Archive for the ‘Corporate Subsidies’ Category

Facebook’s Dubious Social Mission

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The Blues Brothers claimed they were on a mission from God. Mark Zuckerberg, whose $17 billion fortune is about to become even larger thanks to the Facebook initial public offering, insists that his company is on a “social mission.”

In a letter accompanying the firm’s first substantive disclosure filing, Zuckerberg writes that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company.” Its mission, he says, is “to make the world more open and connected,” and he insists: “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

It’s difficult to take this high-mindedness seriously in connection with a company that may soon have a market value of $100 billion built on persuading millions of people to hand over vast amounts of personal information about themselves that Facebook— which has a total workforce of only 3,200—then sells to corporate marketers.  Data protection and privacy are generally considered good things; for Facebook, the possibility of more stringent laws in those areas is presented as a risk factor in its SEC filing.

In his social mission statement, Zuckerberg also writes: “We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

It’s interesting that Zuckerberg never refers to the need for more accountability on the part of Facebook or corporations in general. His letter gives the appearance of promoting corporate social responsibility but never actually does so. His attitude seems to be that Facebook’s only real obligation is to provide supposedly fabulous services, and that by itself will change the world.

It should thus come as no surprise that when it comes to dealing with governments and communities, Facebook is just as self-serving as any corporation not pretending to be on a social mission. This is demonstrated most clearly at its data centers.

These facilities, also known as server farms, are large collections of computers that power online networks. They use vast amounts of power and thus are located in rural areas with cheap electricity. Being highly automated, they create few jobs—yet Internet companies take advantage of the desperation of local officials for investment of any kind to obtain substantial economic development subsidies.

Facebook announced in January 2010 that it would build its first data center in central Oregon, choosing a location in the economically depressed town of Prineville that was part of an enterprise zone, thus making it eligible for property tax breaks for up to 15 years. The company later began expressing public concerns about how its intangible property would be taxed. In recent months it has been pressuring state legislators to restrict the ability of the state revenue department to assess data centers as utilities.

The company has even tried to intimidate the state by warning that, unless it got its way on taxes, the future of the Prineville facility—which employs about 50 people—would be in question. The revenue department now seems to have backed down. It is amazing to see how this purportedly enlightened company would throw its weight around to avoid pay a tax bill that under the worst case scenario would have cost it only $390,000 a year. (That figure, by the way, is about 1 percent of the $30.9 million that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg received in total compensation last year, according to the company’s new SEC filing.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has negotiated a subsidy deal for its second data center, located in North Carolina’s Rutherford County. The facility, which was expected to create about 40 jobs, was made eligible for up to $11 million in county financial assistance, on top of state tax breaks for data centers enacted in 2010. The one good thing that can be said about these subsidies is that they are a lot less costly than the ridiculous sum of $260 million that North Carolina gave to Google in 2007 for its server farm project in the state.

In 2010 Facebook also got a $1.4 million grant from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund to help pay for the creation of a sales office in Austin.

Paying its fair share of state and local taxes without taking subsidies it doesn’t need and without bullying public officials would be a good way for Facebook to start acting like it really is on a mission other than enriching Mark Zuckerberg and a small number of other members of the 1%.

Money-Back Guarantees for Corporate Subsidies

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

“Job creators” are a fickle bunch. We’re told that they won’t create an adequate number of jobs unless they feel more “certainty” about government policies (risk-taking, apparently, is passé). And when they aren’t seeking reassurance they are asking for bribes.

These aren’t bribes in a technical sense, but rather “incentives” in the form of special tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance. Many state and local officials are convinced that providing these incentives—more accurately, subsidies—is the only way to bring new jobs to their jurisdiction. The total annual cost is some $70 billion.

It should come as no surprise that, even when they are bribed, many purported job creators fail to deliver. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First just published a report called Money-Back Guarantees for Taxpayers that evaluates states on their oversight of subsidy programs. This report focuses on the enforcement of the performance standards we evaluated in our previous study, Money for Something.

Here are the highlights of the new report:

Many subsidy programs—about one-third of the ones we looked at—operate essentially on the honor system. Violating Ronald Reagan’s principle of “trust, but verify,” they do not check that the data on job creation and other performance measures reported by companies receiving subsidies are accurate.

It’s encouraging that three-quarters of the programs have provisions for penalizing non-compliant companies, whether through recapture of funds already paid out (clawbacks) or the recalibration or termination of future benefits. The problem is that many of these penalty provisions—nearly half, in fact—are far from iron-clad. In many cases the implementation of the penalties by agencies is optional, or else companies can escape punishment by claiming one of various exemptions. These range from a downturn in general economic conditions to “acts of God.” Some can get off if they simply made a “good faith effort.”

What good are penalties if they are filled with loopholes? Imagine if the criminal code had such provisions. A person caught robbing a bank could cite the poor economy as justification, or a repeat offender could get off by claiming to have really tried to go straight.

Then there’s the issue of transparency about the enforcement process. In our report, we treated the willingness of state agencies to disclose data about their oversight as an indication of whether they took enforcement seriously. We were disappointed with the results.

