Corporate incentives need federal attention

Corporate maneuvers at Brown-Forman Corp. are a reminder that the nation needs to focus on taxpayer-funded incentives.

In June, the company announced it would locate a Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrel manufacturing plant at Mallard Fox West Industrial Complex. It was great news for Lawrence County, which has long struggled with high unemployment.

The $55 million facility initially will employ at least 110, with employment expected to rise to 225. The announcement was especially important because the company will be the first tenant at Mallard Fox West.

Lawrence County has an excellent workforce and has invested heavily in the industrial park, but that was not enough to attract Brown-Forman. Like all industries considering Alabama, Brown-Forman had the ability to demand concessions. If Lawrence County did not welcome the employer, someone else would. The end result: The company received $63 million in state and local incentives.

On Tuesday, Brown-Forman announced a special cash dividend for its shareholders. The timing of its dividend involved tax avoidance. If Congress fails to reach a deal on the expiration of various tax cuts by Jan. 1, dividends will be taxed as ordinary income instead of the current 15 percent. According to Moody’s Investor Service, the special dividend involves a corporate payout of $850 million.

The net effect is that Alabama taxpayers paid or forfeited $63 million, which went to shareholders so they could avoid federal taxes.

There is no bad guy in this scenario. Alabama and Lawrence County made a wise investment that probably was necessary to secure a solid employer. Brown-Forman has an obligation to maximize the return to its shareholders. It can do so not just by producing quality whiskey, but by pursuing incentives and avoiding taxes.

The loser in this interstate competition, of course, is the taxpayer.

Acting alone, Alabama cannot solve the problem. The best it can do is scrutinize every incentive to ensure the benefits to the state are worth the cost.

Any solution must be on the federal level, because it must come in the form of a limitation on the amount and type of incentives a state can offer. Most states — especially cash-strapped ones like Alabama — would probably welcome such legislation.

Ideally, states would compete for employers not by emptying their coffers to corporate shareholders, but by investing in their workforce and infrastructure. That ideal will remain out of reach unless Congress takes action.

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