Boston Globe: Board won’t release proposals on tax breaks

By Todd Wallack, Globe Staff  |  June 30, 2010

A state board that grants tax breaks to corporations is again withholding information about its awards before it votes on those requests, a move that critics contend leaves no time for the public to review and respond.

The Economic Assistance Coordinating Council is scheduled this morning to vote on requests by Boston Scientific Corp., Smith & Nephew, eClinicalWorks, and other companies for millions of dollars in state and local tax incentives, in exchange for increasing jobs and investment in Massachusetts. But the council refused to release the company’s proposals or the staff’s recommendations on the amount of money to award each company prior to the scheduled vote.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said State Senator Jamie Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, who has sponsored legislation that would make more information available about tax incentives. “The information should be public” so people can comment on them at the meeting or beforehand.

The state’s public meetings law requires the body to vote on the proposals in public, but is silent on whether they must provide the meeting materials to the public in advance. Eldridge said he plans to reexamine the meetings law next year.

Kofi Jones, a spokeswoman for the board, made up of state employees and gubernatorial appointees, said the Patrick administration considers the tax information to be internal documents until the board votes on them. She said the board would provide the documents after the meeting in response to a public records request from the Globe.

By contrast, local cities and towns typically make similar proposals public before voting on them.

“Just like we have access to the state budget, we ought to have access to information on tax credits,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in Boston. “From a transparency perspective, having the information ahead of time is important.”

The tax program typically provides a mix of local and state tax incentives to companies that promise to increase employment as a result. According to a copy of the meeting agenda released yesterday, the board is considering incentives for 13 expansion projects. Quincy last week approved a $320,000 property tax break for Boston Scientific, which must be approved by the state council. The Natick maker of medical devices promised to invest $55 million in its Quincy distribution center by 2013 and create five full-time jobs by 2018.

Boston Scientific has previously drawn criticism for receiving millions of dollars in tax incentives to expand in Marlborough, and then cutting jobs.

In March, the Globe reported that the state has given out hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax breaks to projects that would almost certainly have been built anyway. Recipients have created few quality jobs, or never delivered the jobs promised. But the state said it has made changes to the program to address those concerns.

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