Only 21 programs in a dozen states publish aggregate enforcement data (i.e., without company names or other deal specifics); only 38 programs disclose the names of companies deemed to be out of compliance; and only 14 disclose the names of companies which have been penalized (and the dollar amounts). By the way, we have lists of all those disclosure sites.

The fact that a state adopts strong enforcement procedures does not guarantee that any given subsidy program or deal is a good use of taxpayer funds. Some programs may simply offer too much assistance to companies, so that benefits will never outweigh costs. For such programs, abolition rather than accountability is the correct policy, especially in times of severe budgetary stress. Some states have been doing exactly that, though in the case of Michigan any fiscal relief is being erased by simultaneous moves to lower tax rates for all businesses.

Yet as long as a program is in operation, taxpayers have a right to demand both strong performance requirements (including job creation and job quality standards) and aggressive enforcement of those requirements. When a company is given subsidies without strings, that is a handout rather than economic development.

It would be interesting to hear what Mitt Romney has to say about this. As I reported in this blog previously, some companies acquired by Bain Capital while Romney was at the buyout firm subsequently received subsidies (or continued to enjoy special tax breaks they had already been awarded). Does Romney, who has been speaking out against regulation, believe that subsidy recipients, such as those firms that helped build his fortune, should also have fewer rules to comply with?

If we are going to bribe “job-creators,” we should at least make sure they fulfill their employment promises or provide a full refund.

Romney Bites the Government Hand that Has Fed His Fortune

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Occupy Wall Street may be getting less attention in the corporate media these days, but the movement’s message about the brutal and inequitable nature of contemporary U.S. business is front and center in an unlikely arena: the debate among the Republican contenders.

In recent days, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have assailed the business track record of Mitt Romney, using terms such as “vulture capitalism,” “looting” and “job killing” to describe his activities at buyout firm Bain Capital in the 1980s and 1990s.

Showing how frustrated personal ambition can outweigh ideology, Gingrich and Perry are espousing views far from their usual reactionary postures. It is the hypocrisy of frontrunner Romney, however, that is of greater significance. While being attacked from the faux Left by Gingrich and Perry, Romney has been veering to the Right. In his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, he attacked President Obama for supposedly promoting “the politics of envy” and “resentment of success.” Channeling Ronald Reagan, he vowed that “the path I lay out is not one paved with ever increasing government checks and cradle-to-grave assurances that government will always be the answer.”

Yet a look at Romney’s record at Bain shows not only Gordon Gekko-like business buccaneering, but also a willingness to embrace those very government checks and assurances he is now repudiating. Companies acquired and managed by Bain during Romney’s tenure showed no hesitation in taking taxpayer handouts in the form of state and local economic development subsidies.

A comparison of the 1999 Bain portfolio obtained by the Los Angeles Times to the information in the Subsidy Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First created (as well as other sources), yields examples such as the following:

Steel Dynamics Inc. In 1994 this company, among whose financial backers at the time was Bain, got a $77 million subsidy package—including grants, property tax abatements, tax credits and reimbursement for training costs—for its steel mill in DeKalb County, Indiana (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 23, 1994).

GS Industries. In 1996 American Iron Reduction LLC, a joint venture of GS Industries (which had been taken private by Bain in 1993) and Birmingham Steel, sought some $20 million in tax breaks in connection with its plan to build a plant in Louisiana’s St. James Parish (Baton Rouge Advocate, April 6, 1996). As the United Steelworkers union noted recently, GS Industries later applied for a federal loan guarantee, but before the deal could be implemented the company went bankrupt.

Sealy. A year after the 1997 buyout of this leading mattress company by Bain and other private equity firms, Sealy received $600,000 from state and local authorities in North Carolina to move its corporate offices, a research center and a manufacturing plant from Ohio (Greensboro News & Record, March 31, 1998). In 2004 Bain and its partners sold Sealy to another private equity group.

GT Bicycles. In 1997 GT, then owned by Bain and other investors, decided to move its manufacturing operations to an enterprise zone in Santa Ana, California. Being in the zone gave the company, which was later purchased by Schwinn, special tax credits relating to hiring and the purchase of equipment (Orange County Register, July 9, 1999).

Since Romney arranged to share in Bain’s profits after he left the firm in 1999, it is legitimate to look at cases of subsidy grabbing by Bain companies after that time. Some of these involved firms that had been acquired during Romney’s tenure but which didn’t get their subsidies until after he departed. For example:

Stream International. In 2000, this operator of call centers, then controlled by Bain, agreed to open a facility in Kalispell, Montana, but only if local officials provided $4 million in grants and tax breaks (The Missoulian, February 8, 2000). U.S. Senator Max Baucus also arranged for a $500,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration (AP, March 4, 2000). Later that year, Stream got Silver City, New Mexico to provide tax credits, subsidized training and subsidized rent for another call center (Albuquerque Tribune, July 12, 2000).

