Guest editorial: Less handouts, more governance

From the Twin Falls Times-News

A lot of politicians get off on lambasting the pajama pant-wearing welfare queen. But the benefactors of corporate welfare aren’t as easy to spot until the whole thing goes wrong.

That’s exactly what blew up in the face of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s administration earlier this month when it became obvious that yogurt giant Chobani had bilked Idaho taxpayers when it laid off 42 employees whose training had been paid by the state’s workforce development fund.

Since the government handout’s inception in 1996, critics have blasted the program because it lacks any repercussions for a business that gladly takes the cash and cans employees or goes belly-up. The program’s proponents call it one of Idaho’s best assets when courting would-be investors.

The naysayers were vindicated when the Twin Falls-based plant became the poster child for everything wrong with a program that doles out the public’s cash without much in the way of oversight, audit or review.

The Otter administration admitted as much last week when it rolled out a handful of modifications, including a grading system that could influence how much a company can collect from state coffers. The tweaks are half-measures disguised as reforms. They’re little more than an acknowledgement that the system is broken, but they offer little in the way of taxpayer protection or accountability.

State Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, is onto something when he calls for a “claw-back system” to recoup taxpayer subsidies from businesses that don’t pull their weight after reaping government handouts. Hartgen’s plan, which we hope flies through the Legislature come January, would provide a real penalty for such abuses of the state and its people, which happens all too frequently, state officials admit.

Hartgen’s working for the people here. The administration isn’t.

At least the latest Chobani hoopla initiated a response from Boise. When the company that took $3.3 million for workforce development laid off workers the state essentially paid it to employ, It was the last straw. The state had no choice but to respond.

The massive yogurt plant’s 2012 construction had been the stallion in Otter’s economic development stable. The governor would bang around the state pointing to the mythical “Magic Valley miracle.” This entire ordeal should end the jingoism once and for all.

The most recent insult to Idaho taxpayers is merely a symptom of a much larger illness than an administration hungry for talking points. The Otter administration — ravenous to score another feather in its economic development cap — has no problem leaving Idaho vulnerable if that’s what it takes to one-up another competing state.

The people who foot the bill deserve recourse. And nothing less will do.