April 24, 2015

Of Stadiums and Economic Spillovers

Recently, we wrote a letter to the Post-Dispatch that criticized the idea that new tax revenue from a riverfront stadium would “pay” for $405 million in public subsidies. In response, one Saint Louis County resident claimed that: 1. spending on the Rams is not diverted from other areas; and 2. he trusts the governor and his numbers, not the Show-Me Institute’s.

First, we’ll address the substitution effect, or the idea that money spent on the Rams does not necessarily mean new economic activity. Our critic claims that if the Rams leave, he and many others would not be spending their dollars downtown. The problem with that reasoning is that it conceptualizes the Saint Louis region as municipally balkanized, and not as part of a regional or state economy, which in fact they are. Thus, if he and other county residents stay in the county on Sunday and spend money there, the regional and state economy is unaffected, along with the regional and state tax base.

Addressing the second point, if our critic does not believe Show-Me Institute’s numbers, why not the Brookings Institution, which wrote:

A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. . . . No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus . . . most tax collections inside a stadium are substitutes: as other entertainment businesses decline, tax collections from them fall.

Or our critic could also read a review of the economic literature, which finds:

Because sports facilities are not expected to generate additional net output in a metropolitan area and no systematic empirical analysis ever finds evidence that they do, sports facilities cannot be counted on to augment tax collections.

Put simply, the evidence on whether sports stadiums generate economic growth or sufficient tax revenue to justify large subsidies is overwhelmingly in the negative. Our findings accord with these prior results, the governor’s and Post-Dispatch’s do not. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whose heart is leading whose head.

April 16, 2015

Kansas City Builds by Digging Itself into Holes

We’ve written extensively about the money that Kansas City has been handing out to downtown developers. Every dollar they give away is one less for infrastructure and basic services. Proponents claim that this is all worth it because of the revitalization of downtown. (Other observers, such as the Kansas City Business Journal, seem more cautious.) If the handouts of the past have been so successful, we should be able to sit back and watch all the private economic development dollars roll in. Yet despite claims of success, Kansas City is still giving away money.

  • Cordish, the company that brought us the Power & Light District then sued to lower their county property taxes, says that the downtown investment has been a success! But apparently the success wasn’t great enough to forgo further subsidies for two more residential buildings.
  • The Port Authority in Kansas City recently announced that they will be using public dollars to subsidize the construction of luxury residential condominiums along Kansas City’s riverfront. There is great demand they say, but apparently not enough to avoid the use of public underwriting.
  • A Crossroads hotel has received TIF subsidies, and an apartment building in the same area is receiving a property tax abatement and a $1 million exemption in sales taxes.

When will the public subsidies end? How do we know when we’re done? Is there any incentive for developers to say they do not need public subsidies? (The answer to that last question is no.) This is important because every subsidy means less money for city and county services; every abatement means less money for schools, less money for libraries. Right now, at least $93 million of city revenue is redirected each year to these developers. That doesn’t include the new projects for Cordish, Burns & McDonnell, and Cerner. Developers shouldn’t be encouraged to build skyscrapers while digging taxpayers into a hole.

April 13, 2015

Tax Incentives: How Much Money Do Governments Give Away?

This summer the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is set to release new guidance to state and local governments on how to report the tax incentives they distribute every year. The nonprofit board largely determines financial reporting standards for state and local governments. So although GASB may itself seem like an obscure organization, its guidance is closely watched and widely accepted by governments across the United States.

As reported in The Nerve,

. . . state and local governments for the first time would have to report, among other things, in their annual financial statements:

  • General description of their tax abatement programs;
  • The total number of tax abatement agreements entered into during the reporting period, and the total number of agreements in effect at the end of the period;
  • The dollar amount by which the reporting government’s tax revenues were reduced during the reporting period because of tax abatement agreements; and
  • A description of the types of commitments other than to reduce taxes—for example, tax dollars spent on purchasing land and installing utility lines—and the most “significant individual commitments other than to reduce taxes, if any, made by the reporting government in tax abatement agreements.”

Translation? Governments would have to disclose, in a standardized format, exactly how much money they give away. That’s a huge paradigm shift, both from the standpoints of government transparency and public research. Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that looks at tax incentives, called the development “tectonic.” “These things (incentives) have gotten so out of control, so overgrown, so arcane—it’s been off the radar.”

