Lawmakers as Job Buyers

By Edward W. De Barbieri

In 2013, Washington State authorized the largest state tax incentive for private industry in U.S. history. It is not remarkable for a state legislature to use tax benefits to retain a major employer—in this case, the global aerospace manufacturer Boeing. Laws across all states and thousands of cities routinely incentivize companies such as Amazon to relocate or remain in particular areas. Notably, however, Washington did not recover any of the subsidies it authorized despite Boeing’s significant post-incentive workforce reductions.

This story leads to several important questions: (1) How effective are state and local legislatures at influencing business-location decisions?; (2) Do such incentive programs actually achieve their goals of increasing and maintaining jobs?; (3) Is the public protected from imprudent spending? This Article looks specifically at the role of state and local governments in encouraging businesses to locate in their jurisdictions. In such cases, state and local lawmakers act as buyers of jobs.

This Article argues for a two-step proposal to limit subnational government actions to incentivize business-location decisions. The first step involves a bidding process where companies are awarded incentives based on the lowest subsidy dollar amount required to create or retain a job of a certain quality or pay rate. The second step involves defining job metrics based on certain preconditions and recapturing incentives should a company fail to maintain or achieve a defined number of job and qualities inherent in each job. This two-step proposal has regulatory benefits and it mollifies the political concern for jurisdictions to appear competitive and the need for public financial protection.