Guest Commentary: Corporate Windfalls, Public Austerity
By Brandy H.M. Brooks
Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series. At least 30 candidates are running for four at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council in 2018 – and the number could grow. In an attempt to sort through the confusion and enlighten voters, Maryland Matters has asked the candidates to submit an op-ed piece introducing themselves and making their case. Subsequent articles will appear over the next several weeks.
I believe Montgomery County is worth investing in – as a place to live, a place to work, and a place to grow your business. That means we should be investing our county’s public resources in businesses that are eager to invest in our county. Unfortunately, our county’s current economic development logic is the same one that governs our national economy: when corporations prosper, we all prosper. It’s trickle-down economic theory – and a trick on taxpayers.
Just four months ago, Montgomery County and the state of Maryland provided Discovery Networks with $1 million in grants and loans to renovate its headquarters in downtown Silver Spring. This week, the company announced that it will be selling the building and moving its 1300 jobs to New York. Discovery made $1.2 billion in profit in 2016.
Fifteen months ago, the state and county approved a deal for Marriott International to receive up to $62 million in taxpayer subsidy to move its headquarters from Rockville to Bethesda. Montgomery County will contribute at least $32 million of those subsidies. Marriott made $780 million in profit in 2016.
The corporations seem to be doing pretty well at our expense. But how are we doing?
Montgomery County faces a budget shortfall of $120 million in fiscal year 2018, and County Executive Ike Leggett has asked departments to cut 2 percent from their operating budgets in order to fill the gap. Departments are expected to face further reductions in fiscal year 2019 — the total county operating budget may be reduced by close to 5 percent. These cuts impact how we fund our schools, maintain our roads, and provide public health and safety programs for residents.
People in Montgomery County are struggling to afford their homes. Small businesses are struggling to make their bottom lines. Workers have to fight tooth and nail for a minimum wage that doesn’t even come close to a living wage for our area. Students are learning in buildings with mold and vermin.
Somehow, I don’t think we’re all prospering.
Let’s talk about that minimum wage fight for a minute. It took more than a year and a half to sign into law a $15 minimum wage that won’t fully kick in until 2024. (According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, the current living wage for one adult with one child in Montgomery County is almost $30. That’s now, not six years from now.) Opponents of the 2016 version of the bill, which would have taken full effect two years earlier, argued that it would cause tremendous job loss. The county executive even commissioned a $150,000 grossly unscientific study — later disavowed after public ridicule — to back up the assertion that fair wages would tank our economy.
Meanwhile, there’s a wealth of real research — from the Brookings Institution to the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy to The New York Times to Good Jobs First —that makes it clear that corporate incentives don’t translate into public benefit. The data shows that these breaks for large businesses reduce competition, hurt existing firms, and increase the demand for public services without increasing revenue enough to meet that demand. Yet very few public officials seem concerned about these studies. Where are arguments about responsible government spending when you need them?
Bethesda Beat reported this week that Montgomery County officials have made a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. The details of the package are not being made available to the public – so we have no way to see what new tax breaks are being offered in the midst of our county’s looming budget crisis. Otherwise, we might have some objections to giving millions in public money to a private entity worth nearly $1 trillion. (Yes, trillion.)
The real logic of local economic development is this: the haves get to have more. The rest of us have to do more with less.
That’s not logic; that’s madness. And I’m tired of it. I’m running for Montgomery County Council at-large because I believe that public spending needs to first and foremost generate public benefit, not private wealth. Instead of corporate giveaways, economic development deals ought to require recipients to provide tangible benefits to county residents: good jobs, better transportation infrastructure, more money for schools and housing.
We have a diverse, highly-skilled community; beautiful natural resources; vibrant urban areas; and one of the best school systems in the country, even with its challenges. Our proximity to DC offers a host of benefits to companies that need access to the federal government. We don’t need to beg people to come here by offering them money. We can invite people to come here by offering them the opportunity to be part of a great place to live and work.
As it turns out, there are businesses that already recognize our value and are eager to invest here. They are the thousands of small businesses whose owners choose to work — and to live — in Montgomery County. And these business owners aren’t asking for corporate welfare; they’re asking for common sense investments that benefit us all: a more efficient transportation network; stronger workforce development, training and education programs to provide them with good employees; transparent government processes; and better access to capital for enterprises in our community.
It’s time for us to invest in building an economy that serves all the people of Montgomery County. It’s time to put our money toward the best innovations in shared economic prosperity: small business infrastructure, cooperative enterprises, public banking, and community-based capital for entrepreneurs. And it’s time for new public leadership that puts the public first — because our county can no longer afford the bill for business as usual.
Brandy H.M. Brooks of Silver Spring, a Democrat is running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council. She is a designer, educator, and environmental and social justice advocate. She can be reached at brandy4moco.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
To read earlier commentaries from the at-large candidates, click here.