LeRoy is right, of course. If local and state governments have to divulge all of the relevant details about the incentives they’re giving away, it could have a huge impact on how governments interact with tax incentive beneficiaries—and how taxpayers view the tax incentive programs themselves. As explained in the blog Next City,

Cold, hard numbers could soon settle the heated debates about whether tax incentives encourage regional growth and competitiveness or simply deplete public resources. LeRoy argues that any site location consultant for a corporation could tell you that tax breaks often don’t affect the bottom line: State and local taxes comprise less than two percent of a company’s total cost structure. Other environmental factors like labor, logistics and materials matter much more. But companies would never admit that to the governments offering them free money.

Like other places around the country, Missouri’s tax incentive programs are a mess. If GASB institutes robust accounting standards for these incentives—and it appears it might—it may go a long way to draining the cronyism swamp in this state. Cross your fingers.

March 24, 2015

Touted Benefits of the Film Tax Credit Program Are Misleading

On Wednesday, March 18, the House Committee on Economic Development and Business Attraction and Retention held a hearing on House Bill 803 (HB 803), which would reinstate the film tax credit program. This is the same program that granted a $2.36 million tax credit to the producers of Gone Girl. Michael Rathbone and I submitted testimony against the reauthorization of the film tax credit program. Luckily, Michael was able to testify before the committee. He was the only person to testify against this wasteful policy proposal.

Since news articles reporting on the hearing only highlighted the arguments of those in support of HB 803, I’ll reiterate what analysts at the Show-Me Institute have written so many times before: Film tax credits are bad public policy!

filmcrewSupporters of the program argue that the film tax credits bring immense economic benefits to the state. However, the problem with this argument is that it doesn’t look at the costs of the program along with its benefits. While supporters spout claims that “Gone Girl brought in $7 million into the economy,” the reality is the program’s return on investment (tax dollars generated versus tax dollars spent) is merely cents on the dollar. In other words, the program does not pay for itself.

Furthermore, the argument that the film tax credit helps create permanent jobs is a fallacy. Film production jobs, by their very nature, are short-lived. To add insult to injury, the highest paying jobs often go to non-Missouri residents, since production jobs require specific and highly skilled professionals. However, perhaps the most shocking fact is that Missouri has had a film tax credit program since 1999, and yet, according to data gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs related to film production decreased during the time the film tax credit program was in place.

It is bewildering that lawmakers can ignore important economic indicators, and the advice of the state’s own Tax Credit Review Commission, just so Missouri can play hostess to Hollywood for a few weeks. I hope legislators and political spectators will take a look at our testimony and exercise some common sense.

March 17, 2015

Saint Louis Riverfront Stadium: The Maintenance Dimension

Missouri officials say they need a new stadium to keep the Rams. They plan to pay $405 million toward the riverfront stadium by extending existing bonds and offering millions in state tax subsidies. Unfortunately, they do not talk about how that new stadium, along with the teamless dome, will pay for upkeep.

In 2015, the Edward Jones Dome’s maintenance and renovation is $7 million. In the next decade, regular maintenance costs are expected to vary between $7 million and $9 million annually. The upkeep of the dome is paid for by the public, not the Rams or conventions. Approximately $4 million a year comes from the city and county. In addition, the state pays $2 million toward maintenance as part of the deal that originally financed the dome ($10 million for construction debt, $2 million for upkeep and renovation). As the Post-Dispatch reported last year, the dome is in a relatively serious financial hole, and Missouri officials are going to need to find new revenue sources to maintain Saint Louis’ current stadium.

The riverfront stadium plan, unlike the Edward Jones Dome, apparently does not have a revenue stream for its upkeep. However, if costs are anything like the dome’s, the stadium will require at least $5 million to $9 million a year over its useful life. Setting aside the unlikely event of the Rams deciding to cover that cost, Missouri and the Saint Louis region should be preparing to spend at least $125 million in present-value dollars for the upkeep of a new stadium, over and above the initial capital cost.

The additional cost of maintaining a new stadium, and not just its initial cost, makes justifying the project, on economic terms, very difficult. A $405 million upfront cost, plus $125 million for maintenance, far exceeds even rosy projects for the additional tax revenue a stadium might generate. Since the vast majority of economists agree that stadiums do not spur urban regeneration or create economic development, there is only one defense for the new stadium plan: civic pride.


Can Laclede’s Landing Survive Government Planning?

Recently, the Post-Dispatch reported that many businesses in Laclede’s Landing, a riverfront entertainment district in downtown Saint Louis, are struggling to stay afloat. Half of the district’s 14 bars have closed in the last 18 months.