Alliance Laundry Systems. In 2000 this maker of washing machines, purchased by Bain in 1998, received a $560,000 grant from the state of Florida in connection with its plan to move a commercial laundry from Cincinnati. (Tallahassee Democrat, June 8, 2000). In 2004 the company received $1.25 million in assistance (including a low-cost loan of $1 million and a $250,000 grant) from the state of Wisconsin. Bain sold the company to a Canadian pension fund in 2005.

Romney’s ongoing profit participation also makes it legitimate to look at subsidies that have gone to companies acquired by Bain after Romney moved into public life:

Burger King Corporation.  In 2005—while owned by Bain, TPG and Goldman Sachs—Burger King let it be known that it was considering moving its headquarters from the Miami area to Houston. After local and state officials put together a $9 million subsidy package, the company agreed to stay in South Florida but move to a new building.  Two years later, Burger King dropped the idea of a new headquarters altogether and had to repay $3 million of the package (which came from a Quick Action Closing Fund grant) to the state as a result. Bain and its partners sold off their remaining interest in Burger King in 2010.

Quintiles Transnational Corp. When Bain and other private equity firms bought this pharmaceutical services company in 2007 they inherited a $25 million subsidy package that the company had negotiated with North Carolina officials in 2006. The package included an up-front $2 million grant from the One North Carolina Fund, a $2 million matching grant from Durham County, and the promise of up to $21.4 million over 12 years from a performance-based Job Development Investment Grant.

AMC Entertainment. After being promised more than $40 million in subsidies, this movie chain (bought in 2004 by Bain and other private equity firms) agreed to move its headquarters from downtown Kansas City, Missouri to a nearby suburb across the state line in Kansas. The deal was criticized as an egregious case of taxpayer-financed sprawl.

And finally, what about Staples, whose early backing by Bain is frequently cited by Romney as the best example of his business acumen? The chain has long been making use of economic development subsidies, including the period when Romney was still at Bain. In 1996, for example, it chose Hagerstown, Maryland as the site for a distribution center after getting a $4.2 million subsidy package (Baltimore Sun, April 16, 1996).

It’s quite possible that Romney’s recent anti-government comments, like much of what he says, are not meant to be taken too seriously. But as long as he is spouting free-market rhetoric, he needs to be reminded about the extent to which his ascent (and that of the rest of the 1% ) has been propelled by public money.

Money for Something

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

“To empower job-creators, we must get rid of regulations that prevent them from growing and hiring. This means taking decision-making power away from bureaucrats who don’t understand how job creation works.” Thus writes Newt Gingrich, who has revealed that one type of regulation he hopes to abolish are the child labor laws.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just issued a report which argues that the way to improve job creation is to impose more regulation.

In Money for Something we look at the economic development programs through which states spend billions of dollars each year in an effort to expand business activity inside their borders. These are the corporate tax credits, tax abatements, tax exemptions, cash grants, low-cost loans and other forms of financial assistance that states lavish on companies to lure one of the dwindling number of new plants, office buildings or distribution centers that the private sector is willing to construct in the USA rather than in China or India.

Unfortunately, many companies regard these benefits as a kind of entitlement and are willing to force states to bid against one another, driving the value of subsidy packages to unrealistic levels. A few years ago, for instance, German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp walked away with $1 billion for building a steel plant in Alabama that Louisiana also coveted.

Or else an established company demands new subsidies under the threat of relocating to another state. Sears has been playing this game shamelessly in Illinois. Two decades ago it got nearly $200 million to move its headquarters from downtown Chicago to a distant suburb. This year, as that deal was expiring, the company demanded new tax breaks from Illinois while it openly flirted with other states. The Illinois legislature has just approved a new $150 deal for Sears (along with breaks for other companies) amid protests that included the unfurling of a banner in the House Chamber reading “Stop Corporate Extortion.”

While the best choice might be to get rid of many of these subsidy programs, as long as they are in place they need to be made more accountable. When purported job creators are getting handouts of taxpayer money, we need to be damned well sure that they perform as expected.

In Money for Something, we evaluate 238 subsidy programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in two ways:

* Whether they impose a strict requirement on recipients to create a certain number of jobs

* And whether they make sure those are quality jobs by attaching wage and benefit standards to them.

We found that nearly 50 percent of the programs have no job-related performance requirements. States are spending more than $7 billion on these subsidies and have no guarantee that any job creation will result.

Many of the 103 programs without job creation requirements are designed to encourage investment. Left to their own devices, companies might focus that investment on labor-saving equipment that results in head-count reductions. There’s enough of that happening without using taxpayer funds to encourage even more.

The subsidy programs also leave a lot to be desired when it comes to job quality standards. Fewer than half have a wage requirement, and many of those are based on fixed amounts that can easily become outdated. We found one program in Delaware whose wage standard has for years been set at $7 an hour—a level that is now below the federal minimum wage. Other programs have standards that are only slightly above that federal minimum.

While it is clear that companies should not get subsidies to create sub-standard jobs (especially those that pay so little that workers would qualify for social safety net programs), that doesn’t take it far enough. Companies receiving subsidies should be creating jobs with wages that are significantly above market rates, thereby raising living standards. We found only eleven programs that do so.

