The Massachusetts film tax credit has been an exorbitant failure, costing the Commonwealth tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to Hollywood studios, while recovering only a tiny fraction of that amount in new revenues. Like other examples of corporate welfare, the film credit was ardently promoted as a pump-primer for employment — dangle free money as a lure, the theory went, and moviemakers would flock to Massachusetts, generating good jobs at good wages for lots of local residents. But it was a flop. When the state Department of Revenue crunched the numbers in 2013, it found that the tax credit had boosted employment in Massachusetts by only 650 jobs, most lasting less than three months. For every in-state job the film credit had created, the Commonwealth had shelled out nearly $119,000.
Yet the Hollywood subsidies live on, vehemently defended by the narrow special interest they benefit.
Now another special interest — theatrical producers — is clamoring for a sequel.
Earlier this month, the state House of Representatives voted in favor of an amendment creating a tax-credit program for plays and musicals staged in Massachusetts. The measure was added to an economic development bill making its way through the Legislature. If enacted, the new subsidy would bestow as much as $5 million on shows produced in the Bay State, including pre-Broadway runs, launches of national theatrical tours, and premiers of original productions. Impresarios would collect a bonus from the state of up to 35 percent their Massachusetts labor costs. Once again, those who stand to pocket the biggest windfall are claiming that the giveaway would create a host of new jobs and boost Massachusetts as a magnet for lucrative cultural events.
If this were a piece of musical theater, the cast and orchestra might be launching at this point into a rousing performance of "Money Makes the World Go Round" from "Cabaret." But lawmakers don't have access to a bottomless supply of other people's money to give away, and public funds shouldn't be used to fulfill the wish-lists of theatrical moguls looking for a handout.
In just the past month, declining revenue estimates have forced the House and Senate to cut more than $400 million out of spending bills for the coming fiscal year. Governor Charlie Baker has vetoed another $256 million. Even if a brand-new multimillion subsidy for the entertainment industry were a good idea in theory — it isn't — this would hardly be the time to enact it.
Fortunately, there appears to be no appetite in the Senate for multiplying tax credits. If anything, says Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, the sentiment runs the other way. Several senators have been pushing to increase oversight and transparency in connection with existing special-interest tax breaks.
When the House and Senate versions of the economic development bill are eventually harmonized in conference committee, the theater subsidy should be firmly excluded. If it somehow makes it into the final text, it should be vetoed by the governor. Giveaways for moviemakers have laid a pretty big egg at taxpayer expense. Let's not repeat the fiasco with a new subsidy for stage productions.