The immediate culprit of the decline is construction: work on the area’s road system and renovations to the Arch grounds have made the Landing difficult to get to for tourists and residents alike. With construction slated to continue for the next couple of years, many local businesses are calling it quits. According to some business owners, regional planners were so focused with large improvements to the riverfront that they were unwilling to heed the concerns of the neighborhood.

Officials can argue that, despite the present hard times, the area will be better served in the long run by riverfront improvements. However, Laclede’s Landing has deeper problems than transitory construction disruptions. Saint Louis has changed since the 80s and 90s, when the Landing was downtown’s premier entertainment district. From the mid-90s onward, Laclede’s Landing has had to deal with the rise of competitor bar districts, often heavily subsidized by the city and state government.

We can see evidence of the declining comparative vitality of Laclede’s Landing in the neighborhood’s building permits. In the 1990s, Laclede’s Landing had a greater value of building permits per square mile than other entertainment districts in the city, excluding the Central West End.


Since the 1990s, Laclede’s Landing has been eclipsed. Whereas the Landing had more building permits than the center of Washington Avenue in the 1990s, in the 2000s Washington Avenue had more than ten times the permits of Laclede’s Landing. From 2011-2014, Laclede’s Landing had the least new building permits by value of any of the neighborhoods sampled, even falling behind the upstart Cherokee Street. Lacelde’s Landing was also the only entertainment district to have fewer building permits in the 2000s than it had in the 90s.

One entertainment district being eclipsed by others is no reason to blame regional planners. However, the competition has not been on a level playing field. The region and state have given extensive tax credits to much of Laclede’s Landing’s competition (especially nearby Washington Avenue), as the map below shows:


In just the sample area of Washington Avenue, the city handed out more than $60 million in tax credits from 1999-2011. The sample area of the Central West End received almost $50 million. Laclede’s Landing, by comparison, received less than $2 million in tax credits.

The future of Laclede’s Landing is uncertain. But it seems assured that Saint Louis will continue to make where people spend their free time a matter of public policy. And while government preference can create well publicized winners, it can also make losers. In the 70s, Laclede’s Landing was arguably part of the former, now, it is in danger of joining the latter group.

March 4, 2015

Schools and Libraries Should Get a Piece of the Action

Localities engaged in a tax subsidy bender shouldn’t be surprised if they wake up with a nasty hangover in the form of increased property taxes. When cities decide to binge on Tax Increment Financing (TIF), the cities themselves may not feel the pain, but other taxing districts like schools and libraries are impacted. This has caught the attention of some in the legislature. While it appears that forcing localities to sober up is off the table, they are at least working on giving taxpayers an aspirin.

The pain relief comes in the form of Senate Bill 114 (SB 114), which aims to redirect 50 percent of incremented property tax revenues (i.e., the additional property taxes that would be generated by the increases in assessed value of new developments in a TIF district) back to the school and library districts. Currently, these other taxing districts do not receive additional property tax revenue from any increases in assessed value for redeveloped property in a TIF district. Since TIFs can last up to 23 years, the amount of property tax revenue schools and libraries can forgo is quite considerable.

This is especially troubling for school and library districts, since they both rely heavily on property tax revenue. That is why there has been a long history of these taxing districts opposing TIF projects. School district opposition to TIF projects stretches back at least into the 1990s. They understand that as operating costs grow over time (due to inflation, added population, and so forth), they will have to find additional revenue. Forgoing property tax revenue through TIFs means they will have to resort to tax increases on the people and businesses not located in the TIF district. If SB 114 is enacted, hopefully these rate increases can be forestalled or even avoided altogether.

No matter the context, I’m generally not a fan of overindulging. When local governments overindulge on TIFs, I am particularly appalled. Considering the fact that TIFs don’t work in stimulating net economic development, I’d rather localities avoid their use altogether. Barring that, at least some legislators are trying to mitigate some of TIF’s more damaging side effects.

February 26, 2015

The Great L.A. Gambit


The battle for the L.A. market is joined! According to NBCSanDiego, the Chargers are working with the Oakland Raiders. Their goal: a new stadium in the L.A. area (Carson, California, to be precise). Of course, their home cities can talk them out of it, for the right price.

It’s not shocking that teams other than the Rams might want to move to Los Angeles. L.A. is the country’s second largest media market, and with that comes a lot of TV money. However, still color me skeptical about the whole thing. I think (and I’m not alone) this is more of a ruse for the Chargers and the Raiders to extract sweetheart stadium deals from their home cities. The Chargers have been trying to get a workable proposal from San Diego for the past 14 years. They’ve even recently published some remarks to the San Diego stadium task force regarding what it wants in any new proposal. Needless to say, it’s quite a lot.