State subsidy programs are even more deficient when it comes to benefits. Only 51 of the 238 we looked at require companies to make available health coverage of any kind, and only about half of those compel the employer to contribute to premium costs.

Even if all these standards are in place, they do not guarantee that a subsidy program’s benefits will outweigh its costs. Yet the presence of these safeguards gives public officials some recourse when a recipient’s performance is abysmal.

The question at that point is whether states are willing to enforce the standards they put in place. That is the subject of our next report at Good Jobs First, which will look at the use of clawbacks and other penalty procedures. Subsidy recipients that don’t create quality jobs need to feel the heat.

The Corporate Raid on State Tax Revenue

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

One of the usual canards of the corporate tax reduction crowd is that high U.S. rates force large companies to invest offshore instead of at home. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and Citizens for Tax Justice have just issued the second installment of their detailed refutation of the myth of oppressive rates.

After putting out a report last month showing that many large corporations end up paying far less than the statutory federal rate (so much less that their rates often become negative), ITEP and CTJ now demonstrate that the story is the same at the state level. Their study, Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, lists 68 Fortune 500 companies that managed to pay no state income tax at all in at least one year during the period from 2008 through 2010 despite posting a total of nearly $117 billion in pre-tax U.S. profits during those no-tax years.

Sixteen of the companies—including the likes of DuPont, Tenet Healthcare, International Paper, Intel and  Peabody Energy—had more than one no-tax year. DuPont, Pepco Holdings and American Electric Power contributed nothing to state coffers in all three years. The report points out that, if the 265 companies in the sample had all paid the average 6.2 percent average corporate tax rate on their combined $1.33 trillion in U.S. profits, their state tax bill would have been about $82 billion. Instead, they paid only $40 billion, meaning that states were left without $42 billion in revenue that could have been used to help pay for education, healthcare, transportation, public safety and other key state government functions.

A system that allows many companies to sidestep millions of dollars in state tax payments can hardly be called onerous and certainly can’t be the reason for investing overseas. It is thus no surprise that the ITEP/CTJ list of firms with negative or minimal tax rates includes corporations that engage in extensive offshoring; among them are Eli Lilly, General Electric, Hewlett Packard and Merck.

At the same time, the key state tax dodgers include some manufacturing companies that have (at least in part) bucked the offshoring trend and made substantial investments in the United States. Chief among them are Intel and Boeing.

Intel, which has been spending billions on semiconductor fabrication plants in state such as Arizona, and Boeing, which focuses its aircraft assembly in Washington State and South Carolina, are major recipients of the kind of company-specific tax breaks that the ITEP/CTJ report cites as one of the reasons for the decline of state corporate income tax collections.

Intel has been playing the subsidy game in earnest since 1993, when it announced plans for what was then an unprecedented $1 billion investment in a new chip plant, to be built in a suburb of Albuquerque called Rio Rancho. The company pressured local officials to provide what would ultimately amount to about $455 million in property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions on the equipment purchased for the facility.

Soon after getting its way in New Mexico, Intel put the squeeze on officials in Arizona, where it proposed to build another plant in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. The company received some $82 million in property tax abatements, sales tax exemptions and corporate income tax credits. In 2005 Intel strong-armed the state to change the method by which it calculates corporate taxes to a system known as single sales factor, which allowed Intel and other companies with lots of property and a big payroll but relatively low sales in the state to enjoy enormous tax reductions.

In 1999 Intel announced plans for a large expansion of its semiconductor operations in Oregon but made it clear that the investment was contingent on receiving a property tax abatement that turned out to be worth an estimated $200 million over 15 years. In 2005 Intel got the county to extend the property tax break to 2025, locking in an estimated $579 million in additional savings. Intel also enjoys a substantial reduction in corporate income taxes thanks to Oregon’s decision to join the single sales factor bandwagon.

Boeing has also sought special tax breaks and other subsidies in multiple states. When the company was ready to begin production of its much-anticipated Dreamliner, it forced Washington to compete with around 20 other states for the work and agreed to stay there only after the legislature in 2003 approved a package of research & development tax credits and cuts in Business & Occupation taxes (the state’s substitute for a corporate income tax), sales taxes and property taxes that together were estimated to be worth $3.2 billion over 20 years.

Rather than showing its appreciation to Washington, the company went shopping for a better deal for the second Dreamliner production line. It chose South Carolina, where it was awarded a subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million and is able to take advantage of a “right to work” law that discourages unionization. The Machinists union accused the company of retaliating against union activism in Washington, but the complaint has just been withdrawn as part of a deal in which Boeing will build its new 737 in the Seattle area.

While it was once taken for granted that large U.S. corporations would do most of their investing at home, companies such as Boeing and Intel now act as if they are doing the country a favor with their domestic projects and expect to be rewarded handsomely in the form of special state tax breaks on top of those business-friendly provisions available to all firms.

Far from being held back by tax rates, large U.S. corporations invest offshore or onshore as they please while contributing as little as possible to the cost of public services.

