Cuomo, de Blasio & an Amazon rep celebrate (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
Amazon’s decision to put a corporate campus in Long Island City after a year-long, somewhat-public search for a host city and a series of incentives from New York City and State has drawn skepticism and outrage in Queens and beyond for a number of reasons.
Some activists and elected officials oppose the secretive process by which Amazon got its land, tax breaks and grant, others feel like the company isn’t a corporate entity the city and state should be welcoming because of labor, political and other practices. But all of the opponents to the Amazon deal seem to agree that that package of roughly $3 billion in incentives the trillion-dollar corporation is getting from New York is out of bounds, an inappropriate giveaway based on old economics, in the midst of both a strong overall city economy with low unemployment on one hand and affordable housing, public housing, and transportation crises on the other.
And while a look at the programs in question reveals that Amazon doesn’t appear to be getting tax incentives or breaks that wouldn’t be available to other large employers who set up shop in New York, economists and budget watchdogs suggest the outrage over the tax break package Amazon is getting presents an opportunity to reexamine New York’s use of subsidies to entice companies. (Note: there is one discretionary capital grant in the deal for roughly $500 million that is separate from the $2.5 billion in city and state tax incentives.)
Where does the money come from?
The three largest incentives Amazon is getting from New York come from three as-of-right (that is, incentives available to any company that meets the requirements) programs: the Excelsior Jobs Credit Tax Program, the Relocation and Expansion Assistance Program (REAP) and the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP). The latter two tax breaks are incentives established by the state government that affect the city tax rolls, while the former program affects state tax rolls.
“They’re state created, like 421-a,” John Kaehny, the Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette about ICAP and REAP, with reference to the tax break known as 421-a that seeks to incent housing development with some affordability included. “So the New York City Department of Finance administers them, but they have to, they're made to by state law. Basically it's money that the state is directing be taken out of the city's tax revenue.”
Along with their as-of-right nature, all three programs require a company actually delivers jobs in order to take advantage of the breaks. In that sense, Amazon is no different from a hotel company or mobile phone infrastructure company or real estate company in applying for the programs. In the case of the Excelsior program, Amazon is taking advantage of a refundable tax credit equal to 6.85 percent of the total wages per new full-time job they create, and a capital investment credit equal to 2 percent of a company’s total qualified investments that result in new jobs.
For the city tax breaks, ICAP is a tax abatement program that may last up to 25 years, available to companies who undertake new commercial construction in areas outside of some exempted sections of Manhattan. It appears Amazon will be eligible for a 15-year ICAP that begins to decline in year 12. REAP is a per-job tax credit in which companies from either outside New York City or below 96th Street in Manhattan get a $3,000 per employee credit for 12 years for each employee that moves into the new office outside the REAP area.
In addition to the above programs, Amazon is also getting a cash grant from the state called an Empire State Development Capital Grant that’s potentially worth $505 million and is supposed to help defray some of the costs from building the new corporate campus. And because New York State is taking over the land where the office will be located and making it tax-exempt, Amazon will make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that the city has said will be equal to the property tax bill the company would pay on the land otherwise. Half of the money from the PILOT will go to the city’s general fund, and half of it will go towards infrastructure improvements around Long Island City.
All told, the tax breaks from the jobs credit, ICAP and REAP and the capital grant could wind up adding up to $3 billion in incentives to Amazon, if the company delivers the 25,000 jobs it’s promised over the course of 10 years.
What’s the problem exactly?
In his media appearances and statements to defend the incentive package, Governor Cuomo has suggested that these kinds of tax breaks are just the cost of doing business in America. But some economists, like James Parrott, the Director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the Center for New York Affairs, say the programs are working off of a somewhat dated economic model, especially since he found that the city gave up almost $6 billion in tax revenue in Fiscal Year 2018 thanks to a stew of incentive programs like ICAP and REAP.