I think the Rams’ L.A. proposal is more serious. Why? Because of Stan Kroenke’s silence regarding the Rams’ latest proposal, or anything for that matter on what exactly he wants in order to stay in Saint Louis. The Chargers are giving San Diego an idea of what it is they’re looking for in a new stadium, Mr. Kroenke isn’t.

No matter the likelihood of the Chargers’ or the Rams’ proposals succeeding, I think that neither team should receive public subsidies. If billionaires want new stadiums, they should pay for them themselves. I don’t think taxpayers should get the bill, especially since there won’t be any economic return to them for doing so.

L.A. seems to be the place to go to for teams that can’t get a new stadium. Will policymakers be scared into throwing more money at teams in an attempt to prevent them from leaving? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.


February 23, 2015

Why Cities Are Bad at Bargaining With Sports Teams


Don’t look now, but there’s a land rush for the Los Angeles pro football market. Saint Louisans will already be familiar with Stan Kroenke’s plan to move the Rams to a stadium in Inglewood. But now the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, unhappy that their localities are not coughing up public funds for new stadiums, are also publicizing a plan to move to L.A.

Three teams will not be playing in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, but it allows all three franchises to simultaneously frighten local politicians into spending public dollars on a stadium. From an owner like Stan Kroenke’s point of view, it’s a win-win scenario. If the NFL allows him to move the Rams, his team will instantly gain $1.5 to $2.5 billion in value. And if he can’t (or never wanted to), Missouri has already planned to fund half the costs of a new stadium without any negotiation at all.

For Missourians, local officials have essentially locked residents into two possibilities: 1) approve around $400 million in public dollars for a new stadium, or 2) lose the Rams. Of course, the Rams might move regardless and Kroenke might demand more than $400 million to stay, but that’s what comes from committing the state to half the costs as the opening offer.

This situation is a perfect example of how poorly local officials fare when they bargain for taxpayers against billionaire-owned sports franchises. Where Stan Kroenke can credibly appear ready to leave the Saint Louis market without firm public subsidies, local officials declare how necessary the Rams are to the state. While Kroenke can strengthen his position and fail to negotiate, local officials need to be seen as trying their hardest to make sure Saint Louis is an “NFL city,” even when that means negotiating against themselves.

In essence, Stan Kroenke can look at this like a business negotiation. But local politicians are not spending their own money and have to be concerned about portraying an image of effectiveness and bolstering civic pride, making them poor bargaining agents for regional economies.

Even when there is no threat of a team leaving a lucrative market, pro teams can still reap public subsidies by threatening to move to different municipalities in the metro area. While it might not hurt the Chicago regional economy one bit if the Bears played in Rosemont (a nearby suburb), it would hurt the city’s tax revenue as recreation dollars flow to a different part of the region. Whether the team’s option is moving across the country or the county, pro franchises almost always have the best alternative to a negotiated agreement vis-à-vis local governments.

The best bargaining tool local officials can have is a skeptical voter base that understands that pro franchises do not create economic development or urban regeneration. Residents can vote against public dollars for entertainment venues. That constrains the local officials and sends a clear message to the NFL that Saint Louis is a great sports market, not a great mark.

February 12, 2015

The Star Responds to Show-Me Daily Post

We were gratified to learn that members of the Kansas City Star editorial board read our humble blog. In a Wednesday afternoon column, Yael Abouhalkah took on the matter of the costly Power & Light District to respond to our post the previous day on the same topic.

Abouhalkah starts off where our post on the matter leaves off, a 2006 quote from then-Mayor Kay Barnes about how they’ll be seen as “geniuses” for saddling the city with a $15 million annual debt. He then moves on to conclude that, well, that’s okay.

City officials took bold moves to finally try to eliminate a lot of blight and reinvest in a more vibrant downtown through the Power & Light District, hoping it would lead to even more reinvestment in the city’s central core, wooing residents and companies.

While the downtown area has seen an uptick in residents, the city at-large is floundering. Even the creative-class millennials that we hear so much about are coming to Kansas City in much lower numbers than our peer cities. Some even suggest the trend of young educated people moving to urban areas has peaked.

