Buried in a little debated 267-page tax code bill is a provision emblematic of Pennsylvania’s corporate welfare culture.
The provision directs hotel tax revenue generated inside a Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) to hotel owners and developers. The revenue can be used to pay for hotel renovations or to finance entirely new hotels.
The hotel tax normally funds tourism promotion and economic development for the Lehigh Valley. But now, rather than using the revenue to promote the Lehigh Valley, it will be used to subsidize a small group of private enterprises.
“This is blatantly unfair competition,” said Bruce Haines, who is a managing partner of the Hotel Bethlehem, which competes directly with hotels inside the NIZ. “We worked hard to get where we are. We put our own capital on the line. We did it the old-fashioned way.”
The new rule governing the NIZ will make it harder for entrepreneurs like Bruce to compete. Businesses inside the NIZ already had access to tax dollars before the change. Now they’ll have an even larger pool of tax dollars to use for new projects.
This raises an obvious question: Are the subsidies necessary? Research and experience both say no.
According to scholars from the Cato Institute and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, NIZ-type programs generally don’t create new wealth; they just shift its location. These findings are consistent with Bruce’s experience: “The NIZ isn’t really creating new businesses. They’re just moving from the surrounding areas into the NIZ. The market works for hotels. It doesn’t need subsidies.”
Bruce understands that competition is a necessary part of any free market. “If more businesses open in the Lehigh Valley without subsidies, that’s okay because it’s fair. But I should not have to lose potential customers because of crony capitalism. Philosophically, that bothers me.”
Handing out tax dollars to businesses, carving out special exemptions, or creating new rules benefiting a select few dampens economic growth. To promote broad-based prosperity, government must refrain from tilting the playing-field in favor of any business.