Remember, Big Hollywood needs your money more than you do. At least that’s what I hear our state lawmakers saying. The Senate’s commerce panel voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would keep a tax rebate for the film industry on the books until 2020. The rebate has never been funded even though it’s been in place since 2008; it is set to expire this summer if the Legislature and governor do not act.
But Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer wants the rebate program to continue and he plans to ask lawmakers to put money behind it. Sayer points to films like “Oblivion,” with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. It was shot in places like Louisiana, California and Iceland. We coulda been a contender, says Sayer, channeling Marlon Brando.
The credit would go to productions that spend at least $200,000 in the state and hire at least 35 percent of its production crew from Idaho. If those requirements are met, film projects would be able to get a 20 percent tax rebate worth up to $500,000.
So is this rebate a blockbuster or is it corporate welfare?
I argue the latter, and groups on both the Right and the Left tend to agree. The Mercatus Center says studies of state incentive programs like the one Idaho wants to continue produce “miniscule revenue gains for every dollar of film subsidies offered.” Taxpayers are put at risk and are given no return. The liberal Center on Budget Policy and Priorities said in 2010, “Like a Hollywood fantasy, claims that tax subsidies for film and TV production—which nearly every state has adopted in recent years—are cost-effective tools of job and income creation are more fiction than fact.”
Bloomberg Businessweek wrote in 2010, “states have given $3.5 billion in production incentives since 2005. But because of cost concerns, a lack of job creation and other issues, they are starting to cut back. … Kansas and New Jersey have suspended their tax credits. Rhode Island has capped subsidies at $15 million annually, and Wisconsin's are set at a measly $500,000 a year. Arizona's program is set to expire … Larry Brownell, head of the Association of Film Commissioners International, which represents 41 of the 42 states offering credits, predicts half the states will shelve their programs within a decade.”
But Idaho lawmakers are Sally Field in 1985, and we just need to feel Hollywood likes us, even if it means less money to pay for basic state programs; even if it means Idahoans pay for movies that they’d never see; even if it means we pay for films that shock and offend our sensibilities; even if it means giving money to big productions that gross more than $282 million, like “Oblivion,” which probably is all of the above.
So, I’ll wrap all this up with a riff on the high school economics teacher played by Ben Stein in one of my favorite movies, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”:
In 2014, the Republican-controlled Idaho Legislature, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the ... Anyone? Anyone? ... the free market, passed the ... Anyone? Anyone? The film rebate. Which, anyone? Gave money to the film industry. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the state sank deeper into cronyism.