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Put the brakes on tax breaks

Filmmaker Ben Affleck in “The Town.” STICKMAN/

Tax breaks for Ben Affleck. Tax hikes for everyone else.

As he calls for $1.9 billion in new taxes, that proposal didn’t add up for Governor Deval Patrick. So, he’s also proposing to cap the film tax credit at $40 million, according to CommonWealth Magazine.

Putting the brakes on Hollywood is a start. But it doesn’t address the generous mindset behind a broad and entrenched policy. According to a report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Massachusetts gave up on the collection of $2.4 billion in tax revenue during fiscal year 2012 in order to provide businesses with 58 different tax breaks.

The policy is based on the premise that business goes where the tax breaks flow, and so do the jobs that go with them. Extortion is another word for it, and it works because states live in fear of losing their corporate base. But shouldn’t someone try to objectively answer the question: Which of these 58 tax breaks really creates jobs and keeps them here?

That was a key point raised in the August 2012 report by the Budget and Policy Center. As the report explains it, the goal of state economic policy is to raise the living standards of the people of the state. Achieving that goal requires jobs that pay good wages and benefits. Creating such jobs requires businesses that prosper.


To woo businesses to the Bay State and keep them happy here, the state walked away from more than $2 billion in 2012. Yet, according to the Budget and Policy Center, only about $770 million of the total corporate revenue forgone is tied to an actual economic development strategy. And, in most cases, no one checks on how well the strategy is working.

To put it as kindly as the Budget and Policy Center, those tax breaks are collectively “long overdue for a careful analysis of their costs and benefits.”


Yet the trend is not to question or analyze. According to this report, tax breaks tied to alleged economic strategies have grown by $428 million over the last 15 years, from $342 million in fiscal year 1996 to $770 million in fiscal year 2012. They started with sector-specific tax breaks for manufacturers and mutual fund companies and grew to embrace the film production tax credit.

There are also general tax breaks such as the so-called “brownfields credit,” available to any company that cleans up and redevelops an abandoned or possibly contaminated property; and discretionary tax breaks such as the life sciences tax incentive program. In the interests of full disclosure, the Budget and Policy Center report also lists a tax exemption for “materials, tools, fuels and machinery used in newspaper printing.”

These are nice tax breaks if you can get them. But on a case-by-case basis, what does the state get in return? According to a Pew Center on the States report, done in April 2012, “No state regularly and rigorously tests whether those investments are working.”

When states do test tax-break policy, results often raise questions about its value. For example, the Pew Center report notes that when Massachusetts analyzed the impact of the film industry tax incentives in 2009, the Department of Revenue estimated they created 1,643 jobs. Yet the agency also estimated that the spending cuts required to pay for the incentives would reduce employment by 1,421 jobs, for a net plus of only 222 jobs.


In 2010, Patrick proposed capping the program at $50 million a year, but lawmakers rejected it. They regularly buy into the notion that just having Hollywood in Boston is priceless, and worth whatever the state gives up in revenue.

Patrick, meanwhile, is calling for a hike in the income tax; a new sales tax on candy and soda; and an increase in the cigarette tax.

The pitch for new taxes goes like this: If citizens want better transit and improved schools, we all must share the burden. Shouldn’t all-in-this-together sacrifice apply to corporate citizens, too?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.