The predecessors to ICAP and REAP arrived in “a different historical economic context, coming on the heels of the 1970s when there was a lot of corporate headquarters movement out of New York City,” Parrott told Gotham Gazette. “With the loss of 600,000 jobs between 1973 and 1979, it was a really difficult economic period for the city. So in the 1980s the city put in place, and ramped up its commitment to subsidize corporations to stay in New York City, to relocate to New York City and to add employment.” But these days, Parrott says the city’s economy is healthy enough to function without massive incentives.
“We're now at a point where the total employment level in New York City is 4.3 million, almost 700,000 to 800,000 higher than it's ever been before,” he said. “Arguably New York City doesn't need to do anything to subsidize new economic development investments, given the very rapid employment growth we've had in recent years.”
Though he continues to stress that his administration refuses cash grants to companies, de Blasio also continues to defend the Amazon deal, including the use of the subsidies involved, again doing both during his weekly NY1 appearance on Monday. “[W[hat we need to move towards is a society where it’s not about cities competing” over companies, the mayor told host Errol Louis. “The specific incentives were automatic and part of state law,” was also part of his defense, and he suggested that if people want to see an end to the as-of-right programs, people should debate that in the future.
Parrott said he could understand the use of the Excelsior programs upstate, given the region’s struggling economy and what he said was a better oversight process than the program’s predecessor, the extremely troubled and criticized Empire Zone program. But the entire program also has an annual cap ($183 million in 2019 and steadily decreasing to $36 million in 2024 per the Citizens Budget Commission) that will have to be raised by the state Legislature if Amazon creates all of the jobs it’s promised, leaving Parrott to wonder, “why on Earth, if you have these limited tax credit resources, you spend those in New York City? The one place in the state that that least needs economic development subsidies?”
Kaehny sees some self-promotion as a motivating factor in giving state money to Amazon, specifically on the part of the governor. “Cuomo wants to create a narrative that shows that he had some agency, that he was the one that closed this deal with Amazon, that he did something that caused this deal to happen,” Kaehny said. “If Amazon says, ‘Well we don't care about the subsidies at all, we really just wanted New York City and this terrific dynamic place with a huge job market of talented people, the kind that we want working for Amazon and we don't really need subsidies,’ well then what's Cuomo’s role in landing the deal?”
It’s an especially pertinent question according to Kaehny and others who insist that Amazon was probably going to come to New York anyway. Both before and after identifying Long Island City as one of its landing spots, Amazon officials said that the ease of recruiting tech talent was the key ingredient in their search. A request for information that Amazon sent to Somerville, Massachusetts included one question about the incentive package the city could offer, but multiple questions about quality of life and the area’s working populations.
That in turn raises the issue of where New York should actually invest, in businesses or in infrastructure, according to Jonas Shaende, the chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Should we just give [companies] tax subsidies outright or should we invest in what makes New York so attractive and so vibrant and so great? In the things that that are the real factors in in their decision making, things like the transportation system, the affordable housing the access to to labor, to education facilities those kinds of things.”
Shaende wasn’t alone in that line of thinking, as redirecting state subsidies from corporations towards local infrastructure was a centerpiece of the Marc Molinaro and Stephanie Miner campaigns for governor.
It’s real money
Another one of the governor’s defenses of the incentive package is that New York isn’t actually paying Amazon anything at all, but rather is letting the company pay slightly less in taxes than it would otherwise. In his “op-ed” published to the governor’s official website, Cuomo writes:
“Our proposal offered that, when and if those revenues are realized, the government would effectively reduce their $1 billion payment by about $100 million for a net to New York of approximately $900 million. New York doesn't give Amazon $100 million. Amazon gives New York $900 million.”
It’s a rhetorical sleight of hand that doesn’t pass muster with any expert Gotham Gazette spoke to. “I mean, that's just fundamentally wrong because essentially all economists left, right, wherever agree that a tax abatement or tax credit is a form of expenditure by government and is rightly called a subsidy,” Kaehny said, pointing out that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (which sets the rules for financial reporting by government entities) now has a rule that counts subsidies as expenditures.
