By Spencer Chretien
As Amazon considers a plethora of options for its second headquarters, much speculation has focused on Arlington County, and the National Capital Region more generally, as leading contenders. Localities across the country have spent the last months attempting to seduce Amazon with the most attractive deals they can offer. Whatever the company decides and whenever the decision is made, this situation represents challenges and opportunities for proponents of government transparency.
Regarding the negotiations with Amazon, Arlington County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said in January that there is “nothing in there that couldn’t ultimately be made public.” Recently, however, she backtracked, revealing that Arlington has signed a nondisclosure agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia and, should Arlington win the bid, any deal will be subject to a vote.
“Trust us” isn’t quite enough for elected officials to say. In fact, in nine other finalist locations for Amazon’s second headquarters, officials, rather than hiding behind nondisclosure agreements, have provided information about what incentives they are offering the mega-corporation. Chicago’s offer is perhaps the most eye-popping: the city is offering a deal in which $1.2 billion in income taxes paid by Amazon employees would go to the company itself, not to schools, roads, and healthcare. Across the river, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is pitching $5 billion in tax incentives. These are just two examples of Amazon’s options.
Each jurisdiction faces its own unique issues, and Arlington is no exception. With increasing school capacity needs and a Metro system that is the butt of too many jokes, every county dollar must be spent where it is most effective. Although an Amazon headquarters would undoubtedly bring jobs and benefits to our region, Arlingtonians deserve to know the real cost before any deal is struck. If the county is offering subsidies, sweetheart deals, or creating special tax rules to attract Amazon, voters deserve to know.
In Arlington, we have a highly educated workforce, great schools, a proud tradition of promoting both business and the environment, and are ideally located close to the federal government. Unlike Maryland and DC, the Commonwealth of Virginia has as right-to-work law. All of these make us a great place to do business. Maintaining this business-friendly environment by avoiding tax increases and regulatory uncertainty is the best way to attract new firms, not offering special deals to enormous businesses like Amazon.