Gilbert Transformational Brownfield Legislation Stalls

12 Dec 2016

MOnroeblock9Dan Gilbert’s team drafted legislation based on the current Brownfield law.  This legislation was  moving rapidly through the Michigan Legislature until the Michigan Speaker of the House announced that the House would wait until next year to move the bills forward.  While this seems to have killed the bills for now, some are still lobbying for them to become law before 2017.

Articles had appeared in the local papers describing two proposed towers for the Monroe block of downtown Detroit (pictured), These articles include statements that the buildings won’t be built without this legislation being enacted (and presumably implemented in their favor).

The legislation is based on an existing approach – when a project increases property value, the taxes on that increased value can be captured and used to pay for  “eligible expenses.” Typically, these TIF (tax increment financing) programs put the risk of failure on the developer (where it belongs) while they increase the potential return by reimbursing the developer for expenses it would otherwise absorb.  The current brownfield law allows communities to issue bonds and pledge their full faith and credit, but in the brownfield “universe” that almost never happens.

The brownfield TIF law allows reimbursements for cleaning up contamination and taking protective measures and, in more urban communities, for costs of site preparation and infrastructure improvements.   This State, like many others, has decided that these incentives are necessary to entice developers to take desired risks. This is not a tax credit, nor, do the taxpayers of the State front any money to the developer.  If the development does not result in the increase in taxes expected, the developer loses. Without a bond, if there is no tax increment, the community/state owes the developer nothing.  Further, the community is held harmless because the predevelopment property taxes continue to go to the government as they did before project development. In short, this is a kind of “deferred gratification” for the taxing authorities as they must wait until the developer is repaid to get taxes on the increased property values (certain taxes are exempted from the TIF program and so there is some immediate benefit to the community).

So what’s the fuss about the Gilbert legislation?  These bills take the Brownfield TIF and put it on a massive dose of steroids. In addition to capturing real property taxes,  the Gilbert team proposes to capture both income taxes and sales taxes generated on a property following its redevelopment, if the project is “transformational.” This legislation vastly broadens the eligible expenses which can be reimbursed.  Instead of covering only environmental cleanups, environmental due care and communal benefits like infrastructure, the Gilbert legislation would allow a developer to be reimbursed for all of its construction costs. This is bold and would almost certainly lead to new, riskier developments. A developer could wind up with a significant competitive advantage because his costs are could be fully reimbursed. This could allow such a developer to undercut the market or amass significant profits.  The potential for market distortion appears to have been overlooked by the few commentators who have spoken on the subject.

The legislation includes a cap on the number of such transformational projects per year and per community and with a maximum of $50 Million in the first year’s capture for new projects. It is tiered so what is transformational (based on a dollar amount) varies based on the size of the community. This was a sop to smaller communities to get their support for this legislation as was a provision putting funds into the State’s Brownfield revolving fund. There are also some exemptions from the spending requirements including one that seems directed right at Flint.

“Transformational” can mean many different things  but the legislation’s focus is whether a project will transform local economic development, community revitalization, growth in population, commercial activity and employment.

The legislation received little notice until recently. Interestingly, it has been criticized by those on the left and on the right. A Free Press column calling this legalized “serfdom” for employees seems over-the-top. Yes, taxes will be collected and ultimately reimbursed to the developer.  I don’t see that equaling employee slavery. The Mackinac Center piece is a bit closer to the mark. They complain of “crony capitalism.”  The fact that only a few developers can get these projects approved per year and one per community per year does seem like the sort of favoritism inherent in crony capitalism. Further, the fact that the projects are limited to extremely expensive ones (on a range between $15 Million and $500 Million depending on county population), again, seems to mean that only the elite get benefits that are not available to the ordinary developer. In that regard, as the Mackinac Center points out, this is no different than any TIF financing model (and there are many of them in use throughout Michigan and the US).  This is the world we live in as evidenced by President-Elect Trump’s efforts to keep a Carrier plant in Indiana.

The capture of sales and income taxes would be new to Michigan and would put Michigan in the minority of states that allow such capture.

What has not been commented on is the need for a mechanism to ensure that the taxpayers of the State of Michigan are held harmless – so that the income and sales taxes to be captured are truly new to the State and not the result of a business moving its operations from one place to another.  This mechanism (and others needed) are to be developed later.  This is a practical consideration with large implications.  The State’s review of this legislation thus far includes an admission that the Legislature has no idea how much this might actually cost the State in revenue if it passes as is.

Will this package of bills pass?  I expect it will.  If not this month, then early next year.  If the Legislature doesn’t address some of the concerns expressed above, we may find ourselves with some major projects and some unintended consequences not too far down the road.

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