Rigging the Tax Code to Profit From Disasters

Piles of words have been written about disaster capitalism. This brand of capitalism involves two kinds of assaults on communities: severe budget cuts and extensive privatization, both imposed during periods of psycho-social shock resulting from an economic crash, war, or a “natural disaster.” In 2005 Hurricane Katrina became a case study to trace these twin prongs of disaster capitalism as one of the world’s great cities and a stretch of the Gulf Coast were decimated by a post-hurricane flurry of budget cuts and privatization.

However, there’s a third leg of the violent imposition of neoliberalism in the wake of disaster that has been subject to much less scrutiny. This aspect has been as effective as privatization in opportunistically transferring huge sums of wealth into the hands of a few corporations and the rich. It has also laid much of the groundwork for further budget cutting in the wake of catastrophe. What is it?

Two words: tax policy. Disaster tax policy.

In December of 2005 Congress responded to Hurricane Katrina by passing an unprecedented economic recovery package in the form of a tellingly named bill, the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005 (or “GO-Zone”). For those familiar with corporate globalization-speak, an “opportunity zone” is a synonym for “enterprise zone,” and also closely related to the various other “zones” of special exploitation carved out by states for the benefit of capital. In these sorts of zones the normal rules of state regulation (to protect the environment, workers, etc.) are suspended, creating a laissez faire atmosphere. The GO-Zone essentially amended sections of the Internal Revenue Code, sections that normally apply to corporations and financial entities operating in a region of opportunity that included the southern counties of Mississippi and Alabama, and southern parishes of Louisiana.

The GO-Zone, the central economic policy response to Hurricane Katrina, was quite simply a massive tax break for corporations and the wealthy. It has resulted in the transfer of billions of dollars from the federal government and public sector to mostly large transnational corporations and investment banks, but also to the top 5 per cent of wealth holders in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Because this raid on the federal budget was designed to occur through somewhat arcane tax expenditures its effect of upwardly redistributing wealth and reducing federal revenues have been subtle and difficult to discern. Its absence of positive economic impacts for the hardest hit communities are conspicuous, however.

As a policy the GO-Zone has its origins in another recent disaster, 9-11. A virtually identical package of tax breaks for corporate wealth was written into a section of the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act of 2002 shortly after blocks of New York City were reduced to rubble on September 11, 2001. Buried not too deeply in this bill was the provision for creating a “New York Liberty Zone.”

This uber-patriotic idea (conveniently designed to aid already fabulously wealthy real estate and financial companies owning real estate and operating in lower Manhattan) was thought up right in between the two most important Bush-era tax laws, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, and Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. All three of these bills reduced corporate taxes and taxes on personal wealth to nearly record levels, and set the federal government on its path to where it is today – massive deficit spending and a budget crisis due to shrinking revenues.

One of the Republican Party’s key players in drafting all of this pro-corporate tax legislation was a relatively unassuming and little known House member from Louisiana’s 4th District, Jim McCrery.

McCrery’s Congressional career began in 1988 and lasted just over two decades. In that time he became one of the Congress’s most knowledgeable members with respect to tax issues, and therefore a key contributor to the Bush administration’s rollback of progressive taxes. McCrery co-sponsored the Bush tax cut bills and helped work out some of their finer points as a powerful member of the Ways and Means Committee.

In December of 2005 McCrery introduced the GO-Zone act to Congress and shepherded it through the House, Senate, and to the President’s desk in a swift sixteen days with strong bi-partisan support. On the floor of the House McCrery implored, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of putting into law as quickly as possible incentives to give businesses, individuals, people with capital to invest, the urge to go to these devastated areas and invest that capital.” His colleagues on both sides of the isle concurred that government’s role should be to lavish the wealthy and powerful with lucrative tax incentives. During the perfunctory floor debate no Democrat or Republican asked why similarly targeted economic assistance was not being proposed for workers, small businesses, and others who lacked “capital to invest.”

