The Next Big Government Handout: ‘Aerotropolis’
The prospect of “big idea” economic development makes politicians do strange, contradictory things. On the stump, candidates rail against corporate giveaways and crony capitalism. In town halls, they opine about backroom deals, preferential treatment, and earmarks.
But when it comes to a whole host of development issues, too many politicians find their inner Nancy Pelosi and — Eureka! — discover that this latest project they’ve stumbled upon is about one thing and one thing only: “Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”
So it is for Missouri’s latest big idea project. This session, the Missouri legislature took up a bill to build a Saint Louis “Aerotropolis” — a kind of “international trade hub of the future” — that would have given away more than a third of a billion dollars in tax breaks, mostly to warehouse developers.
The project, quietly snaking its way through the halls of the state House, takes money out of the pocketbooks of all Missourians and transfers it cross-state. That’s the state picking winners and losers. In this case, almost all of Missouri loses big.
If the chambers hadn’t run out of time on a compromise, a bill — supported by legislators throughout the state — would have been signed into law. This may still happen: A coalition of Democrats and Republicans are lobbying hard to bring the legislature back into a special session and pass the bill once and for all.
Like so many big government projects, the promises being made to get the bill passed aren’t that far of a cry from the days of traveling salesmen and talismanic tonics. Need your cattle flown overnight to China? Aerotropolis. Want your city to “seize the opportunity” and act on your “vision” for the future? Aerotropolis. Want your hair darkened, your teeth whitened, your wife to love you, and your children to praise you in song?
What makes the situation in Missouri particularly strange and disheartening is that substantial conservative — and arguably tea party — majorities exist in both of the state’s legislative chambers, and yet … $360 million in special tax breaks is still on the table for the project, a high-stakes experiment with your checkbook that’s based on highly dubious economics.
This is to say nothing about the mechanics of the legislation itself, which in the end has little to do with encouraging international trade and everything to do with awarding taxpayer money to the politically connected business elite in Saint Louis.
We all want our cities in Missouri to grow, but to do that, governments should be relying on the free market to make those decisions, rather than leaving it to the wrongheaded and expensive big ideas of its politicians. Missouri’s legislators should know better.
Patrick Ishmael is a policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.