California Shows that Geographically Targeted Tax Incentives Don’t Work
Last week, the New York State Legislature overwhelmingly passed START-UP New York (previously known as Tax-Free NY). The approval came after nearly a month of Governor Cuomo’s state-wide campus PR tour where he touted the plan’s infallible greatness, a claim we have explained is almost completely unjustified.
3,000 miles to the west, in California, fellow Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is telling a different story. He has proposed eliminating the state’s costly Enterprise Zone (EZ) Program, citing its ineffectiveness and huge cost as the rationale for the move.
California’s EZ Program was created in 1986 and has been the state’s primary policy tool in attempting to promote economic development in distressed areas. Like START-UP NY, California’s EZ Program provides geographically targeted tax breaks to 40 “zones” determined by the state. (START-UP NY provides tax breaks to over 70 zones, primarily college campuses.)
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, however, the EZ Program has had “no effect on business creation or job growth.” Furthermore, the California Budget Project has found that EZs “have cost the state a total of $4.8 billion in lost revenue since the program’s inception” while benefiting “less than half of one percent of the state’s corporations.”
Governor Brown’s proposal – initially outlined in his May budget revision (PDF) – signifies an important shift away from using geographically targeted tax breaks as an economic development tool. A growing body of research has shown (and shown again) tax incentives of most kinds to be poor tools for economic development, and California’s three decades of experience with its EZ Program is a case in point.
“California’s thirty-year-old Enterprise Zone program is not enterprising, it’s wasteful. It’s inefficient and not giving taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck,” said the Governor in a meeting with business leaders and labor groups. “There’s a better way and it will help encourage manufacturing in California.”
It must be noted, of course, that Governor Brown’s “better way” is only half better; it throws half of those EZ Program dollars at similarly unproven tax breaks while spending the other half – wisely – on a reduction in the sales tax (PDF) businesses pay. Still, a governor who is beginning to listen to policy experts over pollsters deserves some credit for moving in the right direction.
If Governor Brown’s proposal is enacted (it may be on the ballot next year), it appears we will have a tale of two states: in California, a state trying to learn from the past; in New York, a state blindly shaping policy based on political interests.