Harpootlian

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, spoke on the floor Wednesday about his concerns regarding a proposed tax incentives package to encourage the Carolina Panthers to build a practice facility in York County. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — A state senator standing in the way of a tax incentives package for the Carolina Panthers to build a new $150 million complex in York County warned Wednesday that similar promises of economic development from other NFL franchises have failed to come true.

Exhibit A: The Washington Redskins.

In a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian detailed how an incentives package passed by the Richmond (Va.) City Council for the Redskins' summer training camp wound up saddling the city with a costly deal leading to revenue shortfalls and forcing them to take out a $10 million loan.

A study by Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Urban and Regional Analysis found that Richmond would not end up breaking even on the deal until 2023, contrary to rosier promises when the agreement was approved.

That case, Harpootlian said, offers a "cautionary example of the potential pitfalls for public bodies gifting lucrative incentives to private corporations with little or no recourse should the beneficiary of those incentives fail to uphold its end of the bargain."

Harpootlian's missive came in response to a letter from McMaster earlier this week that insisted providing up to $115 million worth of tax breaks for the Panthers to build a new headquarters and practice facility in York County would yield a significant return on the state's investment — to the tune of almost $3.8 billion overall value. 

McMaster's letter featured a cost-benefit analysis from the state Department of Commerce, which suggested the deal would end up putting $188 million into state coffers over the next 15 years, with billions more in private economic benefit to the Palmetto State.

Harpootlian said McMaster's letter did not sufficiently address his concerns and "raises more questions than it answers."

The projection figures do not have supporting records for the Senate to scrutinize, Harpootlian said.

To address the lack of specifics, Harpootlian hired a professional economist, Rebecca Gunnlaugsson, to evaluate the deal. She found the lack of detailed calculations in the Commerce Department report made it "impossible to analyze how estimates were derived" for several key values. 

Gunnlaugsson, a former Commerce economist, also identified several assumptions in the analysis she questioned. That includes whether all players, coaches, staff and owners would relocate to the state, spend all their wages in the state and spur the creation of more than 5,000 additional jobs.

As a result, she projected the Commerce Department's analysis overstated the net impact by at least $2.6 billion, and that just 208 jobs would be created, not 5,175.

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McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt has met with Harpootlian and other senators and will continue to respond to their questions, though Harpootlian said he wants written responses.

"Fortunately for the South Carolinians who will benefit from the Panthers relocating here, Secretary Hitt and the Department of Commerce have done hundreds of similar economic development deals that have helped bring over 28,000 new jobs and over $8.6 billion in capital investment to South Carolina in just over two year," Symmes said.

During a speech about his letter on the Senate floor Wednesday, Harpootlian appeared to receive support from state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, who questioned why the state would need to "bribe people to move here" when they're already moving here in droves.

Both lawmakers mocked a plan for the Panthers to bring coaches, players and the team mascot to the Statehouse on Thursday as the team looks to seal the deal.

"Sir Purr may provide the best answers you're going to get to your questions," Campsen quipped, in reference to the Panthers' mascot.

He said if the letter sparks continued debate about the reasoning behind incentives packages for other major corporations, he would consider that a positive outcome.

"We need to be looking at this," Harpootlian said. "If this is what is being done without oversight, I have concerns about how our taxpayer money is being spent."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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