Economic Development Among Consenting Adults

Lalo Alcaraz (c) 2013

California has unwittingly joined New York and Pennsylvania in the distinction of subsidizing strip clubs. Is there a bi-coastal consensus for, ahem, full disclosure?

Late last month, as a part of California Governor Jerry Brown’s campaign to end the wasteful and ineffective Enterprise Zone (EZ) program, the Sacramento area EZ businesses list was made public.  This disclosure of companies benefiting from EZ hiring tax credits was the first time that taxpayers in California have ever had access to information about which companies receive economic development subsidies through the program and how much those tax breaks are worth.

In addition to showing that the state provides subsidies to highly profitable corporations and a casino, the list revealed that two strip clubs in the town of Rancho Cordova have been claiming EZ tax credits since at least 2010.  Gold Club Centerfolds is receiving tax breaks worth up to $37,440 apiece for nine employees, and Déjà Vu Showgirls is receiving the same deal for 13 employees.

It is unknown how many other “adult” businesses in the state are getting such tax breaks because the identities of EZ businesses are usually hidden from public scrutiny based on (clearly misplaced) taxpayer confidentiality policies.

As we blogged last week, the California EZ program is also extremely expensive, with an annual loss of state revenue now more than $700 million headed towards $1 billion.

California is not the first state to embarrass itself by subsidizing sexually-oriented businesses.  New York City provides substantial tax breaks to thousands of businesses through its Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program (ICIP).  In 2010, the New York Daily News revealed that at least three strip clubs were receiving subsidies through ICIP.  The scandal led many organizations, including Good Jobs New York, to call for an overhaul of the misguided program (NYC’s costliest).

Similarly, Pennsylvania’s Keystone Opportunity Zone program (KOZ is the state’s name for Enterprise Zones) became embroiled in considerable controversy when an “adult entertainment business” in LycomingCounty landed in a KOZ in 2005.  The business was later forced to relocate after an utterly predictable land use conflict with the nearby Little League World Series Complex, and the KOZ rules were modified to prevent strip clubs from receiving tax breaks.  Unfortunately, this eligibility rule is literally one of the only restrictions on uses of KOZ subsidies and the identities of participating businesses remain hidden from the public.

The common element these three costly programs share is secrecy: none publicly discloses recipients of the tax breaks.  Hiding government expenditures is a guaranteed recipe for waste and abuse.   Public outrage is justified when the veil of taxpayer confidentiality is lifted to reveal a subsidized strip club or other controversial enterprise.  Whether or not such uses of economic development funds are appropriate should be decided in broad daylight; without subsidy transparency, continuing scandals are inevitable.

(Comic compliments of Lalo Alcaraz, (C) 2013)