As the coronavirus has swept the country, forcing state and local governments to adjust to a new way of doing business, the public’s ability to keep track of government activities has not been easy. Video meetings are often the best governments can offer, and that has put new limits on public participation. But when it comes to government economic development deals and efforts to attract jobs, secrecy is nothing new. Whether or not there is a pandemic, the public’s access to information about these deals is limited.
Hundreds of projects — with tax breaks, offers of public property, property tax abatements and other sweeteners — are proposed each year by state and local governments to attract private companies who promise to bolster the local economy with jobs and the creation of spinoff industries. These efforts do not appear to have slowed during the pandemic, and the costs and benefits to the public remain difficult to calculate.
State laws, including in Florida and neighboring states, are a patchwork of regulations that tend to land on the side of corporate secrecy, more often than not. And an effort in Florida to make economic development deals more accessible to public scrutiny failed this year for the third time in the state legislature.
The competition for Amazon’s second headquarters is a prime example of how states and localities take steps to keep information about tax benefits and other deals with private companies confidential. The Amazon competition in 2017 drew more than 200 applications from the US, Canada and Mexico, including Florida. Most offered extensive tax breaks and other incentives. But the public was often left in the dark about how their tax dollars were being used, even after the finalists and eventual winner were announced.
Even now, more than two years after Arlington, Va., was tapped for the site, many states and localities have refused to make public the size of tax breaks and other fiscal support they were offering to lure Amazon. The company is headed by Jeff Bezos, who is considered to be the world’s richest person.