Clawing Back from the 1%

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Rick Perry has admitted that his recent attempt to revive controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate was done for “fun.” This came after Herman Cain said that his call for an electrified fence to protect the U.S. border with Mexico was meant as a joke.

The question, then, is whether their economic plans should also been seen as pranks. It is indeed difficult to take the proposals of the two men and the other presidential contenders seriously. Do they really believe that the solution to the country’s job crisis lies in massive tax reductions for the wealthy and large corporations along with a rollback of federal regulations on banks, health insurance companies and polluters? These ideas sound as if they were cooked up as part of a Yes Men parody to make the 1% look ridiculous in the face of the growing Occupy movement.

One sign that the candidates are not putting forth legitimate policy prescriptions is that their plans contain no accountability provisions. Perry’s just released “Cut, Balance and Grow” scheme, for instance, has repeated references to the wave of job creation that will supposedly be generated by overhauling the tax and regulatory systems, but nowhere does it say what will happen to those companies that, in spite of being freed from federal shackles, still fail to hire significant numbers of new workers.

When it comes to foreign policy, conservatives love Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “trust, but verify.” But in the realm of domestic economic policy their approach is “take it on faith” – giving the 1% everything they want and doing nothing to make sure that the purported benefits to the economy ever materialize. Actually, it is not only conservatives who adopt this posture. Many pro-corporate Democrats are also willing to give away the store to big business without imposing any real safeguards. This can be seen, for instance, in the bi-partisan campaign to slash taxes on repatriated foreign profits without ensuring that those savings actually result in job creation.

Presidential candidates and federal policymakers have something to learn in this regard from the states, including Perry’s Texas.  Together, the states spend tens of billions of dollars each year on tax credits, grants, low-cost loans and other forms of financial assistance to corporations in an attempt to stimulate job creation and economic development.

More and more of these subsidy programs attach strings to the government largesse. Corporate recipients must commit to creating a specific number of jobs, which are often subject to wage and benefit requirements. When companies fail to live up to those obligations, the state may recoup all or some of the subsidies (or restrict future benefits) through devices known as clawbacks. These provisions vary widely in stringency from state to state and sometimes within states.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First are currently studying the job creation, job quality and clawback practices of the major state subsidy programs around the country. Our report will not be issued until later this year, but I can say now that among the programs that contain clawback provisions are two that are closely controlled by Perry: the Texas Enterprise Fund and the state’s Emerging Technology Fund. These funds have been criticized for cronyism and other abuses, but at least there are some mechanisms for holding recipients accountable on their commitments.

The same cannot be said at the federal level. If Perry and others proposing national solutions to the jobs crisis were serious, they would be recommending that any tax reductions or regulatory relief be contingent on the creation of significant numbers of jobs—and quality ones at that.

I don’t expect this to happen any time soon. Both branches of the national political elite have bought into the idea that large corporations and the wealthy have to be, in effect, bribed to make job-creating investments in the U.S. economy and that there is no recourse when they fail to carry out what they were paid off to do.

Even before the current crop of pro-corporate economic plans, large companies and the wealthy have, of course, benefitted from a skewed tax system, special subsidies for selected industries, lucrative federal contracts, weak regulation, one-sided labor laws, and a justice system that is soft on business crime. And we have little to show for it in the way of decent jobs and economic security.

Rather than showering even more advantages on the 1 percenters, we should be demanding that they give something back. The Occupy movement can be seen as a big clawback effort whose goal is to recoup not just a tax break here or there but control over the future of the entire U.S. economy.

Subsidizing the 1%

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Seeking to counter the criticisms raised by the growing Occupy movement, Herman Cain and other apologists for the super-wealthy insist that those who get rich do so only by dint of their own hard work and risk-taking.

This is ridiculous, of course. Accumulating a great fortune requires, among other things, a legal system oriented to property rights, a tax system biased in favor of investment income, and government spending on infrastructure ranging from interstate highways to the internet.

The 1% do not only benefit from the general social and economic framework: in many cases they also receive financial assistance directly from taxpayers. This can be seen most clearly in the economic development subsidies that corporations receive from state and local governments. These are usually awarded in the name of job creation, but often few or no good jobs are created, making the subsidies little different than a handout to powerful business entities.

The closest approximation we have to a roster of the 1% is the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. The companies used by those individuals as the vehicles for amassing billions have in many cases been on the receiving end of taxpayer subsidies. Here are some examples drawn from the data my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have compiled for our Subsidy Tracker database and other sources:

Bill Gates: No. 1 on the Forbes 400 with a net worth of $59 billion

When Microsoft, the source of Gates’ wealth, builds giant server farms to meet its growing data needs it looks for locations that can provide dirt-cheap electricity. Yet the huge company also seeks special tax breaks from state and local governments. In 2010 the company took the lead in pressuring the legislature in its home state of Washington to enact a special sales tax exemption on equipment purchased for rural data centers. After deciding in 2007 to build a $550 million data center in Bexar County, Texas near San Antonio, Microsoft pushed for a subsidy package that turned out to be worth more than $32 million, including $27 million in city and county property tax abatements. State officials in Iowa agreed to provide a $3.4 million grant to pay for infrastructure improvements around a Microsoft data center being built in West Des Moines. These data centers provide tiny numbers of jobs.