As for jobs, even Abouhalkah admitted on last week’s episode of Ruckus that there hasn’t been job creation downtown. Tax revenue from restaurants and hotels has not kept pace with inflation, and the number of liquor licenses and bartender permits has decreased over the past several years. So much for a successful entertainment district. But hey, they respond, we built pretty buildings. (And built them near the Star‘s headquarters!)

As for a solution, Abouhalkah suggests more of the same:

Looking forward, I hope the city has learned its lesson and will help build a convention hotel with the lowest possible use of taxpayer subsidies.

Sadly, such sentiment is nothing more than the triumph of hope over experience. Time and again we read of awful city-negotiated deals like Power & Light, Citadel, and Burns & McDonnell while the real city core is left to fend for itself. We can’t wait another nine years for columnists to regret their current support of the latest taxpayer-subsidized scheme.

The mayor and city council seem to be waging a border war of their own, but instead of fighting neighboring states or cities, they’ve pitched downtown versus the rest of the city in an economic civil war.

Missouri’s Film Tax Credit Should Remain Gone

Many Missourians—including myself—took pride in watching Gone Girl on the silver screen. Now with an Oscar nomination to add to the DVD cover, some Missouri lawmakers are attempting to reinstate the film tax credit in an effort to bring even more Oscar-worthy productions to the state.

However, we should not be over-eager in offering handouts to Hollywood. Other than pride, we get little in return. As we have written before, the film tax credit has been ineffective in spurring economic development and leaves Missouri taxpayers to pick up the bill for mega-million-dollar moguls.

The intent of the film tax credit program is to provide initial seed money in an effort to create a sustainable film industry. Yet, despite the fact that Missouri offered a film tax credit for nearly 15 years, the state never became a major hub for film production. In light of this, Missouri’s own Tax Credit Review Commission wrote in their 2010 report that the film tax credit should be cut because it “serves too narrow of an industry and fails to provide a positive return on investment to the state.”

The failure of this program comes from the nature of Hollywood productions. Since nearly 40 states offer similar programs, Hollywood studios can simply wait and see which state will offer the most money for their production. With scarce resources and tight budget constraints, Missouri should not go head to head with states like New York and California on who can hand out more wasteful tax credits.

The success of Gone Girl should not overshadow the fact that the film tax credit program is bad policy for Missouri. If lawmakers are truly determined to bring more economic development to the state, then they should lower taxes for all businesses instead of offering handouts to billion-dollar industries.

February 11, 2015

The Big Bad Bet

People of goodwill can debate some of the proper functions of government, but I think most of us can agree that gambling with taxpayer money is not one of them. Yet that’s what is happening with this Rams stadium situation. Public officials are betting that a new stadium will be a winner for the region and for taxpayers.

Yesterday, Gov. Nixon announced that Ameren and Terminal Railroad have agreed to make adjustments to their assets (moving power lines and rail lines) so that the proposed new stadium on the riverfront can be built. I guess he thinks that’s good news, and it would be if it was the only thing standing in the way of a private developer wanting to build a new stadium on the riverfront, but that’s not the only thing.

The key ingredient to this project moving forward is that we are going to have to cough up more of our money ($405 million to be exact) to help finance this thing. Now it’s possible that such an investment could be worth the price tag if it will lead to redevelopment of the surrounding area. That’s what the governor believes. What’s the evidence that there will be redevelopment? It didn’t happen when we financed construction of the Edward Jones Dome. Why is this time different?

Gov. Nixon also stressed that if we did nothing, the city and state would lose out on millions in income tax revenue. It’s true, players do pay earnings taxes, but how much more money will we have to spend in order to make sure we still get those income taxes? Overall, will taxpayers see more in added tax revenue than the amount they had to pay in subsidies? It’s possible, but it’s also equally (if not more) likely that taxpayers would lose money. That’s why this whole thing feels like gambling, but at least at the casino you know the odds before you play. That’s not the case here. How much will players’ salaries grow (which influence income tax revenue)? How many people from out of state will visit the region to watch the Rams (this affects how much new sales taxes we get)? These questions and many more will affect the amount of added revenue the region will receive. It’s an awfully big risk to be taking with public money, and honestly we shouldn’t be giving a billionaire (Rams owner Stan Kroenke) taxpayer money on the hope that we MIGHT see a positive return.

Yesterday’s press conference was supposed to be an encouraging sign for those who want to keep the Rams here in Saint Louis. For me, it looked like someone was putting down a big marker on the roulette table with our money on the line. No matter if the project lands in the red or the black, in the end Stan Kroenke is going to be getting green.

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