And in the case of the capital grant Amazon is getting, the cash is very much real. “It's clearly a case where it's a budget choice [Cuomo's] making, here's $500 million in taxpayer resources we're going to give to Amazon rather than use it for something else,” Parrott said.
“[Cuomo] happens to have a reserve of resources, out of which it’s very likely that this money is going to come,” Parrott said, talking about New York settlements reached with banks who are alleged to have committed mortgage securities and other financial fraud. “Although there wasn't anything said in the memorandum of understanding with [Empire State Development] and the state and the city that said where the capital monies are going to come from, my guess is it will come out of the reserve,” he said. Cuomo has indicated he does not need legislative approval for the capital grant, but legislators, especially those opposing the deal like Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris, are exploring all their options to block or change the deal.
The Citizens Budget Commission was measured in its critique of the grant, comparing the reimbursement-style payments as better than upfront costs the state has taken on with, for instance, the $750 million solar panel plant it built in Buffalo. But CBC still criticized the ongoing lack of oversight for where the money would come from. The grant has also been criticized in multiple corners as a sop to Cuomo-friendly construction unions, with critics charging the state is essentially paying Amazon to use union labor.
And the subsidies also open New York up to the double whammy of even more companies asking for the kinds of tax breaks Amazon is set to receive while at the same time trying to provide services and pay for them in a state budget operating under the governor’s self-imposed 2 percent cap on annual spending increases.
“It’s not a fiscally responsible way of running government,” Shaende said. “It could be potentially highly problematic for the state, because the state still relies on taxes. And we have the 2 percent spending growth cap, we have all sorts of measures that that the governor adopted to show that he's running a very fiscally responsible shop. He saves money, let's say, by cutting services, by finding efficiencies, in joint services between municipalities. So he saves, you know, a couple of nickels here a couple of dimes over there, and then he just splurges like this.”
Could this spur change?
As lawmakers scramble to find a way to stop or change Amazon’s incentive package, there’s at least some hope among reformers that the publicity surrounding the deal can lead to a change in how the state and city use tax incentives. The incentives all going towards one company has already brought more attention to the ways New York uses them than their use for the Hudson Yards development, Parrott said, despite the fact that “the total cost of the Hudson Yards tax breaks rival the amount of the city and state subsidy to Amazon.”
The surrounding outrage may also give new life to the proposed subsidy tracker known as the “Database of Deals,” an idea that Reinvent Albany’s Alex Camarda pointed out “is not rocket science” in Assembly testimony for more accountability in the state’s economic development funds last year. It is a transparency measure Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has called for but Cuomo has opposed; it passed the Republican-led state Senate earlier this year, but was not given a vote in the Democrat-led Assembly.
According to Shonede, the database not only could provide transparency to what’s going on in the state, but a better template for future spending.
“As a community of experts, we need to stress some basic accountability, how many jobs we get per dollar spent, and what kind of jobs they are,” Shoende told Gotham Gazette. “And if we do that, in a consistent and serious way, a basic accounting of these efforts, it’s going to be obvious that the best way to improve the situation with income inequality, and lack of good jobs in vulnerable communities and improving the business climate have to do with what the traditional role of the government is supposed to be. And that is making sure that people are safe, that they are well prepared for the market, and that the infrastructure is such that it minimizes the business costs for the businesses that you see operate in the neighborhoods,” he said.
And so in his own way, despite resisting intensive oversight of the state’s economic development initiatives, the governor may have inadvertently dragged the state’s subsidy programs further towards daylight. “This is kind of a like peeling the onion of Albany dysfunction and scurviness in a microcosm, this deal,” said Kaehny. “Because there's all this stuff baked in here that's been going on for a long time time. But it's like for the first time people in New York City were like ‘Oh s***,’ but reality is they've been doing this for many, many years.”
Note: this article has been updated with more clear description of Amazon's eligibility for ICAP.