Anyone who has been paying attention to the Show-Me Institute over the past few years knows that our analysts are not impressed with a number of economic development subsidy programs in Missouri. While we write often about tax-increment financing (TIF), there are many other programs ripe for reform. But as my time spent in one legislative hearing shows, those with a vested interest in the programs are going to put up a fight.
The bill in question was SB 859, which was heard by the Senate Economic Development Committee on February 20. A copy of my own testimony is here. The bill is fairly straightforward; it would limit the circumstances under which TIF can be used and would require a third-party analysis of the need for a taxpayer subsidy.
Opponents of the bill included members of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, whose budget is dependent upon fees generated by the TIF projects they oversee. In fact, EDC staff once received bonuses because the group received so much money from TIF fees. The two officials testifying for the EDC offered anecdotal evidence of TIF success, highlighting two or three projects. But there are at least as many projects in which TIF has been abused, including the world headquarters buildings of Burns & McDonnell and H&R Block, along with other failures such as the Power & Light District and the never-actually-built Citadel. In fact, I am confident that in a battle of anecdotes opponents of TIF would win handily.
Other opponents of reform at the hearing included representatives from a few businesses that have benefitted from these taxpayer subsidies. They urged legislators to “be careful” lest reform hinder Missouri’s ability to fight a subsidy border war with Kansas (a border war, incidentally, that is a “financial folly for taxpayers”). If only those same businesses urged local officials to be careful with the TIF subsidies they give out so easily.
But good public policy ought not be based on mere anecdotes. Even if you don’t care what the research indicates, good policymaking is dependent on good information. And the research on TIF is clear: It doesn’t work at spurring investment or creating jobs. If you don’t want to depend on Show-Me Institute research, you can look at a UNC-Chapel Hill study on Chicago, or to the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research for nationwide data analysis. You can even turn to a study conducted for the St. Louis Redevelopment Corporation on the TIF subsidies that the corporation itself recommends and administers! This is the testimony that should matter.
Legislators should be wary of testimony from people with a vested financial interest in a bill’s outcome, or of testimony that amounts to little more than cherry-picked anecdotes. They should seek out broad research from disinterested parties—which, in the case of TIF, tells us that these subsidies are a waste of taxpayer money.