If you’re looking for public money to increase the budget of a social program your members care about, a semi-obscure NGO called the Government Accounting Standards Bureau (aka GASB) may have just given you one of the tools you need to find it.
Organizers who work on school district, city or state budgets should be able to start figuring out how much that city or state has given away in corporate tax breaks, thanks to GASB’s Statement 77 which requires that, in order to comply with good accounting practices, governments must reveal how much revenue they’ve lost due to tax abatements. Interestingly, governments have to report not only the revenue lost to their own tax abatements, but also the revenue lost to tax abatements levied by other governments (so school districts, which usually do not have input into property tax abatements, are still required to disclose how much revenue they are losing due to those abatements).
So your school district (which probably doesn’t get to make any of the decisions about economic development that gives tax breaks to corporations, now have to disclose how much revenue they’re losing.
The GASB-77 rule passed in April of 2015, and 2016 government expenditure reports were the first ones subject to it–and Good Jobs First has been doing a banner job of documenting how states and cities are doing at tracking and releasing this info in a meaningful way.
Economic development deals are often shrouded in secrecy–most local or state elected officials do not want to brag about the fact that they hand out millions (or sometimes billions) in tax breaks to big corporations. The recent race for Amazon’s second headquarters has provided an instructive example of this process–for all the buses wrapped by Visit Philly, or products reviewed online by Kansas City’s mayor, for the most part, cities have been not that interested about revealing the nuts & bolts details of their Amazon pitches to the press. If you’re about to give the richest man in the world a bunch of public money (or allow him to stop paying taxes), you might legit fear a group of your constituents showing up with pitchforks and torches.
Here are some tips for an organization or group who wants to use this data in a campaign in your community:
- If you’re not already working with them, find the EARN affiliate in your state (don’t know who they are? search our directory by filtering for the network “EARN” and your state). These folks help marry civic activism with expert budget analysis. It’s possible that they’ve already taken a look at the GASB 77 reporting that’s come out of the major cities & states–if not, they may be able to partner with you to do so.
- Is there a local reporter that works on city or state budget issues who might be interested in this information? Send them a respectful email and ask them if they know about this new rule.
- Be clear that what the rule says is that the government has to reveal the total dollar amount they are losing to tax abatements–but they don’t have to disclose which companies they’re giving it to. That could, of course, be the basis for a local campaign (we’re giving away $XXX million and they won’t tell us who’s benefiting–let’s make them!).
- In your public communications about the lost revenue, make sure that you are framing this as a choice the government is making–to fund X while not funding Y. Governments will often frame these kinds of deals as being about growth of jobs in the region–ask them how many jobs have been created, and cost out the dollar value of each job.
- Read these great materials from Good Jobs First, to familiarize yourself with the language that economic developers use.
- And of course, if you can, kick down a financial contribution to your local EARN affiliate, or to Good Jobs First (or both!)
As of right now, states and cities are not required to disclose WHICH corporations are getting specific tax breaks, according to the GASB rules. Of course, this is something that your group could use as an organizing hook for future work with city council people or state legislators–why don’t we get to see what companies you’re propping up with our money? In addition, it can be a way to talk to local small businesses about why they should be engaged in the fight–as they usually don’t benefit from these kinds of development deals.