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By RFT Staff
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By Ray Downs
You certainly don't need the likes of me telling you what to think about $30 million corporate-welfare handouts to shopping-mall developers in affluent suburbs.
You need a conservative.
As a known liberal, I can only be all too predictable when as happened last week a judge gave approval for the city of Des Peres to subsidize expansion of the West County Center shopping mall with $29.8 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars. A lawsuit to stop the TIF funding had been filed by eight Des Peres residents and rival Chesterfield Mall.
My take on this is pretty obvious. A poor malnourished child Australian-based developer Westfield Corp., which just happens to own shopping centers the world over is graciously assisted with foreign aid by the taxpayers so it can pull together the pieces of its aging center in war-torn, devastated Des Peres.
Charity begins with the shopping mall nearest your home. How touching.
When this Marshall Plan for West County is finished with taxpayer dollars, they ought to call in United Nations peacekeepers to escort executives from the new Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor stores, just to underscore the world's commitment to the welfare of refugees from all walks of life. Someday, we'll tell our grandchildren tales of the triumph of the human spirit in "blighted" Des Peres.
Oh. Did I forget to mention Des Peres' tear-jerking "expert witness" arguments about "decaying roof structures, deteriorating utility systems and the effects of storm water runoff on downstream land, leading to blight," as reported in the Post? Lord knows what death toll those blighting disasters might cause.
See? Just look at all that dripping sarcasm. I just can't bring myself to be fair to these people. Like I said, you need a conservative for this story.
I called Murray Weidenbaum.
As you'll recall, Weidenbaum is a St. Louisan who gained national prominence as the top economic advisor to President Ronald Reagan. He is chairman of the Center for Study of American Business at Washington University, where he also holds a Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professorship.
Weidenbaum remains on the national scene as chairman of the Congressional Commission on the Trade Deficit. His bona fides as a conservative and an economist speak for themselves.
So, wonders the quasi-informed liberal to the expert conservative: Just how is it that you people justify giving public TIF money to shopping-mall developers in affluent suburbs like Des Peres?
Short answer: A real conservative doesn't.
"As an economist, I was dismayed," Weidenbaum told me of the Des Peres case. "This is not the kind of use that TIF is designed for. The idea of a TIF is to help truly blighted areas by providing a tax incentive for businesses to move into those areas.
"It's not designed for middle-class neighborhoods. It's designed for poor neighborhoods. If West County is an area of blight, what does that say for the rest of St. Louis? To describe it as a blighted area and keep a straight face is quite a trick."
Mind you, this is Ronald Reagan's erstwhile top economic advisor talking, not your everyday radical social activist. But even after a long career of criticizing and working to eliminate government programs and regulations, Weidenbaum's opposition to TIFs like the one in Des Peres isn't simply a blanket objection to all uses of TIFs.
"There's no objection to the overall concept," Weidenbaum adds, a bit grudgingly. "I think tax incentives are maybe the least worst way of government providing help to the private sector."
So if the basic concept is acceptable, who is to blame for the misuse of TIFs?
"The real problem originates because government officials are too generous in approving TIFs," Weidenbaum says. "The key thing is, you need local officials who just say no, which would be a great precedent. Occasionally it happens, but not very often.
"You also need voters who say no, who say we don't want to see our tax dollars eroded."
But wait. Isn't this supposed to be all about bringing more tax revenues to communities like Des Peres? That is the argument, after all, not only in Des Peres, but in Olivette, Eureka, Chesterfield, Hazelwood and just about any other suburb you can name.
Is Weidenbaum the economist arguing that this is just a zero-sum game for St. Louis?
"No, it's not a zero-sum game. It's a negative-sum game," Weidenbaum says. "Communities are eroding their tax bases, and I think in lots of cases they're going to wind up worse off in tax revenues than if they hadn't gone ahead with the TIF.
"In effect, existing businesses are going to be subsidizing these folks (the TIF beneficiaries), and that's unfair, both to those businesses and to the taxpayers.
To the extent there's a basic market for projects like the one in Des Peres, you're going to get most of the investment without a TIF.
"At the margin, are you going to get a bit more investment with a TIF than without it? The answer is yes. But is it really worth it in the end? I think the answer is not."
Weidenbaum says he doesn't blame the businesses for trying.
"I think it's unfortunate, but if the individual companies see their competitors feeding at the public trough, they're going to try to do the same thing themselves."
He also doesn't blame St. Louis Circuit Judge Kenneth M. Romines, who lambasted Des Peres' Board of Alderman even as he was ruling in their favor. Romines said he was legally confined to determining whether the board acted "arbitrarily or with fraud, collusion or bad faith," and he found it had not.
But he added that the board acted "seemingly as a bank board of directors, as opposed to acting as a legislative body with police powers."
Weidenbaum said Romines' comments were "nice."
"It shows we critics are on the side of the angels."
And on the side of the true liberals. And on the side of the true conservatives.
All together for once.