Learning the Right Lessons From the Fight over Tesla’s “Gigafactory”

The announcement that Tesla has selected the state of Nevada over other western states for its new “Gigafactory” will undoubtedly reignite the debate about whether California is unfriendly to businesses. Critics will likely point to policymakers’ inability to secure a California location for the new manufacturing plant as another indicator that tax and regulatory policies drive businesses and jobs out of the state. However, it’s worth taking a step back to look at what lessons can really be learned from this experience, and what policymakers should consider moving forward.

First, site-location decisions are about more than just taxes or regulations. Where businesses locate depends on a multitude of factors, including the availability of skilled workers, shipping and transportation costs, and the quality of public services. This is further borne out by the fact that one region in Texas is reported to have offered Tesla almost $800 million in subsidies and tax breaks and still did not convince Tesla to locate there — and this reported offer far exceeded the $500 million that Tesla requested. While we will learn more specifics in the coming days about the reasons why Tesla chose Nevada, it is unclear that Nevada has the capacity to offer a similar upfront deal, considering that this would represent a substantial share of the state’s total $6.4 billion budget.

Second, California will still see some economic benefit from a Tesla factory located in Nevada. In our open letter to policymakers, signed with stakeholders from other western states, we emphasized that states have an interest in cooperating given that the automotive industry spans across states and cities. As the Sacramento Business Journal reports, a Tesla factory in Reno could help the Sacramento region because warehousing and supplier companies could locate along the Interstate 80 corridor. This speaks to the need for states to be more transparent and cooperative in their approaches to economic development, since Nevada taxpayers may end up paying for a decision that could benefit California anyway.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that California’s job growth is outpacing the national average, and this includes jobs from companies expanding in or relocating to California. While we have written extensively about how California’s economy remains difficult for many of California’s workers, the state’s high unemployment rate is more about the historic losses incurred during the recession rather than California’s economic growth being comparatively weak. Companies like Mercedes have expanded operations in California, and the state is adding an average number of new jobs each month that is four times what the Tesla plant would have directly provided in total, if the new factory met expectations.

With these things in mind, what should policymakers do? It’s understandably frustrating to engage in a public fight over securing jobs that would benefit a community, only to “lose” that fight. However, policymakers should not learn the wrong lessons from this experience: that California needs lower taxes or needs to offer even costlier deals to individual companies. Research consistently shows that tax cuts at the expense of public investment are not the best means by which to spur job growth. Enhancing public services and investing in a skilled and educated workforce remain the preferred long-term strategies. For instance, with the amount of public subsidies California was considering for Tesla — estimated to be around $500 million – the state could have tripled this year’s increase in General Fund support for the California State University system. It’s this type of investment — and similar ones that create the foundation for future growth — that will promote broad-based economic prosperity in the future.

— Luke Reidenbach