Warren Buffett: No. 2 with $39 billion

When General Re, an insurance firm owned by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company, decided in 2009 that it was no longer satisfied with its headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, it gave the impression that it might move out of state. Panicked state officials put together a subsidy package that included a $19.5 million tax credit and a $9 million low-cost loan to subsidize the company’s move to another location within Stamford. No new jobs were to be created.

Larry Ellison: No. 3 with $33 billion

In 2008 Ellison’s software company Oracle obtained $15 million in state tax credits to subsidize the cost of a $300 million data center in Utah that was expected to create only about 100 full-time jobs. In addition, the city of West Jordan agreed to divert $11.8 million in property taxes over ten years to pay for infrastructure costs.

Charles Koch and David Koch: No. 4 with $25 billion

Although the Koch Brothers are rabid proponents of “free” market policies, their Koch Industries has taken more than $10 million in subsidies under Oklahoma’s Investment/New Jobs Tax Credit program.

Christy Walton & family: No. 6 with $24.5 billion (and three other Waltons worth more than $20 billion)

The descendants of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton are the richest group of relatives in the country. In addition to lousy wages and cheap imports, Wal-Mart’s growth has been funded by taxpayers. At Good Jobs First we have documented more than $1.2 billion in state and local economic development subsidies that have gone to Wal-Mart stores and distribution centers around the country.

Jeff Bezos: No. 13 with $19.1 billion

Bezos built Amazon.com into an online retailing powerhouse by exploiting what amounts to an unofficial subsidy. The company’s resistance to collecting sales taxes on customer purchases gives it a competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar rivals. Amazon also plays the conventional subsidy game. When it opened fulfillment centers in Kentucky about a decade ago it obtained more than $27 million in financial assistance from the state.

Mark Zuckerberg: No. 14 with $17.5 billion

Zuckerberg’s Facebook also rides the data center subsidy gravy train. In 2010 the company chose to locate a server farm in an enterprise zone in Prineville, Oregon, enabling it to enjoy property tax breaks that could be worth more than $40 million over the next 15 years. Facebook also applied for a 10-year waiver of all income and excise taxes under the Oregon Investment Advantage program. The facility opened in April with a total staff (including security guards) of 40 people. In 2010 Facebook also got a $1.4 million grant from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund to help pay for the creation of a sales office in Austin.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page: No. 15 with $16.7 billion

Founded by Brin and Page, Google is yet another tech darling in the data center racket. In 2007 the company announced it would build one of those facilities in the western North Carolina town of Lenoir after pressuring state and local officials to come up with a subsidy package that turned out to be worth $260 million. In 2008 Google turned down a small portion of the subsidy package – $4.7 million from the Job Development Investment Grant program – apparently because it did not expect to reach its original goal of creating 210 jobs within four years. Google also got about $49 million in subsidies for a data center it opened in Iowa in 2009.

Michael Dell: No. 18 with $15 billion

At one time, the founder of computer company Dell was one of the few members of the Forbes 400 whose firm was creating manufacturing jobs in the United States. On that basis, Dell got officials in North Carolina to put together a $242 million subsidy package in 2004 for a PC assembly plant in Winston-Salem. The facility opened in 2005 with 350 workers and grew to about 1,100 before cutting back to about 900. State and local officials were stunned in 2009 when Dell announced plans to shut the operation (and others in the U.S.) and outsource the work to contract plants in Mexico and other countries. Officials pressed Dell to return the subsidies it had received. The company agreed to give back about $26 million of the local subsidies but balked at repaying state tax credits it had claimed.

 

These subsidies, by themselves, did not ensure the success of the companies or propel the members of the Forbes 400 into the realm of ten-figure net worths. Yet the amounts of money involved are not insignificant—especially to the governments that had to forgo the revenues. In the aggregate, state and local subsidies take about $60 billion a year out of the funding for education, healthcare, fire protection and other public services.

Such subsidies are also a prime example of how this country caters to wealthy individuals and large corporations, and how they in turn demand to be compensated by taxpayers for what they should be doing at their own expense. It’s time for the 1% to do less taking and more giving back.

Green Accountability

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Obamacare, abortion, gay marriage and taxes are apparently not enough to complain about. Conservative politicians have a new whipping boy: green jobs. Republican members of Congress and GOP Presidential hopefuls seem to think these days that the greatest sin of the Obama Administration is its effort to encourage employment growth in the renewable energy sector.

Mitt Romney’s recently released economic plan accuses Obama of having “an unhealthy ‘green’ jobs obsession.” In her response to the President’s jobs speech, Michele Bachmann charged that the Administration is imitating the green-jobs policies of Spain, which she bizarrely suggested were responsible for that country’s astronomical rates of unemployment. Rick Perry’s attacks on the reality of climate change imply that green jobs are unnecessary.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress are trying to turn the bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which leaves the federal government on the hook for $535 million in loan guarantees, into a morality tale not only about supposed cronyism but also about the folly of government support for green jobs.

