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OP-ED | The Amazon ‘State Secret’ and For Whom the Weed Tolls

by | Nov 26, 2018 6:00am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Business, Corporate Watch, Economic Development, Opinion, State Budget, Taxes, Transparency, Transportation

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Ever wonder why most of us don’t trust the government? At the moment, my own reasons have less to do with policy than with those in government who insist on secrecy even when it’s unnecessary.

To wit, the State of Connecticut and its reflexively closed-minded response to a freedom-of-information request for the tax-break package it had offered to Amazon to entice the legendary retailer into locating its second headquarters, known as HQ2, to Hartford or Stamford.

As we all know by now, the online retailing behemoth eventually split the wealth between New York and northern Virginia. But inquiring minds such as Mike Savino of the Record-Journal in Meriden wanted to know why we didn’t make the cut after responding to Amazon’s request for proposals.

But officials at the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which had prepared the bid, had other ideas. When the Record-Journal asked for a full copy, the paper eventually received a heavily-redacted version that omitted the two pages containing the tax incentives offered — which was, you know, the most important part. An appeal to the state Freedom of Information Commission followed.

The commission’s hearing officer upheld DECD’s contention that the full document was, in effect, a “trade secret,” the disclosure of which would “reveal aspects of the state’s economic development strategy, enable [other] states to better their offers in their competition with Connecticut to attract and keep private business, and give an advantage to private businesses in future negotiations with the state for economic incentives.”

The Record-Journal had noted the folly of such an argument, given the fact that other states and cities vying for HQ2 have publicly disclosed the tax incentives offered. Indeed, just up the road in Boston, the $5 million package offered to Amazon actually went through a public approval process that was covered by local media. And besides, if Amazon took the bait and came to Connecticut, we would know what the final deal looked like anyway.

We’ll never know what was offered. That, in turn, breeds cynicism about DECD and state government in general. Open government advocates will continue to suspect that the state’s offer was overly generous or poorly conceived, and that simple embarrassment is the reason it’s being withheld. Too often what practitioners of secrecy in government don’t understand is that if they’re doing the right thing, then transparency is actually their friend.

P.S. Since I’m always on the media watch, it’s worth noting that after the sweet Amazon deals were announced, both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal published highly critical editorials in which words like “bad deal” and “fleecing” were bandied about. Meanwhile, the headline on the editorial in the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post read: “Amazon’s HQ2 could be a launching pad for a bright future for the D.C. region.”

Of Cannabis And Highway Tolls

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In the last few days, two seemingly unrelated events took place. The state Department of Transportation released a study on options for tolling on several highways in the state, and the first recreational pot shops in New England opened in a pair of Massachusetts towns.

In Northampton and Leicester, customers turned out in force on Tuesday, braving a chilly rain to stand in line for hours to be the first to purchase cannabis buds and edibles.

The overwhelming majority of states that have legalized recreational weed have done so through ballot initiative — I suspect because lawmakers don’t want to have their fingerprints on such a liberty lest it explode in their faces.

Unlike Massachusetts and Maine, Connecticut has no mechanism for voters to place measures on the ballot, so we must rely on the General Assembly. Perhaps because outgoing Gov. Dannel Malloy is against it, there has been little movement among lawmakers. But that could change with Gov.-elect Ned Lamont, who has said it “is an idea whose time has come” — presumably because he doesn’t want to lose the revenue, estimated at up to $100 million per year to start, to the Bay State.

Lamont is also itching to reinstate tolls, presumably of the congestion-pricing variety, which would bring in an estimated $1 billion a year if everyone pays them. Lamont campaigned on a promise to reinstate tolls but only on big out-of-state trucks. In other words, only on people who can’t vote in Connecticut. Rhode Island has tried something similar and is facing a credible lawsuit from a truckers’ association. It would be foolish to install 82 electronic tolling gantries at a cost of almost $375 million and only toll truckers who are passing through.

Meanwhile, thousands of cars a month will be headed north and east to Massachusetts to buy weed. So our cash-strapped state will not only lose the sales-tax revenue on weed to the Bay State and the tolls charged to those driving to the pot shops, but we won’t be able to squeeze any revenue from those same Bay Staters driving to Foxwoods or to Manhattan to see a Broadway play. Meanwhile, every time I get on the MassPike to drive to Boston or the Cape, I pay $4.25 to support that state’s roads and bridges.

Am I missing something, or is this no way to run a railroad?

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at [email protected]

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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