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Thursday, May 30, 2013

First-Ever Report on Local Subsidy Transparency Released

Today, Good Jobs First released the first-ever report (report, press release) on local subsidy transparency in the United States, "Show Us the Local Subsidies." This is a welcome development, even if the bottom line is that the glass is nowhere near half full yet.

The report analyzes 64 incentive programs in the country's 25 largest cities and 25 largest counties. Of these, only 1/3 (21) report the name of the subsidy recipient online. Of these, a mere 10 list the amount of the subsidy initially awarded, and only six the actual number of dollars ultimately disbursed.

Memphis/Shelby County, New York City, and Austin each had a program that earned a perfect score for their online disclosure, and Chicago was not far behind. But 20 cities and counties, out of the 36 that had locally-controlled subsidy programs, did not report at all.

Why is local transparency so important? The reason is simple: there are thousands of local governments giving subsidies, so it is difficult to obtain information on them all. Without information, there is no way to hold firms to any commitments they might make in return for the subsidies, nor any way to hold governments accountable for giving the subsidies. From the standpoint of a researcher, it means it is virtually impossible to make a particularly reliable estimate of how much they all add up to.

In fact, since local subsidy reporting is so bad, when I made my estimates of state and local subsidies in Competing for Capital and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital, I could not find a better approach than to simply assume that they were about equal to state subsidies, as several experts suggested to me. While one would think that most cities give less than states (though Kansas City has given several $100+ million tax increment financing subsidies), the fact that there are so many more cities than states offsets this consideration. In fact, in Missouri local subsidies exceed state subsidies, and they did so in California until the state abolished TIF last year. So this assumption is not as outlandish as it seems at first glance. The resulting estimate is that there is $25-35 billion in local subsidies annually, enough to hire every laid-off local worker in the country.

That's why a serious push for local level transparency is so welcome. When Greg LeRoy and Good Jobs First began promoting state disclosure in the late 1990s, the number of states with company-specific reporting was in the single digits. As the new report notes, even in 2007, only 23 states had reached some level of transparency. This year, we are up to 46 states and the District of Columbia. Good Jobs First is promising a new state transparency report card later this year.

Thus, while the glass is very far from half-full on local transparency, the fact that there is enough to report on, and that more is surely on the way, is very good news indeed.

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