Along with the rule of law and private property rights, the sanctity of contracts is considered fundamental to “economic freedom.” Yet certain kinds of contracts, namely the collective bargaining agreements of U.S. public sector workers, are now starting to be regarded as dispensable.
In Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker – whose official website is emblazoned with the slogan “Wisconsin is Open for Business” – is trying to strip state employees of their right to bargain collectively on the full range of workplace issues and force them to pay a much larger portion of the cost of their pension and healthcare benefits, sparking unprecedented protests (photo). Similar attacks on public bargaining rights are under way in states such as Ohio, and a wide array of public officials are talking about the possibility of reneging on state and local government pension benefits negotiated over many years.
These assaults on the contract rights of public workers are said to be necessitated by the dire fiscal condition of many states. Yet it is telling that those assaulting public unions are not also questioning the viability of other expensive government obligations, for which the beneficiary is business rather than labor.
State and local governments spend an estimated $70 billion a year on economic development subsidies – corporate income tax credits, property tax abatements, direct cash grants, etc. – to lure large companies to invest in their jurisdiction or to retain those already there. They do so despite extensive evidence that such subsidies are often immaterial in corporate site selection decisions and that their costs—which for some tax deals can last for decades—often far outweigh the economic benefits of the investment.
The current fiscal crisis is a perfect opportunity for states to abandon these self-defeating subsidy practices. Yet aside from a small number of places such as California, where Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking to eliminate the highly ineffective enterprise zone program, and a few other states where film production tax credits have been reduced or suspended, surprisingly little is being done to end the corporate giveaways.
Shutting down or cutting back the boondoggle programs would limit new obligations, but if states are truly facing a fiscal emergency perhaps they should also look for ways to escape from expensive financial commitments that are already in place. Why are state and local governments not looking for ways to abrogate existing subsidy agreements?
Some might say that companies would lay off workers if they had to return subsidies. That’s debatable, but the problem could be addressed by limiting the revocations to large and profitable companies. For example, why shouldn’t Google (2010 profits: $8.5 billion) be required to give back the big subsidy packages it has extracted for its data centers, including $200 million for a facility in Lenoir, North Carolina and about $50 million for one in Council Bluffs, Iowa?
The same goes for the big Wall Street firms. Should Goldman Sachs (2010 profits: $8.4 billion) be allowed to keep the $175 million in subsidies (and $1.7 billion in tax-exempt financing) it received for its new headquarters in lower Manhattan—or the $164 million it got for an operation across the river in New Jersey?
What about Boeing ($2.1 billion in profits for the first three quarters of 2010): Should it retain the estimated $900 million subsidy package it received for its new Dreamliner production line in Charleston, South Carolina? Must Procter & Gamble ($12.7 billion in profits for the fiscal year ending June 2010) retain the $85 million tax break it got for a plant in Utah?
And, of course, there is Wal-Mart (which will soon announce annual profits expected to exceed $14 billion). Over the years it has received what my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First estimate at more than $1.2 billion in subsidies at hundreds of stores and around 90 percent of its 100 or so distribution centers—including at least five facilities in Wisconsin. Couldn’t it afford to give some of that back in a time of need for many of the communities in which it operates?
Business advocates would no doubt scream bloody murder if subsidy abrogation were ever seriously considered by state or city governments. They would accuse officials of breaking solemn promises and poisoning the business climate. They would mobilize small business owners to defend the rights of their larger brethren. And they would waste no time bringing suit against public officials for breach of contract.
On what basis can subsidy agreements be considered sacrosanct while public sector collective bargaining agreements and pension obligations are torn to shreds? The failure of those seeking to undermine commitments to public workers to also call for sacrifices by business suggests that their real objective may have more to do with ideology than fiscal relief.
Note: For more details on the subsidy deals cited above and many more, see the Accountable USA state pages of the Good Jobs First website (index by company name here). And see our Subsidy Tracker database as well.