The only thing the "transformational brownfield plan" attempts to "transform" is the idea that our public funds should remain for public use. Instead, this plan creates a corporate welfare package for a few very wealthy individuals — most immediately, Dan Gilbert in Detroit and the Shaheen family in Saginaw. This is dangerous. Senate bills 111-115, a reintroduction from last legislative session, are gaining traction. They have already been passed by the Michigan Senate and have been referred to the House Committee on Tax Policy.
These bills would allow the state to reimburse private developers for developing brownfield sites — like a rebate program for the rich. Historically, this was done through a tax credit, not a reimbursement. A reimbursement is different than a credit and directly takes dollars out of the state and local general funds.
Furthermore, it is a tax scheme of direct cash reimbursements that has never been tried or tested in Michigan. We cannot afford to deliberately cripple our cities by transferring public tax dollars to private entities for benefits that are unclear at best. We are setting a bad precedent for shifting public dollars into private pockets; essentially, robbing the public to further enrich the wealthy. This is not progress or an effective strategy to revitalize cities through development.
Federal funding available to clean up brownfields — sites polluted and abandoned by private companies — began with public benefit in mind at least. (Even though it's still ironic that public money is used to clean up private, profit-driven pollution.)
What's worse here is that this bill expands the clear and strict EPA definition of brownfield to include foreclosed, dangerous, and "blighted" property. This bill's far broader definition opens the door for corporations to get public money to privatize huge chunks of publicly owned land — in a city where residents cannot easily access land and are losing their property at alarming rates. Again, our resources and public lands are being turned into commodities to be brokered.
It isn't quite coercion for billionaires to threaten not to spend money on these projects unless we pay them, but it's close enough for me. It's the same basic claim the wealthy make when they take public money to finance the private sports arenas. We continue to see our elected officials working extra hard to create a "good climate for business" that leads to disinvestment in public infrastructure and tax incentives to the detriment of cities, while enriching private business and further entrenching poverty. And our cities are told by legislators to use their bootstraps to survive.
What is most ironic here is that supporters of the bills use economic recession and recovery as an excuse to not collect 100 percent of property, sales, and income tax produced by these for-profit, large-scale developments. Property, sales, and income taxes fund services, investment, infrastructure, and government functions that serve communities and neighborhoods across the state. Depleted public coffers will not be filled by giving away more public funds.
We are valuable. Detroit and other neighboring communities are places to invest in, not rob. The communities we have created and struggled for are worthy of more respect than we are being shown with these bills, and it's incumbent on elected officials to show that respect.
A Good Jobs First study reiterates what many communities already know — that there is no proof that this type of public financing of private projects benefits the state. We have only seen evidence that it has hurt our state, leaving increased poverty levels, an education system that fails our children, and our public infrastructure in disrepair. According to the same report, many states, including Michigan, intentionally leave taxpayers in the dark on the outcomes of these types of public subsidies.
So when grassroots coalitions rise up and speak out against corporate welfare packages that only lead to broken promises, they are seen as anti-development. Developers cringe when they hear the words "community benefits agreement" and make up all kinds of scenarios that devalue the host community.
The status quo doesn't work and we won't be bamboozled with sports arenas and pretty (and really glassy) high rises anymore. We demand accountability. If we have to pay, we should have a say. This includes saying no, if the community doesn't have a right to ensure that the developer follows through on promises.
Mayors, city council members, and legislators come and go, but neighborhoods don't go anywhere. We are being taxed with so much, but it's the developers who get a pass each time in the name of "economic development." It is about time that our families' economic development comes first.
Rashida Tlaib is the Community Partnerships and Development Director at the Sugar Law Center in Detroit. She formerly served as a Michigan state representative.
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