At the center of the GO-Zone are two key provisions that require a corporation or individual already be wealthy and powerful to take advantage of. The first is a $14.9 billion in bonding authority given to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. These “GO-Zone bonds” allow private financial institutions to lend billions to private companies to build all manner of private, for-profit industrial and commercial projects, with profits on these bonds subject to zero federal tax. The Congressional Research Service notes that this provision alone will reduce federal revenues by at least $1 billion over the eleven-year span of the program.

The second key provision was establishment of a bonus depreciation allowance which let businesses drastically reduce their tax burdens by claiming a deduction related to the expected wear-and-tear and therefore decline in the value of property and capital invested in after the storm. Depreciation is a standard tax deduction used by businesses, but the “bonus” aspect allowed for larger immediate deductions. The GO-Zone included billions more in other tax credits, tax exemptions, tax write offs, and tax loopholes to be claimed by corporations and other owners of large real estate and capital holdings, all predicated on the notion that the best disaster recovery policy is aimed at helping those who already have the most.

After more than five years the GO-Zone has proven a resounding failure with respect to economic recovery along the Gulf Coast. Although local chamber of commerce boosters have pointed to a lower unemployment rate than the national average, the reality is that the region’s economy has shrunk, especially in locales like New Orleans and coastal parishes where the GO-Zone’s promised benefits never materialized and never will. New Orleans and many of the hardest hit Louisiana parishes and counties in Mississippi and Alabama have seen little to no benefit from the promised infusions of cash via corporate investments in their backyards. This has meant relatively poor levels of job creation, few if any local construction contracts or subcontracts, few new sources of local tax revenues, actual reductions in housing stocks, and closures of unfunded public schools, public housing, public libraries, and other public goods. Because disaster tax policies are expressly written to benefit large wealth holders, these policies have no positive impact for working families. The majority who possess no vast real estate holdings and who own none of the corporate capital are at the mercy of the wealthy few to make decisions about the future. Democratic control over economic development is made impossible.

The hard truth is that most communities inside the GO-Zone’s boundaries were never meant to reap benefits from these tax incentives. The intended benefactors from the very beginning were large corporations, the big financial companies that loan to them, and the elite law firms that serve both.

The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act was written by and for corporate capital. Representative McCrery sponsored the bill to respond to his most important constituents: major corporations and financial institutions with stakes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. These parties were not interested in rebuilding the region’s economy to benefit disaster stricken communities. They were keen on obtaining huge tax breaks and cheap bond money to expand the already harmful economy of extraction: refineries, pipelines, and chemical plants.

This opportunistic imposition of disaster tax policy was a fitting capstone to McCrery’s Congressional career which was characterized by a nearly perfect record of supporting regressive taxation and budget cutting. McCrery began his professional life as a lawyer in the small city of Leesville, Louisiana. After a stint as an assistant attorney for the city of Shreveport, in 1981 he joined the staff of Rep. Charles Roemer, III. McCrery’s boss would eventually become a tax-hating, budget slashing Governor of Louisiana, one who also ushered in gambling via floating casinos and the now ubiquitous video poker machines placed in seemingly every bayou bar and truck stop. McCrery inherited Roemer’s Congressional seat in 1988.

In the interim, however, McCrery spent four years working as a lawyer for the Georgia Pacific Corporation, one of the largest timber, pulp, and chemicals companies in the world with operations in Louisiana and nearby Arkansas. Perhaps it was during his four years at Georgia Pacific that McCrery’s pro-corporate ideology was finally and fully cemented, or maybe it was earlier. Whenever it was, freshman McCrery entered the Congress ready to rewrite the tax code in favor of further concentrating wealth to the benefit of companies like G-P.

Candidate McCrery’s elections were bankrolled by the usual powerhouse corporations that spend heavily on Republicans and Democrats alike, many of them big insurance, healthcare, and financial concerns. Oil and chemical companies with operations in Louisiana were also among the Congressman’s biggest sources of campaign cash. He received virtually nothing from unions, environmental funds, women’s organizations, and African American owned businesses.

