Commerce is always right

Published 12:41 pm Saturday, July 26, 2008

By Staff
Three days before the General Assembly adjourned last week, not long after speeches about the growing shortfall in the state health plan and the shrinking end-of-year state budget surplus, the House voted 94-19 to spend up to $10 million a year more on the Job Development Investment Grant Program.
JDIG is one of the state’s myriad of business incentive programs that always prompt tough questions from a handful of lawmakers, but in the end always receive enthusiastic support from most members of the House and Senate who are afraid of being perceived as against creating jobs in the state.
That’s frustrating every year, but last week’s vote was especially troubling. The proposal to increase the cap on JDIG tax breaks for businesses from $15 million to $25 million a year came up suddenly as the legislative session was winding down.
It came to the House floor the day after the Department of Commerce released its report on JDIG that the law requires it to send to legislators every year. The report raised serious questions about the program that most House members didn’t seem too interested in hearing.
Rep. Paul Luebke pointed out that the report was more than two months late and that last year’s report was submitted more 8 months after it was due by a department asking for $10 million the last week of the session.
Luebke was part of a coalition of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans who tried to send the bill to a committee for further discussion, a suggestion that seem to almost offend Rep. Bill Owens, the chief Commerce cheerleader in the House.
Owens pointed out that the JDIG program had been debated for 63 hours when it was created, but he neglected to mention that it was created in 2002. Seems like time to take another look, especially when the Commerce report shows that the bulk of the JDIG money went to create jobs in the most affluent parts of the state that aren’t struggling to attract industries.
And the jobs created are far from the high-wage positions often touted by Commerce officials. The JDIG report shows that a significant number of the jobs created pay less than $30,000 a year.
None of that mattered to Owens and many other members of the House, who brushed off the report they didn’t seem to have read and said the state needed to do everything it could to create jobs, no matter how much or little they paid.
Earlier in the session, many of the same lawmakers urging blind faith in the Commerce Department slashed the budget of the community-support program in the Department of Health and Human Services after news accounts estimated that it may have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. News accounts.
The reporting raising questions about JDIG came from the very agency demanding more money for it, but it didn’t matter. Responding decisively to allegations of waste in human services is one thing. Asking tough questions about economic-development programs is another and simply not appropriate. Remember, that was all covered in 2002.