How Should California Spend Nearly $2 Billion?

The state of California is poised to direct an estimated $1.8 billion over the next four years to new and expanded tax breaks for specific industries and businesses based on actions recently taken by state lawmakers, or actions pending and likely to be approved by state lawmakers in the coming days. These include:

  • Nearly $420 million in tax breaks for aerospace companies — specifically targeted to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — that are competing to build the next generation of stealth bombers, an incentive package approved by the state Legislature and signed into law by Governor Brown earlier this month;
  • Expansion of a state tax credit for film and TV production — from $100 million to $400 million annually — that is currently working its way through the Legislature; and
  • Efforts to lure Tesla Motors to build a new “gigafactory” in California, which are likely to include tax credits to help meet Tesla’s demands that state and local governments help pay for 10 percent (estimated at $500 million) of the cost of construction. The legislation, expected to emerge in the coming days, is also likely to exempt Tesla from some environmental (CEQA) requirements.

All told, these actions stand to commit the state to nearly $2 billion over the next four years in targeted tax breaks for business and industry.

We think that California would benefit more from investing this money in vital public systems and services. While we don’t question that state leaders should place a high priority on boosting employment and expanding opportunity, we do question whether these new and expanded credits and incentives are the best strategy for meeting those objectives. Consider just a few alternatives for the state’s $2 billion:

  • Phasing in a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to further leverage the federal EITC, which would boost the incomes of working families most in need of assistance, raising thousands Californians out of poverty each year;
  • Continuing to restore the 110,000 subsidized child care and preschool slots (nearly one-quarter of the total) cut since 2007-08 that help working parents find and keep jobs and build a foundation for children’s success; and
  • Making a down payment on reinvesting in the economic engines that are the state’s higher education systems, for which state General Fund spending per student has declined significantly over the last three decades.

All of these alternatives, among others, are proven winners at helping working families to prosper, while the evidence on targeted tax breaks for businesses is mixed at best.

As state leaders clamor to give away tax credits to high-profile businesses and projects, we should all be asking the question “How should California spend nearly $2 billion?”

— Chris Hoene