Illinois business tax breaks, incentives soar in recent years
CHAMPAIGN – As the recession started to ease in 2010, an increasing number of companies asked the state to give them tax breaks and other incentives to keep their jobs in Illinois.
So state officials said yes. Again and again and again.
According to state records, Illinois’ government agreed last year to give $272.7 million in tax breaks and other incentives to 67 companies that had invitations from other states to move jobs elsewhere. That’s more than quadruple what Illinois promised the 44 companies that received incentives packages in 2006, and more than double the financial commitment in 2009, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request.
With promises of $230 million made this year – including an unprecedented $100 million package for Motorola Mobility and another being negotiated with Sears Holding Corp. – 2011’s tally almost certainly will surpass 2010’s.
Gov. Pat Quinn and state economic development officials agreed to the incentive packages as Illinois wrestled with a multibillion budget deficit, one that would lead the governor to push through steep income tax increases earlier this year.
State officials say they had little choice but to ante up when approached by companies with offers from elsewhere as the recession began to ease up.
“That’s when they would come to states and say we may do this in your state, or somewhere else. What do you have?” said Gabriel Sanders, deputy director of the Office of Business Development at the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Department spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said state officials knew they’d face criticism if they didn’t try to retain the jobs and investment. “Would you like to see these jobs go out of state?” she asked.
But there is no shortage of critics of the state’s approach. Some say Illinois had to commit more money at least in part because it was desperate to hold down rising unemployment – statewide, the unemployment rate was 10 percent or higher for much of last year.
“Illinois essentially got caught with their pants down – a lot of other states were very aggressive out there,” said Brent Pollina, vice president of Park Ridge-based Pollina Corporate Real Estate, which works with companies looking for new locations. “All the sudden the state desperately needed to create jobs because of their unemployment levels and they said, ‘wow, we need to do something here.’ ”
Illinois promised, on average, about $10,000 per job in 2006. By 2010, the figure had ballooned to about $17,000.
The incentives Illinois offers include tax breaks — primarily through the Economic Development for a Growing Economy program — as well as job training and direct grants. The tax breaks require firms to maintain or create certain numbers of jobs. In some cases, the companies don’t receive the breaks if they don’t live up to the terms.
Most of the deals are heavily focused on retention of existing jobs with usually much smaller numbers of new jobs promised, and in many cases no new jobs at all. For that reason and others, economists almost universally condemn the incentives as bad policy.
The tax breaks, most say, usually just subsidize existing positions — or worse, pay companies to move existing jobs from one place to another, often just a few miles away. Few if any companies will decide to stay or go based strictly on a tax cut whose size and significance is likely dwarfed by considerations such as labor, transportation and building materials costs.
“What they need is a stable tax environment where the state provides good public services — infrastructure, public education and things of that sort,” said Fred Giertz, an economist at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “Going out and having that kind of ‘let’s make a deal’ approach is not generally that productive.”
“If you’re a politician,” he added, “it doesn’t really look that way. For a politician it’s sort of more dramatic and more obvious (to offer incentives); you can cut the ribbons and take credit and so on.”
Other states have been spending more, too. Missouri agreed to $58.5 million in tax credits in 2006 and just over $101 million last year, according to its Department of Economic Development. And Texas used its main incentives programs to make deals worth $52.7 million in 2006, a figure that jumped to $103.4 million in 2010, according to Gov. Rick Perry’s office.
But those packages were dwarfed by Illinois’. Some of the bigger deals from 2009 and 2010:
— Motorola Mobility, the consumer electronics maker, just this month agreed to a $100 million deal to keep the company’s headquarters and 3,000 jobs in Libertyville. It is one of the largest incentives deals in state history.
— Last October, Chrysler agreed to a $62.1 million deal to maintain 2,300 jobs and invest $600 million at its Belvidere assembly plant.
— The engine maker Navistar in December 2010 accepted a $64.7 million package to move its headquarters and 2,200 jobs to Lisle from Warrenville — about 3 miles away — rather than Alabama, Texas or South Carolina.
— In June 2010, U.S. Cellular and the state agreed to a $7.2 million deal in exchange for the company keeping 1,075 jobs at its Chicago headquarters and another site in Bensenville. The company had interest from other states.
— And in October, the food processor Tate & Lyle, based in the United Kingdom, signed a deal to take $15 million in incentives to move about 140 jobs from Decatur to a new complex in Hoffman Estates, and add 20 new positions. The state said it was competing with offers from Indiana and Tennessee.
Decatur was happy the company agreed to preserve another 140 jobs it had considered moving, said Craig Coil, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County. “The reality of it is that companies around the world have become used to the incentives game and they play that game well,” he said.
Brian Glowiak, Chrysler’s director of state and local government relations, said Chrysler had offers from other states but also Mexico, where it has two plants. Money, like the $600 million Chrysler promises to spend in Belvidere, could be spent anywhere else, he said, referring to the “portability of capital.”
“It’s not just Belvidere competing against Detroit,” Glowiak said.
Earlier this month Sears Holdings Corp. said it’s considering moving its headquarters and 6,200 jobs out of state when its current incentives package with the state expires. The state and town are trying to negotiate a new deal with the retailer.
Would Sears, founded in Chicago as Sears, Roebuck & Co. in the late 1890s, really leave Illinois? It’s unlikely the state can afford to find out, Pollina said.
“It’s a tough job for the states because sometimes it’s very real and it’s very serious, and other times it’s just a company posturing,” he said. “It can be tough to tell the difference.”
David Mercer can be reached at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/DavidMercerAP.