The free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee this week released its annual slice-up of government spending for the past year and found “an astonishing $511 million” they say Volunteer State politicians have frittered away.
A key theme of the 44-page Pork Report, the eighth such offering from the Nashville-based think tank, is that divvying out public cash as perks to private companies for doing business here is “not the role of government.”
“While $511 million may not sound like a huge percentage of the overall state budget, that same amount of money could go toward paying the salaries of 11,000 teachers across the state,” said the Beacon Center’s director of policy, Trey Moore.
The Pork Report tallies half-a-billion dollars worth of “waste, fraud and abuse” that the study’s authors write is “proof that state and local governments across Tennessee continue to go hog wild with taxpayers’ hard-earned money.” (Click here to see the full report pdf.)
“Numerous political pet projects retain their black hole status; fraud and abuse remain serious concerns, particularly at the local level; and state and local governments press forward with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in corporate welfare—taking money from certain businesses and doling it out to others, often with no guarantees that jobs will be maintained long-term,” the Pork Report states.
Among the choicest cuts of budget fat the Beacon Center finds roast-worthy are “corporate welfare” giveaways, handouts for Hollywood film and television productions like the popular series “Nashville,” passing out unwarranted unemployment benefits and putting big bucks toward public relations campaigns and unnecessary government studies.
Over the past few years there’s been much rhetoric from the Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature promising that a prime GOP aim is to promote smaller government and rein-in frivolous spending. Yet the problem of government throwing resources away on projects of dubious public benefit hasn’t gone away since Republicans have won control of the state, the report finds.
“I will say that the Haslam administration has moved in a different direction with corporate welfare — you don’t see these massive deals for hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen during a Legislative Plaza press conference Wednesday. “You see more smaller grants — FastTrack and that type of thing, which do now involve some type of clawback provisions. And that’s good from a taxpayer-protection standpoint.”
“But it still doesn’t address the fairness issue,” Owen went on. “They’re still picking winners and losers in business, and all they have really done is put lipstick on the pig. Corporate welfare is corporate welfare. At the end of the day we’re going to call them out just as much as we called out the Bredesen administration, and we do that in the Pork Report.”
Owen took issue with what’s become a default contention among the GOP’s ranking elected officials that there’s no getting around the game of making sweet taxpayer-financed deals and promising special treatment for companies pledging to bring jobs to Tennessee.
It really doesn’t have to be that way, contends Owen.
“We want to create jobs, too,” said Owen. “Everybody says, ‘Every other state is doing it, we get into bidding wars, and if we don’t give out the money then every other state is going to take those jobs away.’ Well, let’s quit doing what everybody else does.”
Lawmakers looking to make Tennessee a landing place for companies scanning the horizons for friendlier business environments would better serve the job-seeking public by focusing on freeing the economy from excess burdens of government, he said.
“Let’s cut our corporate tax rate across the board to benefit the start-up, the mom-and-pop shops, the medium sized business and the larger corporation alike,” said Owen. “Let’s cut our regulatory environment that drives those jobs out, keep our no-income-tax status and enact more tort reforms. Let’s make Tennessee such a thriving place to do business that despite the handouts that companies are receiving in other states, they want to come here.”
Tennessee Tax Revolt’s Ben Cunningham joined Beacon’s staff at the press conference. He lauded Beacon for “exposing the huge amounts of taxpayer money that are transferred from taxpayers to favored companies.”
It is from both fiscal-stewardship and fairness perspectives that Cunningham said he takes issue with the state funneling money and taxpayer-financed incentives to politically connected businesses.
“At Tennessee Tax Revolt, we believe the most important budget of all is not the federal budget, it is not the state budget, it’s not the local budget. It is the taxpayer’s family budget,” said Cunningham. “That is where all taxes must come from, and if that is not healthy then none of the other budgets will be healthy.”
“If I want a corporation to be successful, I will buy their product or their services, and I will make that decision,” he continued. “I don’t want my government telling me which corporations ought to be successful and which should not be successful.”
Mark Engler and Alex Harris contributed to this story.