Panthers visit SC State House

Screenshots from their Facebook pages suggest that SC House members and their friends were pretty psyched to meet mascot Sir Purr and other Carolina Panthers celebrities when they visited the State House Thursday to drum up support for a $108 million incentive package. 

One economic study concludes that spending $108 million to lure the Carolina Panthers football team’s headquarters and practice facility to Rock Hill would generate $188 million in tax revenue and create 5,715 jobs over the next 15 years. Another concludes that those conclusions are “unfathomably” overly optimistic and that the incentives will buy at best 208 jobs.

The reality? Who knows? And that’s a problem.

It’s true that economic impact projections tend to enhance the argument of whoever’s paying for them. Still, we believe the new analysis bolsters our skepticism about the Panthers deal — not so much because of the numbers but because of the specific questions it raises about the Commerce Department’s analysis. And that, in turn, reinforces long-simmering questions — almost always ignored by political leaders — about whether we are frequently squandering money on economic development incentives by, as Sen. Chip Campsen put it Wednesday, “paying people to move to paradise.”

In an analysis paid for by Sen. Dick Harpootlian, former Commerce Department chief economist Rebecca Gunnlaugsson concluded that the agency’s economic analysis was based on several faulty assumptions:

• That all 150 players, coaches, staff and owners will relocate across the state line from their homes in and around Charlotte to a nearby suburb of Charlotte.

• That those 150 people will spend all of their wages in South Carolina.

• That all the equipment and construction materials for the facility will be purchased in South Carolina.

• That relocating 150 people will spur the creation of 5,175 new jobs.

You don’t have to be an economist to see the problems with those first three assumptions. But Dr. Gunnlaugsson notes that the 5,175-job projection was derived by using an employment multiplier of 39.1 — which means that for every direct Panthers job, other businesses will create 39.1 jobs. That’s nearly eight times the highest standard multiplier and 10 times the multiplier for arts, entertainment and recreation, which is 3.785. (The multiplier for spectator sports is an even lower 2.469.)

Audit of SC economic incentives sought following Carolina Panthers deal

Equally disturbing, the Commerce projection used government terminology that was replaced more than two decades ago, which Dr. Gunnlaugsson said “indicates a more troubling concern that the structure and calculations of the model may not have been updated to reflect changes in the U.S. and S.C. economy.” This problem, she said, “may impact all S.C. projects being analyzed with this model.”

This might not be so troubling if the state were merely offering tax breaks for each job created, since failing to create all the promised jobs would result in a smaller tax break. But the state also has agreed to spend $40 million up front on a new interstate interchange for the facility.

That means that if the projections turn out to be anywhere near as unrealistic as Dr. Gunnlaugsson says they are, we’ve just squandered $40 million. Happily, it also points to an obvious way to deal with this and other economic development projects: Require companies to certify either their own or Commerce’s economic projections and include clawback provisions that require them to repay state expenditures if they don’t meet the projections. And while we’re at it, we need to require the agency to make public all the analyses that it uses to support incentive packages. That’s a great way to make sure we’re not paying people to make moves they’d make regardless.

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