December 1, 2011

Oh Well, It Will Be A Thin Report: The Mamtek Hearings

A Missouri House committee heard testimony Wednesday from the soon-to-be former director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED), David Kerr.

Kerr’s testimony follows testimony from Moberly officials on Tuesday. A key point of Kerr’s testimony was that it would be a poor use of time and effort for the DED to double check the claims that every business makes when seeking incentives. Kerr said that if every business seeking incentives is treated as a criminal, fewer businesses will come to Missouri. I think that if a background check would deter a CEO with a history of passing bad checks from applying for tax credits, it might be appropriate.

There are two broad issues that legislators and the general public should consider in light of Mamtek. The first is that government officials (and others) mistakenly believe that with the right subsidy package and safeguards, they can eliminate all or nearly all of the risk associated with using public dollars to subsidize a private business. Any business can fail, due to its own negligence, or due to factors beyond its control. Public financing for a project cannot guarantee success, though it may prop up a business that otherwise would not be profitable without taxpayer money. Furthermore, as we may see in Moberly, no matter how many safeguards are used, the result may be that taxpayers are left holding the bag.

The second issue that may be at the heart of the Mamtek debacle is the fact that people and businesses will strive to get the largest benefit for the least amount of effort. That behavior has been seen in Missouri with gaming the requirements of the Missouri Quality Jobs tax credits and the general tendency of companies trying to access as many subsidy programs with a single project. It also has happened in China, where shoddy construction work on a high-speed train may have resulted in at least 39 deaths, along with corruption charges and the misuse of public funds.

As an outside observer, I don’t know whether any of those involved (Mamtek, the DED, current and former top state officials, etc.) deliberately misled anyone. There are ongoing criminal and civil investigations that may determine that.

However, the testimony that the House committee has heard so far sounds bleak, particularly the state’s investigation of the Mamtek company. The Columbia Daily Tribune posted the House committee information packet on Mamtek, and portions of it are riveting.

For example, one point of contention is whether Mamtek ever had an operating plant in China, as the company claimed in its project summary. The company wrote:

As of December 2009, Mamtek had moved from development into manufacturing and sales. We have completed both an 18-ton pilot production line and a full-scale, fully-functional [sic] 60 ton line (metric tons per annum). Each step and detail in the manufacturing and operational processes have been verified independently by the international patent firm Perkins Cole (page 27 of the House committee packet).

And then, Michael Wise, the patent attorney of Perkins Cole, a company closely affiliated with Mamtek, allegedly told the Moberly Economic Development Corporation that he had seen the plant himself, and that it had been operational for several years (page 43).

But yet, in April 2010, attorney Edward Li, a Chinese trade consultant for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, wrote to state officials to say that construction of a plant in China began in 2008, but was never completed (page 5).

Greg Havener, at the DED, wrote in an email with the subject “RE: BUILD PROJECT RUSH”  that he couldn’t find much information about Mamtek. “There is little on Google, oh well it will be a ‘thin report,’ “ he wrote (page 41). That email was sent on June 3, 2010, days before state incentives for Mamtek were approved.

Oh well, indeed. It is my prediction that while the future of Mamtek is uncertain, and while the financial future of the city of Moberly and its 13,000 residents is uncertain, the future of the DED is not.

In the private sector, if a business makes a $40 million mistake, it suffers dire consequences. For many businesses, that kind of mistake can result in bankruptcy. If no substantive reform is implemented at the DED, its operations will continue as usual. In the past, that has meant tax credits awarded to voided projects, inflated job and investment numbers, and vast amounts of taxpayer dollars going to incredibly inefficient programs.

I hope this episode will lead to major changes at the DED. If a more thorough investigation on each development package leads to fewer development handouts, that is a good thing.

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