Is it my imagination, or are half the governors in the country running for president?
On the Republican side they’re piling up like … those huge stacks of walruses we see off the coast of Alaska now that there’s global warming. A stack of governors! Different from the walruses only in 1) lack of tusks, and 2) failure to believe that melting ice floes are a serious problem.
This week Bobby Jindal (Louisiana). Next week maybe Chris Christie (New Jersey). Sometime in July, Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and probably John Kasich (Ohio). We’ve already got a bunch of former governors in the race, like Jeb Bush (Florida) and Rick Perry (Texas).
The guys who are still in office have been stalling, attempting to disguise their total disinterest in their current jobs until a state budget is passed. Although Walker, in a stroke of political genius, has decided that really means the day the budget is supposed to be passed.
That’s Wisconsin’s problem. Our question for today is what we can learn about our own national priorities from the governor-candidates God has given us.
Almost all governors brag about their economic development programs – hey, it’s economic development! But we could have an excellent conversation about how often these things really work. They’re frequently huge, thudding wastes of money.
Louisiana, for instance, covers about a third of the in-state production costs for any movie that’s filmed there, a policy that will pay off only if it turns out that tourists visit New Orleans just because it was the site of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
“Louisiana sank more into ‘Green Lantern’ than it is putting into the University of New Orleans this year,” a state paper noted in December.
Next door in Texas, then-Gov. Perry claimed that his Texas Enterprise Fund created more than 12,000 jobs with a $50 million investment in an institute for genomic medicine. It was actually more like 10 jobs once you stopped counting every single biotech job created anywhere in the state for the previous six years.
In Florida, when Bush was governor, he came up with a plan for biotech corridors that would spawn tens of thousands of jobs, transforming the state just the way Disney World did in the 1970s, except possibly without any pirates.
Reuters studied the results and estimated that Florida state and local governments had anted up $1.32 billion and generated 1,365 jobs, or $1 million per new employee.
Often, the goal of these programs is to simply lure a business from one state to another. Then we get a battle of the tax breaks, creating a hole that will have to be filled by you, the ordinary taxpayer.
Ohio, home of Kasich, offered Sears a $400 million deal to ditch Illinois and move to Columbus. Sears decided to stay put after the Illinois Legislature passed a super-emergency $275 million counteroffer. One economics professor suggested the company should pay Ohio a 10 percent commission.
“We’re disappointed that it didn’t work out,” Kasich said in a statement. “But it is very exciting that Ohio was in serious contention up to the very end, and that it took a special session of the Illinois Legislature to beat us.”
Honestly, this kind of thing ought to be unconstitutional.
The great irony here is that finding the lowest taxes generally isn’t a top business priority.
What companies really want is to be near suppliers and markets. Maybe occasionally the CEO’s house.
“As a part of business cost structure, state and local taxes are about 2 percent,” said Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks these programs.
But tax cuts do help make friends. In Wisconsin, the state Economic Development Corp. board – which Walker used to lead – approved a $6 million tax credit for Ashley Furniture Industries, whose owners forked over $20,000 to Walker’s re-election campaign.
As The Wisconsin State Journal reported, in return for the tax credit, Ashley Furniture promised to expand the company headquarters and keep at least half of its current jobs in the state for the next five years. Doesn’t that sound like a kind of low bar?
Under Christie, New Jersey has handed out $630 million to get companies to move jobs to the woebegone city of Camden.
Which would seem like a worthy goal, except that most of the jobs in question were already in the state – in fact, frequently in an adjoining neighborhood.
“Most of the jobs coming to Camden are filled by existing employees who currently work just a few miles away,” reported The Associated Press. “Nearly all the recipients boast notable political connections.”
I think we have a topic. Nudge the governor pile and let the debate begin.
Gail Collins is a columnist for the New York Times.