It is, unfortunately, a matter of trying to close the door after the horse has left the barn.
Last week, leaders of the two largest unions representing Boeing workers, along with state Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, renewed calls for the Legislature to rethink the tax incentives it has provided to the aerospace giant. In 2013, lawmakers agreed to extend tax breaks that will save Boeing an estimated $8.7 billion through 2040.
The deal was tied to Boeing’s commitment to build the 777X at its Everett plant, and while the company apparently is following through with its end of the bargain, it has been shipping other jobs out of state. Since 2013, Boeing’s workforce in Washington has dropped from about 83,000 to fewer than 80,000. “We feel strongly that the legislation passed two years ago doesn’t go far enough to guarantee a level of jobs and a wage standard we believe should be required for aerospace tax incentives,” said John Holden, president of Machinists District 75.
When it comes to the art of corporate tax breaks, Boeing is Picasso. As the McClatchy news service reported this year: “Boeing is the biggest winner of state and local tax incentives, receiving more than $13 billion of them.” That number comes from watchdog group Good Jobs First, with research director Phil Mattera saying, “Boeing is playing the subsidy game at all levels of government.”
Union leaders would like the Legislature to revisit two bills Robinson introduced to no avail this year. One would tie tax breaks to jobs; the other would require aerospace companies to meet certain wage standards in order to be eligible for tax incentives.
All of which brings us back to the horse-and-barn analogy. Boeing officials are not about sit still if lawmakers try to scale back the deal, nor should they. A deal was negotiated, and Boeing is living up to the letter of that deal, if not the spirit. Although Boeing was founded in Seattle, it long ago abandoned any semblance of being a strong community partner as it has embraced a strategy of playing one state against another in the name of profit. That’s how business works.
Meanwhile, the lesson is an expensive one for lawmakers. A year ago, Boeing announced it would move about 2,000 high-paying engineering jobs in its defense division out of the Seattle area by 2017. It followed that by adding 700 jobs in Missouri rather than Washington. As now-retired state Sen. Adam Kline, D-South Seattle, said: “This is the way Boeing thanked us. … We’ve been had.”
Not that Washington is the only state to be had by a major corporation. In 2012, the New York Times reported: “states, counties, and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. … They rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.”
In other words, citizens in all states should expect more from their lawmakers. Politicians are quick to point to job numbers or suggest that they helped save or create a certain amount of employment opportunities, but they rarely delve into the underlying details. If lawmakers really want to make a difference in how Washington approaches corporate tax incentives, they should focus on future deals rather than revisiting the Boeing plan. And they should ensure that such deals include metrics for actually tracking job creation.
Allowing one horse to escape the barn should be an object lesson to ensure it doesn’t happen again.