As usual, there is a high dose of hypocrisy among those making the criticisms. As USA Today points out, while he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney supported the use of public funds to support renewable energy businesses. What the paper did not mention was that one of the recipients of those funds was Evergreen Solar, which got a $2.5 million state grant in 2003 and went on to receive $44 million more from Romney’s successor Deval Patrick. Earlier this year, Evergreen announced plans to shift its production to China and later filed for bankruptcy.

In 2008 the Texas Enterprise Fund, a subsidy program overseen by Gov. Perry, gave $1 million to the solar company HelioVolt. The company has also struggled and earlier this year put itself up for sale. A report by Texans for Public Justice noted that the fund had relaxed HelioVolt’s job-creation requirement. Perry’s fund also gave $2.5 million to SunPower Corp.

Romney and Perry are far from the only Republic governors who have overseen the use of taxpayer funds to invest in renewable energy companies. Under the leadership of Gov. Jan Brewer, Arizona has been offering a Renewable Energy Tax Incentive. In her State of the State speech last year, Brewer said she was “proud to announce the arrival of Suntech Power Holdings. It’s the first solar company to come to Arizona because of the renewable energy tax incentive program I signed into law in June.”

Recently, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who flirted with a run for the Republican Presidential nomination earlier this year, supported and then signed legislation that will provide a whopping $75 million subsidy for Calisolar, a California company that plans to produce solar cells in the Magnolia State. The law also includes $100 million in financial assistance for biomass energy company HCL CleanTech.

The fact that Republicans are disingenuous in their criticism of the Obama Administration’s renewable energy efforts does not mean that green subsidies at the federal or state level are necessarily a good thing. While the need to develop alternative energy systems is an urgent task for the nation, it does not make sense to repeat the mistakes of conventional economic development policy in helping the green sector.

That means, for one thing, not simply throwing money (including tax breaks and loan guarantees) at companies simply because they are making green promises. In many cases it may make more sense to let the private sector finance new renewable energy ventures and save public funds for energy infrastructure investments and for worker training in green occupations. Adopting aggressive renewable portfolio standards is also a key role for government to play.

In cases where some direct government assistance makes sense, public officials need to perform due diligence on the recipient company and impose strong safeguards, including job quality standards and clawbacks if the firm does not live up to its job-creation obligations.

As the Solyndra and Evergreen episodes show, the fact that corporations are focused on renewable energy does not make them angels. They may still be incompetent or engage in the same types of corporate misconduct seen among their conventional counterparts. Green business must also be accountable business.

Targeting Target

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Logo of the UFCW's Target campaign

The news of a union organizing drive at a group of Target Corporation stores in the New York City area raises the tantalizing possibility that the master of cheap chic may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

For years, Target has used its stylish image to obscure the fact that many of its employment and other practices are not significantly different from those of its scandal-ridden rival, Wal-Mart. It’s even managed to get itself included on a list of the “world’s most ethical corporations.”

Target’s stores, like those of Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations, are entirely non-union, and the company intends to keep them that way. The New York Times account of the organizing drive has Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president for labor relations, spouting the usual corporate rhetoric about how a union (the UFCW) would undermine the supposed trust that the company has built up with its workers. BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscription-only) reports that Target is subjecting workers to captive meetings “conducted by store management in an attempt to dissuade workers from seeking union representation.”

Since no representation elections have been held yet, it is unclear whether Target will follow the lead of Wal-Mart in eliminating the jobs of those who dare to vote in favor of a union.

Target does not have a reputation quite as abhorrent as that of Wal-Mart when it comes to other employment practices, but neither is its record untarnished.  It has been accused of subjecting its largely part-time workforce to the same abuses—inadequate wages, restrictions on health coverage, overtime violations, etc.—seen among other big-box retailers. Though not as often as Wal-Mart, Target has shown up on lists prepared by state governments of the employers with the most workers or their dependents receiving taxpayer-funded healthcare benefits. Target has fought against living wage campaigns, most notably in Chicago in 2006, when it threatened to cancel plans for two new stores in the city unless Mayor Richard Daley vetoed a wage ordinance (which he did).

Target has also faced accusations relating to the treatment of minority applicants and employees. In 2007 the company paid a total of more than $1.2 million to settle cases brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involving alleged racial discrimination in hiring in Wisconsin and a racially hostile environment in Pennsylvania.

There have been controversies involving the treatment of workers by Target suppliers and contractors, as well.  In 2002 Target was one of a group of retailers that together paid $20 million to settle class-action lawsuits charging them with permitting sweatshop conditions at factories run by their suppliers in Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. A 2006 report by SOMO, a Dutch research center on transnational corporations, documented other instances in which Target garment suppliers were reported to be abusing workers and the retailer did little in response.

Target has a history of hiring janitorial contractors for its U.S. stores that tend to engage in rampant wage theft. In 2004 one such contractor, Global Building Services, paid $1.9 million to settle an overtime-violation case brought by the federal government on behalf of immigrant workers.  In 2009 another Target cleaning contractor, Prestige Maintenance USA, settled an overtime lawsuit for up to $3.8 million.

