Springfield Should Eliminate Its Economic Development Agencies
A version of this commentary appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.
In July 2010, Missouri politicians joined the state’s economic development agency to announce the awarding of $17 million in state tax incentives, along with $39 million in local tax subsidies, to the Mamtek project in Moberly. The project called for making artificial sweetener using a process that would start in China and finish at a new plant in Moberly, creating 600 local jobs here. There was just one problem—it was all a scam.
It may seem unfair of me to criticize a government agency for falling victim to a criminal conspiracy, albeit one that really wasn’t that sophisticated, but government economic development agencies are a Catch-22 for taxpayers. When they do a bad job—as they did in Mamtek—they waste our tax money. As with the Bass Pro Shop in Independence and the Jamestown Development near Springfield, we can list plenty of private business projects government had no reason to get involved in but did to the detriment of taxpayers. But we can only wish they always did a bad job. It’s when they do their jobs right that taxpayers and average citizens really get burned.
When economic development officials do their jobs right, all they are really doing is subsidizing economic activity that likely would have happened anyway for the benefit of politically connected companies. As the old joke goes, economic development officials are great at creating jobs for other economic development officials. For everyone else, not so much. For all their skillful use of political buzzwords and claiming credit when none is deserved, it remains true that “government is a bad venture capitalist,” to quote President Obama’s economic advisor, Larry Summers. Summers was being polite. Government, in the form of local, state, and federal economic development agencies, is a terrible venture capitalist. It’s not that government officials don’t get their bets right often enough; it’s that they actively get them wrong because economic development officials are heavily influenced by the political incentives to reward supporters of the politicians who employ them. A short-term political payoff is more important than long-term success.
Late to the subsidy game but catching up fast, Springfield—having seen how St. Louis and Kansas City have operated their own subsidies and failed by every measure—has decided to follow in their footsteps. The trucking industry has long been important in Southwest Missouri, and there are numerous companies, stations, and stores in Springfield to service the various fleets. But not enough for the City of Springfield’s Department of Economic Vitality (that’s its actual name), which decided to use over $4 million in taxpayer funds (along with other subsidies) to entice an enormous new gas station company, Buc-ee’s, to locate in town.
The head of another local convenience store company, Rapid Robert’s, rightfully took issue with the plan. He didn’t object to the competition, but rather the use of tax subsidies in a field full of local companies that had grown without them. His objections fell on deaf ears, and likely would have been meaningless to the members of the city’s “economic vitality” department. They, like economic development officials everywhere, care nothing about history, propriety, or capitalist theory. They care about getting the forms marked up, the tax money spent, and the deal done so that they can claim credit, add it to their resume, and start searching for the next job.
Economist Dick Netzer mocked the exaggerated claims of success made by economic development officials when he wrote, “Who needs oil wells, when a state can be another Kuwait just by increasing the budget of a tiny agency?” Claims of subsidy successes often border on the absurd. The author once heard a Clay County economic development official claim that “All of the growth” in the town of Liberty—a fast growing, exurban community north of Kansas City, the likes of which have been growing across the nation for decades—was due to a tax-increment financing (TIF) package they passed. As if suburbanization hadn’t existed until Missouri’s TIF law was passed in the late 1980s.
Economists Alan Peters and Peter Fisher studied tax incentives closely and concluded that they work about 10 percent of the time and are simply a waste of money the other 90 percent. They added that, like the Clay County officials mentioned above, economic development officials often credit all new employment and growth to tax subsidies.
As Christmas approaches, Springfield residents could get no better Christmas gift than the elimination of state and local economic development agencies. They are a blight on capitalism and an actively harmful influence on the civic and economic life of our state.