by James A. Bacon
Governor Terry McAuliffe’s great gift is salesmanship. He approaches the job of Virginia’s chief economic development officer with great enthusiasm, and he loves to wheel and deal. It’s not surprising, then, that his new strategic plan, “New Virginia Economy,” calls for an increase in the Governor’s Opportunity Fund to keep it “competitive with other states.” The fund is nearly depleted after the first year of the biennial budget, and the economic-development game won’t be much fun without more incentives to dangle.
The problems with incentives are well known. First, it is unknowable whether incentives actually induce a particular company to invest in Virginia, or whether the company simply takes the money because it is there for the taking. Second, there is an inherent unfairness in taxing existing citizens and businesses in order to shower benefits to newcomers.
What’s refreshing about the strategic plan is that it does recognize the need to scrutinize state incentive programs. In particular it proposes to prioritize the allocation of state dollars by conducting Return on Investment (ROI) analysis on different incentives and programs to see which yield the biggest bang for the buck. “New Virginia Economy” mentions three specific ideas:
Evaluate current policies and study the ROI on incentives and programs. The idea of setting up an “internal working group” to review performance is a good idea. All programs should be continually scrutinized by outsiders to see if they deliver value. I would argue that scarce public funds should be channeled to programs that yield the greatest ROI and poorly performing programs should be shut down.
The fact is, administrators of the programs themselves cannot rarely be trusted to give an honest evaluation. Bureaucrats have an instinct for self preservation. They want to maintain their programs — to grow them, if possible — and can be counted on to cherry pick evidence to justify continued funding. The best counter to this all-too-human tendency is to have outsiders ask tough questions. Private companies have elaborate systems for allocating capital within their organizations with the goal of maximizing ROI. State government needs to create comparable processes for allocating public funds.
Enhance state research capacity for conducting ROI analysis. The strategic plan only hints at what the authors have in mind, but it seems self evident that it is impossible to conduct ROI analysis without data. In the realm of economic development, that means evaluating programs in light of the number of jobs created, how well those jobs pay, the level of capital investment, the impact on the state and local tax base and other basic data. A more sophisticated level of research would look for second-order effects. Would recruiting a new business to Virginia contribute to building a competitive and self-sustaining industry cluster? Would the company create contracting opportunities for other Virginia businesses? The list of questions is endless.
Reform the Tobacco Commission. The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Development Commission was founded with high hopes that it would revitalize the economies of Southside and Southwest Virginia, beset by the erosion of tobacco cultivation and the decimation of its mill-town manufacturing economy. The Commission has been criticized for a lack of oversight, which allows powerful politicians on the Commission to reward favored constituencies. The strategic plan calls for reforming the Commission to “maximize ROI on Commission investments” and to create a long-term sustainable funding model.
If we accept the premise that state government should dispense subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives to business — I personally don’t accept that premise, but the practice isn’t going to change any time soon — then we ought to ensure that the money is spent to the great public benefit.There are currently no comments highlighted.