Labor practices are not the only area in which Target’s accountability record falls short. Earlier this year, the company had to pay $22.5 million to settle civil charges that its operations throughout California had violated laws relating to the dumping of hazardous wastes. Target has had a good record on gay rights, though last year the company found itself at the center of a controversy after it was revealed to have contributed to a business PAC which in turn contributed to a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who campaigned against gay marriage (among other reactionary positions).  Target later apologized.

And then there’s the matter of subsidies. Like Wal-Mart, Target has extracted lucrative tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance from many of the communities where it has built stores or distribution centers. One of its more audacious efforts was a proposal for a $1.7 billion mixed-use project in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, for which Target wanted more than $20 million in property tax abatements and a public contribution of $60 million for infrastructure costs. Despite seeking all this taxpayer assistance, Target demanded a waiver from the city’s living-wage policy for many contract and part-time workers who would be employed at the site.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Target, aside from its style, is that it is much smaller than Wal-Mart. Its total revenues are only about one-sixth of the worldwide sales (and less than one-quarter of U.S. sales) of the Bentonville behemoth. Target’s workforce of 355,000, all in the United States, is dwarfed by Wal-Mart’s domestic headcount of 1.4 million and another 700,000 abroad. Target thus has a much smaller impact on overall labor practices and the global supply chain.

What impact it does have is not salubrious. Now that it is facing some union pressure, let’s hope Target breaks from Wal-Mart and decides that it is makes sense to treat its workers with as much respect as its customers.

NOTE: Speaking of subsidies, the Subsidy Tracker database I created for Good Jobs First has just been expanded and now has more than 65,000 entries covering 154 subsidy programs in 37 states.

Taking Corporate Farmers Off the Dole

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The signal from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that Republicans are ready to consider cuts in farm subsidies may be a false alarm, like the one that Speaker John Boehner recently set off with regard to oil industry tax breaks.

It’s quite possible that once Cantor and his colleagues take a closer look at the agricultural giveaways, they will realize that the biggest recipients are not traditional farmers but large corporations—the GOP’s primary constituency these days.

Unlike the oil subsidies, which consist of tax preferences available to the entire industry, farm subsidies are direct payments from Uncle Sam to specific parties. A large portion of those payments go to a small number of beneficiaries. Of the $247 billion paid out since 1995, one-quarter of the total has gone to the top 1 percent of recipients, and three-quarters to the top 10 percent.

Thanks to the efforts of the Environmental Working Group—whose president Ken Cook describes the subsidy system as a “contraption that might have sprung from the fevered anti-government fantasies of tea party cynics if Congress hadn’t thought it up first”—you can go to a website and search by name or ZIP code to see exactly how much has been paid out to any individual or business.

EWG also helpfully provides various national compilations that show which beneficiaries have had their snouts deepest into the federal trough. By far the biggest cumulative winners are Riceland Foods ($554 million) and Producers Rice Mill Inc. ($314 million). These are both technically cooperatives, but there is little to distinguish them from other agribusiness giants. Riceland, with revenues of more than $1 billion, is the world’s largest rice miller and one of the country’s largest grain storage firms. It sells rice products to foodservice operators and directly to consumers.

A more interesting entry in the top ten is Pilgrim’s Pride, with cumulative subsidies of $26 million. With a history of health and safety problems, labor abuses and financial instability, it is one of the most controversial corporations in the U.S. agribusiness sector.

The company, which tends to refer to itself these days simply as Pilgrim’s (apparently, the pride is gone), was built by Texas chicken farmer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim into a poultry powerhouse through a series of aggressive acquisitions that began in the 1970s. Bo did not let the niceties get in the way. He once handed out campaign contribution checks to Texas lawmakers right on the floor of the legislature. His chicken plants were criticized by labor advocates for creating an epidemic of worker injuries and by animal rights advocates for treating the chickens inhumanely.

In 2002 the company had to recall a record 27 million pounds of poultry products after an outbreak of Listeria at a plant run by its Wampler Foods subsidiary. In 2007 Pilgrim’s was sued by the U.S. Department of Labor for overtime violations and later had to distribute more than $1 million in back pay. In 2008 federal officials raided Pilgrim’s plants in five states and arrested hundreds of workers for immigration violations. The company later paid $4.5 million to settle charges of hiring undocumented workers.

Saddled with debt from a $1.3 billion acquisition of rival Gold Kist, Pilgrim’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, leading to the closing of plants, the elimination of thousands of jobs and the cancellation of contracts with many of its captive farmers. In 2009 Pilgrim’s emerged from bankruptcy after being taken over by Brazilian meat mega-producer JBS, which also gained control of Swift & Company.

Federal farm subsidies have no doubt provided essential assistance to some family farmers in times of need, but too much of the money has gone to the likes of Pilgrim’s Pride. After years in which this waste has survived despite endless criticism, perhaps the time has finally come when these corporate giveaways will be curtailed.