Amazon transparency — now

Amazon transparency — now

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials have a golden opportunity to practice transparency now that Amazon lists the erstwhile Steel City as one of 20 under consideration for a new headquarters.

But don’t hold your breath.

Local government officials steadfastly have refused to divulge how much of your money it will pledge to the very wealthy Internet retailing giant, citing a sliding scale of supposedly “proprietary” information. And they’re not budging now that Greater Pittsburgh is a finalist among a score of others.

Officials say they’ll make the bid public should it win the sweepstakes for what Amazon calls its “HQ2.” After the tentative deal is reached and signing, sealing and delivering it is a rubber stamp?

Such hubris – taxpayers-be-damned arrogance — is anathema to sound public policy.

Media have been attempting to pry loose what’s clearly public information through the right-to-know process. It’s past time for government to stop playing hide and seek with public dollars.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald talked of Pittsburgh making the cut-down list as being “a proud day” for the city, county and region.

But there’s absolutely nothing to be proud of when the public officials pledge public money to a private corporation – one of the world’s most successful – then tell the public it’s none of its business.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are not alone in thumbing their noses at transparency. Cleveland’s arrogance regarding public disclosure in all matters Amazon is particularly odoriferous.

Cleveland, one of 238 cities/regions to submit bids to host Amazon’s “HQ2,” was not one of the 20 finalists. And even in defeat, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are exploring ways to hide their bid from the taxpayers, the people who would have paid a premium for the Amazon “privilege.”

From The Plain Dealer of Cleveland:

The “project team” that developed Greater Cleveland’s bid consulted “with lawyers to determine what – if anything – from the proposal will be released. A written statement from Team NEO, the nonprofit economic-development organization that submitted the bid on behalf of public and private partners, said the document will remain ‘a protected business trade secret that will be deployed to benefit in other nationally competitive economic-development discussions.’”

That’s pure buncombe. Government can’t have “protected business trade secret(s).” It’s government! It’s public information!

One of the rationales repeated ad nauseam for giving Amazon hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, in public subsidies to locate its second headquarters outside Seattle in insert-your-city-here is “jobs” and “investment.”

That is, Amazon is promising up to 50,000 jobs, supposedly with an average salary of $100,000, and an investment of $5 billion over the next two decades.  And political leaders and their Chamber of Commerce-type puppet acolytes have fallen all over themselves to throw all manner of incentives at one of the world’s largest and richest companies.

Consider Newark, N.J. Reports have it that Newark, one of the 20 cities/regions still under consideration, offered $7 billion in tax incentives, including $1 billion in property tax abatements, $1 billion in city wage tax abatements for 20 years and, also, over 20 years, tax incentives for each job created, totaling $5 billion.

This is government math: Spend $7 billion to “gain” $5 billion. And force the tax-paying public to cover the cost to the public that Amazon will create — and won’t pay.

Again, sound public policy is the first casualty in these Amazon dealings.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).