McCrery’s former employer Georgia Pacific was one of his top donors throughout his career. Between 1998 and 2004 Georgia Pacific gave McCrery more than $21,000. After Georgia Pacific was bought out by Koch Industries in 2005 (just around the same time Hurricane Katrina struck) Koch continued to donate to McCrery, giving him $10,000 in 2006. Another major funder of McCrery was Harrah’s Entertainment. The Casino giant with two hotels, two casinos, and a horse-racing track in his district, gave McCrery $17,500 between 2002 and 2006. These corporations were largely investing in McCrery for his deft knowledge of tax policy, and his effectiveness in crafting tax legislation redistribute wealth from the public sector to private. These were shrewd investments.

To build support for this neoliberal economic agenda, Rep. McCrery created a very successful political action committee in 1996, the Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism (CPC). In addition to spending tens of thousands of dollars on ritzy fund raising events at various California wine country attractions like the Lodge at Sonoma, and Benziger Winery, McCrery’s CPC doled out $5000 and $10,000 contributions to Republican candidates who would help pass extremely corporate friendly laws. A list of the CPC’s biggest cash cows correlates almost perfectly with high scorers on the Americans for Tax Reform scorecard (Grover Norquist’s austerity-obsessed organization). McCrery himself routinely scored above the 95th percentile. Some of the CPC’s favored candidates have become stars of the Tea Party.

Having helped stack the House with Republican allies, when Hurricane Katrina hit it was almost a foregone conclusion that the economic policy response would center on tax cuts. Democrats voted with equal enthusiasm for the GO-Zone Act though, their own party’s leadership having been been infected by the same neoliberal policy doctrines during the Clinton years.

Most aspects of the GO-Zone Act were set to expire at the end of 2010, but late last year the Congress extended many provisions, including the tax-exempt bond program which had failed to dole out its entire lending cap. Nevertheless, after a half-decade of implementation the GO-Zone’s record speaks loud and clear. The primary beneficiaries of GO-Zone bonds have been the large oil and chemical companies. Areas that have seen the largest GO-Zone bond investments are uniformly outside of the hardest hit parishes and counties. Any economic stimulus and jobs created therefore have been at a distance from the most crippled areas. A mere ten mega-projects financed with GO-Zone bonds involving expansion of oil refineries, chemical plants, pipelines, and petroleum tanks have consumed more than half of all the program’s funds in Louisiana. (In the upcoming May/June issue of Dollars and Sense magazine, http://www.dollarsandsense.org/, I will present a more complete picture of the GO-Zone’s failure as a disaster reconstruction policy in Louisiana.)

One of the biggest GO-Zone bond recipients in Louisiana will be McCrery’s former employer and major campaign donor, Koch subsidiary Georgia Pacific. The Atlanta based company is expected to receive $250 million to expand a pulp and paper plant in East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s an exemplary disaster tax policy-enabled project; the plant will be built in a Parish that experienced relatively little damage from Katrina; it reinforces and further enriches the heavily polluting industries that already dominate Louisiana’s chemical corridor; it will generate huge profits for Koch Industries; and it’s all being done in the name of disaster reconstruction.

When McCrery retired from the House in 2008 he wasted no time stepping through the revolving door and into a job with the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel. It was a perfect fit for the ex-Congressman. Started in 2007 Capitol Counsel was described by The Hill’s Alexander Bolton as a lobbying firm focused on helping shape tax policy for its clients. According to Bolton:

“Two of the most experienced Democratic tax lobbyists in Washington have joined forces with a team of Democratic fundraisers and operatives to form what likely will emerge as one of Washington’s premier boutique lobbying shops. The firm, Capitol Counsel LLC, will focus almost exclusively on two of the most powerful committees in Congress: the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance panels.”

