Indeterminacy in Public Expenditure: What Is a “Historic Preservation” Tax Credit?
I bristle when public policy advocates contend that persons who oppose a favored policy simply lack an understanding of “how well the program works.” Instead of wasting breath on patronizing dismissals of those who offer alternative perspectives, perhaps a policy advocate’s time would be best spent providing the public with valuable, unbiased information with which we can form our own opinions.
It is in this spirit that I present one of my works in progress from my summer here at the Show-Me Institute.
Backers of the 25-percent Missouri Historic Preservation Tax Credit often cite the statistic that our state is “first in the nation” for “federal historic rehab tax credit projects,” so I thought that it could prove valuable to see exactly where said federal projects occurred.
Click here to view a draft map of Missouri rehabilitation projects that received the 20-percent Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit. Data comes from a June 2010 information request to the National Park Service, and includes projects dating from 1996 to mid-June 2010.
I see no need to editorialize about the map at this stage in my research, but I think that those who proudly support historic tax credit programs would do well by the public to explain why spending millions on certain construction activities is an appropriate use of public funds.
However, given that “historic preservation” is a catchall for education, place-making, job creation, and aesthetics, defining the precise function of public expenditures made in the name of preservation is an impossible task. Our positions as taxpayers, historians, developers, contractors, homeowners, tenants, policymakers, and tourists necessarily inform our differing and potentially divergent perceptions of these policies and expenditures. Our propensity toward repeated engagement in the same argument about the relative worth of a tax dollar spent on historic preservation as opposed to one spent on public education, while refusing to acknowledge some basic facts about the program in question, often leaves us blowing hot air.
At present in Missouri, recipients of historic preservation tax credits need not acknowledge the receipt of public funds in any format on the project site. In fact, recipients of historic preservation tax credits need not even acknowledge the historic significance of their taxpayer-supported property on site, such as in the form of a plaque. If we are to have a truly informed debate about the worth of the historic preservation tax credit, I would hope that we can all agree that disclosure is a good place to start.
Without good information, our state will never make good policy.
In my mind, the verdict is still out on whether the historic preservation tax credit really does what its backers aver.