in every direction. Some of the students’ families came to double up with relatives or friends, others were pushed outward by Austin’s gentrification.
Downtown Manor consists of a couple of blocks lined with spots like Ramos Cocina and a smoke-filled convenience store. There are few doctors and no real place to buy groceries.
About six miles away, a fabrication plant for the South Korean company Samsung looms over one of Manor’s elementary schools, a symbol of corporate interests juxtaposed with a pillar of public spending. The complex, which makes memory chips for smartphones and other products, includes some of the largest buildings in the area: one covers 1.6 million square feet, or about nine football fields.
Since Mr. Perry took office, companies have seen a drop in their school property taxes because of a special incentives program, as well as an across-the-board cut in the school tax rate. The recession has made the squeeze all the more difficult for schools.
In the Manor district, spending shrank by about $540 per student this year, according to the Equity Center, an advocacy group for Texas schools. The cuts came even as school enrollment has nearly tripled since 2000.
The cracks in financing were on display this summer, as families filled a school cafeteria to register for a prekindergarten program with shortened days. For parents like Tommy and Melissa Sifuentes, the cutback means they have to leave work early or hire a baby sitter. “It’s harder,” said Ms. Sifuentes, who is still grateful that her son will learn socialization skills at school.
About 80 percent of Manor’s students are low-income, according to the E3 Alliance, a nonprofit group in Austin that focuses on education. For about a third of the 8,000 students, English is a second language.
In 2005, Manor’s school board gave Samsung eight years of tax abatements worth $112 million as part of the company’s incentives package for its fabrication plant. Under the special incentives program, known as Chapter 313, school boards approve tax abatements for companies. The state then reimburses the district for the amounts they give up.
In many districts, the awards were granted after little review. Robert Schneider, a member of Austin’s school board, said the district was nonchalant when it gave an abatement to Hewlett-Packard in 2006.
“The board took it as ‘we don’t lose in this deal,’ because we knew we were going to get reimbursed by the state,” Mr. Schneider said. “I can tell you there wasn’t any analysis done that said, ‘Ten, 15 years from now, they will be here and we’ll get such and such out of it.’ ”
School boards statewide have approved abatements worth at least $1.9 billion through the program, according to the comptroller’s office. Although the districts are not paying for the abatements themselves, budget experts point out that the reimbursements come from the state’s general fund, which like most state treasuries is running low.
In Texas, tax revenues for schools took a direct hit when Mr. Perry created a commission in 2005 to evaluate the state’s tax system. The State Supreme Court was questioning districts’ property tax rates and warned of a school shutdown if legislators did not intervene. The tax rates had been criticized for years by businesses and residents, but some districts countered that they could not afford to cut them without additional state financing.
Mr. Perry turned to John Sharp, a Democrat and former comptroller, to lead the commission. At the time, Mr. Sharp worked for Ryan LLC. The commission called for districts to cut school property taxes by around one-third. To make up for some of the lost revenue, it recommended adding a business tax, as well as increasing some sales taxes.
“I did what I thought was the best for the state of Texas,” said Mr. Sharp, adding that his position at Ryan LLC did not affect his decisions. “We saved the state of Texas from complete collapse of the school system, and I’m very proud of that.” Mr. Sharp left Ryan last year to become the chancellor of Texas A&M University.
In 2006, the Legislature largely adopted the commission’s proposals and required the state to give districts billions of dollars to allow time for the business tax to make up the difference.
Some six years later, things have not worked out as planned.
The business tax has not yielded anywhere near what Mr. Sharp’s panel projected, and the state has cut its aid to the districts by $5.4 billion. A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry noted that one of the state’s cash incentive funds was also cut back.
Leslie Whitworth, who oversees the curriculum in Manor, said that the district was doing its best to make do with less, but that “it wears on people, the constant crisis, the constant increases in students and constant pressure on budgets.”
Among other things, the cuts have meant overcrowding across Texas: the number of classrooms over the state’s student limit nearly quadrupled last year.
Both Player and Referee
For the past few months, a commission created by the Texas Legislature has been taking a broad look at the state’s economic development efforts. It will report back in January with recommendations. Four members of the commission are specifically focused on evaluating the state’s cash grants and the school tax abatement programs. This means that companies in Texas have a lot at stake in the panel’s work.
So does at least one of the commissioners: G. Brint Ryan.
He was appointed to the commission by the state’s lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who has received more than $150,000 in campaign donations from Mr. Ryan.
At a meeting in mid-September, the panel invited business representatives to testify. Among them was Ms. Morse, the general counsel at Samsung Austin, who urged the commission to continue the school property tax program that benefits her company in the Manor district.
During Ms. Morse’s testimony, it went unmentioned that Samsung is a Ryan client. Ryan LLC had helped the company gain designation as an enterprise zone in 2010, enabling it to receive sales tax refunds from the state on many of its purchases, according to documents obtained by The Times under a public records request.
Mr. Ryan said the commission had never asked him whom he represents.
No representatives from Texas schools spoke at the hearing. But Mr. Ryan said in an interview that school financing and poverty could best be addressed by emphasizing economic activity. He noted his own humble beginnings. “Frankly, I never got one single government handout,” he said.
1. Use the theory of the iron triangle to describe the dynamics illustrated by the system of government subsidies to businesses. Does iron triangle theory adequately explain what is transpiring? Do these subsides improve the lives of average people?
2. Some analysts describe subsidies to large businesses as “corporate welfare?” Is this an apt description? How would you explain why there seems to be little popular opposition to this form of “corporate welfare?”