When McCrery joined Capitol Counsel he was leaving the Congress as the highly influential ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Reaching back into this Committee, and the Senate’s tax policy panel, McCrery has worked to reduce taxes for companies like General Electric, provide tax breaks for oil firms like Bass Enterprises Production, and tax credits for manufacturers like Parsons&  Whittemore.

For example, in 2010 McCrery lobbied his former House colleagues and the Senate for passage of a bill that would have amended the Internal Revenue Code to allow a credit against income tax for corporations using energy derived from biomass to power domestic paper, pulp and paperboard factories. Parsons&  Whittemore, McCrery’s client, would have profited nicely if the bill had passed, but it did not. Coincidentally, earlier in 2010 McCrery’s former employer Georgia Pacific reached an agreement to purchase several Alabama pulp and paper mills from Parsons & Whittemore.

Another example of McCrery’s continuing influence over tax policy involves Harrah’s Casino. Having been one of his biggest fundraisers while a Congressman, Harrah’s is now a client. McCrery spent the Summer of 2010 lobbying on Harrah’s behalf to amend portions of the tax code to allow the company to expand into Internet gaming and reduce the company’s tax burden. While the GO-Zone specifically barred casinos from utilizing its tax provisions, Harrah’s nevertheless profited from Hurricane Katrina in its own way by successfully pressuring Mississippi politicians to finally allow casinos such as its Grand Casino Biloxi to be built on dry land.

Before McCrery exited the House for his substantially more lucrative lobbying gig the Congress attempted to implement disaster tax policies after several other storms. Most notable was the introduction of the Midwestern Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2008 by Senator Charles Grassley (with Senator Barack Obama co-sponsoring). This bill would have duplicated the GO-Zone’s two key provisions with tax-exempt bond financing and bonus depreciation deductions made available to businesses within the geographic region flooded by the storms of that year.

The bill never became law. The Heartland Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2008 was passed instead. The “Heartland” bill included many tax benefits for individuals and some for businesses, but these two key disaster tax policies were nixed. Nevertheless, the concept of using tax deductions as the central policy tool to rebuild after disasters remains popular in Congress, due in part to the continuing influence of corporations and large wealth holders through lobby shops like Capitol Counsel.

Ironically a senior lawyer at the elite New Orleans law firm of Adams & Reese who helped write portions of the GO-Zone Act, and whose clients have included big companies that have utilized tax-free GO-Zone bonds, sums up the harmful corporate bias inherent in disaster tax policy:

“the single greatest deficiency in the [GO-Zone] Act is the lack of sufficient assistance for small businesses. Smaller businesses typically do not need bonus depreciation because it is only beneficial if you have or expect substantial federal tax liability.”

In other words, bonus depreciation was explicitly designed to help only very large corporations, particularly those like oil and chemical companies —think Exxon or Georgia Pacific— who routinely reinvest in machinery and their physical plants. This lawyer continued:

“Without allowing the GO Zone bonds to be bank qualified, banks cannot generally justify the purchase of tax-exempt bonds for small borrowers.”

Bank qualification was only one of the many reasons why tax-exempt GO-Zone bonds went un-utilized by 99 per cent of businesses, mostly medium and small firms, in the disaster-stricken region. Again, it was an opportunistic policy that only large corporations and large financial companies could possibly gain from.

Thus, more than five years after Katrina, the Gulf Opportunity Zone has become a zone of spotty recovery, with some communities still suffering from economic damages that will never be repaired by policies that were never designed to do so, and other areas seeing huge investments by polluting industries, wealth all the while being concentrated in the hands of a few. Ultimately this episode is about much more than one member of Congress, or one set of industries that gamed the tax code after a natural disaster; it’s about the ascendancy of an ideology among government leadership, on both side of the aisle. The problem is that those who adhere to disaster tax policy not only believe the best response to calamity is to further enrich and empower the wealthy few: they also lack the ability to imagine that government could respond any differently, that it could directly empower and enrich the people, from the bottom up.

DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: darwin@riseup.net





Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/