Do Twitter and Red Lobster Need Local Tax Breaks?


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Elected officials in California and Florida face unprecedented fiscal challenges at both the state and local levels. Yet rather than working to reduce their budget shortfalls, policymakers in each state are doing their best to dig their budget holes deeper by offering new company-specific tax breaks to keep footloose corporations from moving their operations elsewhere.

A front-page article in today's New York Times offers some insights into this seemingly irrational behavior. Focusing on the battle between Kansas and Missouri lawmakers over the future headquarters of movie-theater chain AMC Entertainment, the article describes a system of extorting tax breaks that is viewed by everyone involved — from lawmakers to the beneficiaries of the tax breaks — as a pointless zero-sum game.

AMC's chief executive officer, poised to receive lavish tax handouts from the two states, wonders aloud "whether this is an appropriate role for government to be playing," and a lawyer whose job involves seeking out tax breaks for corporate clients describes it as "horrible public policy."

This situation won't be news to anyone who's followed the work of Greg LeRoy and the folks at Good Jobs First over the years. LeRoy's "Great American Jobs Scam" provides an excellent summary of the cottage industry of site location consultants that has emerged to facilitate the "economic war between the states" that the Times article describes. But the battle over AMC is only one example of egregious tax giveaways from the past week.

In Florida, Darden Restaurants (parent company of the Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurant franchises) is pushing for new tax breaks. The Orlando Sentinel reports that this Fortune 500 company, which generated $7.1 billion in global sales during its most recent fiscal year, is pushing for legislation that would allow the millions in corporate income tax credits it already receives in Florida to be applied to its sales tax liability. This would save the company as much as $5 million.

Fortunately, the tax legislation has stalled as its key sponsor, Republican State Representative Chris Dorworth, read the ‘revelation’ in the Orlando Sentinel that his own tax break legislation would only apply to Darden Restaurants. He then decided he could not support his own legislation as written.  

Meanwhile, San-Franciso-based Twitter has played tax break hardball with city officials for months, threatening to move to Brisbane if it does not receive substantial tax breaks. Despite facing a tough $350 million deficit and dramatic cuts to health services, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors capitulated to Twitter’s demands this week, passing a $22 million payroll tax break for the company on Tuesday. Roxanne Sanchez, the president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, opposed the measure, saying, “It’s a taxpayer handout to a $10 billion company at a time we’re cutting basic city services.”

As today's Times article reminds us, corporate tax breaks all too often create benefits for one jurisdiction at the direct expense of another, with no net benefit for the US economy overall. And tax breaks targeted to a specific company set an especially dangerous precedent. As an editorial in the San Francisco Guardian put it, “once you go down the path of caving in to corporate blackmail, it never ends.”

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog, http://www.justtaxesblog.org/

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