EDITORIAL: Transparency for corporate tax breaks

Gov. Chris Christie's national economic plan unveiled last week features a proposed cut to the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. That approach mirrors his philosophy back home, where he has supported $5 billion of corporate tax incentives in a supposed — and thus far largely unsuccessful — effort to spark the economy.

It would make sense, under the circumstances, to have a better idea of what exactly all of these tax breaks are achieving. But Christie doesn't want us to know. That's why he conditionally vetoed a proposal last week that would add some transparency to the process, requiring among other things a detailed annual review of the goals of each incentive while developing performance indicators to assess the effects.

Christie's explanation is that he prefers a more "holistic" approach and that such yearly check-ins would lack the proper perspective to understand the economic impact. Translation: The public is too dumb to be trusted with such information, so Christie will decide what he spoon-feeds us.

This is the sickeningly standard response from Christie every time he wants to hide something; he says the information is confusing, or incomplete, or irrelevant. That the information may be embarrassing to Christie is apparently just an amazing coincidence.

Christie won't, for example, release a full accounting of his public travel expenses to Dallas Cowboys games and other pleasure jaunts because they'll make him look like a complete hypocrite, burning taxpayer dollars for his own purposes. But he says it's because details would jeopardize security.

The Department of Community Affairs eliminated information on net property tax increases from its public database because — we were told — the numbers were too misleading for the public to grasp. In reality, however, it's because the net hikes reflect the average actual loss of money from taxpayer pockets by incorporating the effect of rebates Christie has eliminated.

Corporate tax breaks are a key component in the governor's economic philosophy, which boils down to one core tenet: Give the wealthy more money and we'll all benefit.

Corporate tax incentives aren't automatically a good or bad thing. There is clearly some value in improving the business climate by lowering taxes. But if the loss of that corporate revenue doesn't translate into more jobs or other economic benefits, then what's the point? The tax breaks are supposed to be tied to employment and other requirements. But are those benchmarks being met, and how?

That's what we need to know. The idea behind an annual review is to regularly take the temperature of the impact of each specific incentive, not to abruptly declare success or failure. If such snapshots make Christie look bad, tough. That's a whole lot better than sitting back and hoping that in the long run some vague, holistic appraisal will discern value to the public.

If Christie won't give us a better look at how these tax breaks are working, then legislators should follow through with a moratorium on the incentives until he does.


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