Debate over Motion Picture Tax Incentives Intensifies

by on August 28, 2013 · 0 comments

A new article by Peter Caranicas and Rachel Abrams in Variety entitled, “Runaway Production: The United States of Tax Incentives,” notes how “[Motion picture] Producers looking for a location weigh many factors — screenplay, crew base, availability of stages, travel and lodging — but these days, first and foremost, they consider the local incentives and tax breaks that can reduce a production’s budget.” In other words, when every state and local government dreams of being “the next Hollywood,” they are willing to shower the entertainment industry with some pretty nice inducements at taxpayers expense.

But these programs are growing more controversial and some state and local governments are reconsidering the wisdom of these efforts. The article cites my Mercatus Center colleague Eileen Norcross, who points out the most serious problem with these programs:

Other arguments against incentives hold that they don’t help the states that offer them. In March, the Massachusetts revenue commission issued a scathing report on the state’s tax credit program, which stated that two-thirds of the total $175 million awarded in 2011 went to out-of-state spending. “The critique is that while they appear to bring in short-term temporary activity to a state or community, a lot of those benefits flow to the production companies,” says Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at George Mason U. “The people who are hired locally tend to be (in) more low-wage service industry jobs. It provides a temporary economic blip on the radar, and then it’s sort of fleeting.”

Eileen is exactly right.  I have previously covered this issue here in an essay entitled, “State Film Industry Incentives: A Growing Cronyism Fiasco,” which was later expanded and included as a section in my 73-page forthcoming law review article with Brent Skorup, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.” In those articles, I noted that all the serious economic reviews of these programs find that there is no evidence these tax incentives help state or local economies. And there are many other problems with these tax inducements, including the fact that they open up the door to more meddling in content decisions by government officials and to serious abuse by fly-by-night scam artists looking to take advantage of state-sponsored cronyism schemes.

As I noted in concluding my earlier blog post in this,

In sum, film tax credit cronyism puts taxpayers at risk without any corresponding benefits to them or the state.  Glamor-seeking and state pride seem to be the primary motivational factors driving state legislators to engage in such economically illogical behavior. It’s like “smokestack-chasing” for the Information Age, except in this case you don’t even have a factory left in town after your economic development efforts go bust. This cronyist activity benefits no one other than film studios. States should end their film incentive programs immediately.

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