It’s a simple truth that the job of government is to conduct the people’s business.
But nothing is simple when that business collides with a global megacorporation like Amazon, which has been shopping for a new headquarters that promises to deliver thousands of jobs and serious investment for one lucky city.
That city may be Philadelphia. It might also be Pittsburgh, another of a 20-city short list created by Amazon after 238 cities in the U.S. and Canada submitted initial proposals in a frenzy that is usually seen when red meat gets dropped among a school of sharks.
We can assume the incentive packages were staggering in their generosity. According to an October Inquirer report, Pennsylvania alone plans to offer tax incentives in excess of $1 billion, on top of what the city is offering. The problem is we can only assume, because the details of the state’s and city’s proposal are being zealously guarded. And now there’s even a lawsuit to keep them secret.
In November, the Allentown Morning Call filed a Right-to-Know request with the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for the city’s proposal; DCED denied the request, but the Office Open Records (OOR) ruled favorably for its release. (In January, a citizen filed a similar request.) The OOR dismissed the state’s arguments that the proposal’s details were trade secrets whose release would cause economic harm.
When the city of Philadelphia released its proposal, most of it was redacted. Now the state, along with the city, is bringing suit against the Morning Call to keep the proposal’s details secret. The Associated Press, the Pa. Media Group, which owns PennLive, and Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, have joined Allentown in that battle to shed light on how much of your money will go to Amazon if it moves here.
As attractive as the prospect of Amazon in Philadelphia is, this is a battle worth fighting. The notion of spending billions of dollars of the people’s money to lure a large company here may be considered business as usual, but the size of the potential investment demands more scrutiny, not less. Besides, Amazon will decide by the end of the year; the bids are in, and we should see them.
The problem is that these incentives — usually in the form of tax breaks and outright grants — don’t come free; they are made with public money that will be diverted from other expenditures. After such incentives are granted to companies, there is rarely an accounting of just how well those investments perform.
Many economists and other experts decry such incentives, suggesting that they rarely show a high rate of return. One group actually started a change.org petition for a “nonaggression pact” to discourage the kind of economic war among cities that Amazon created. The point is, these are war chests funded by the public, who aren’t being allowed to know what weapons their money is buying, how much they cost, or even how well those weapons work.