When she was still in the state Legislature, Maria Cantwell said this about cities within Washington competing with each other for business:
“We wouldn’t give (state) money to a city to locate a plant they stole from another city. We’ve got to protect the state’s interests.”
Was she talking about some earlier instance of Seattle dangling tax breaks in front of a key Tacoma business, as Mayor Greg Nickels is doing to get Russell Investments to move north?
Nope. She was responding to another move by the Port of Tacoma to get a shipping customer at the Port of Seattle to move south – this time it was Evergreen Marine Line in 1991, which followed Sea-Land in 1985.
Cantwell, who won election to the U.S. House in 1992 and to the U.S. Senate in 2000, decided against pushing legislation to ban such inter-port competition. But she told the ports to start doing more to compete with other states and nations, not each other.
And how well has that worked out? In 2007, the Seattle port was surprised to learn that NYK had cut a deal with Tacoma to move south.
But this isn’t really about port competition. It’s about the hypocrisy of Tacoma politicians whining about Nickels’ move to “steal” Russell. The most recent example was a letter sent last week by 16 Pierce County legislators expressing “tremendous disappointment” in Nickels’ actions.
“Not only does a public competition for Russell Investments represent misguided and cannibalistic public policy from a regional economic development perspective, it erodes the very foundation of cooperation we have worked to develop in recent years,” they wrote.
So, using tax dollars to entice businesses to move 40 miles north is bad but using tax dollars to entice them to move 40 miles south is good? Tacoma offering deep tax cuts to keep Russell is OK but Seattle offering less-generous tax cuts to recruit them is not?
It isn’t just the port.
Tacoma spent $150,000 on a 2002 advertising campaign to woo businesses from Seattle. And the marketers of the tax-supported Tacoma convention center brag when they take business from the tax-supported Seattle convention center.
In all of these instances, the beneficiary is the private business that gets to stand by and watch various batches of Washington governments offer sweeter and sweeter enticements. It’s an extension of the silly competition between states for new factories, new plants and new corporate headquarters.
Boeing has turned that into an art form, first with its corporate headquarters, then with the 787 assembly and next with the 737 replacement jet. Sure, it’s a race to the bottom – each state trying to offer less taxation, less regulation and more services than their neighbors.
Until Congress or the courts intervene – or a brave state decides to try something more intelligent – it’s the lousy hand dealt desperate governments.
But forcing Washington taxpayers to bankroll a city-by-city competition that simply moves activity around within the state is beyond stupid. For a city to engage in it – and then complain when other cities engage in it – is beyond sanctimonious.
It is ironic for Nickels – the chairman of regional Sound Transit and a board member of the Puget Sound Regional Council – to act so provincially. He knows that regional plans call for healthy employment centers in Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett and Seattle to handle population growth, reduce commuting and make transit more effective.
Nickels points to empty office towers in his downtown as an excuse. But regional planning is just as important in bad economic times as in good economic times.
And Nickels will pay a price in his reputation in the region and in his city’s ability to work with Congress and the Legislature.
To try to portray him as an outlier breaking the rules, however, isn’t fair and isn’t productive. Because until our regional and state leaders break their silence and intervene, the only rule is this: Every man, every woman, every city for themselves.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657