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Trib editorial: Big bid for Amazon, big secret for taxpayers

| Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, 1:03 p.m.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, front, with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, front, with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference following Pittsburgh's application to Amazon as a destination for their HQ2, at the City County Building.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference following Pittsburgh's application to Amazon as a destination for their HQ2, at the City County Building.

The late Tom Petty summed up Greater Pittsburgh's situation now that regional leaders have submitted their bid for Amazon's $5 billion, 50,000-job second headquarters: “The waiting is the hardest part.” Yet residents await not just Amazon's decision, for which there's no time frame, but specifics on what being chosen would cost them in terms of taxpayer-funded incentives.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald played up Greater Pittsburgh's affordable cost of living and pool of talented college grads in discussing the region's bid. It's great to spotlight those factors and others, but playing the “HQ2” game sadly necessitates incentives to compete.

Mr. Fitzgerald portrayed the region's “artificial sweeteners” as requiring Amazon to deliver on jobs and economic impact before tax credits or breaks kick in. But both he and Mr. Peduto declined to give even a “ballpark figure” for their cost to taxpayers, citing confidentiality agreements — which raises questions.

Various media outlets reported dollar figures for other regions' incentives, including New Jersey's $7 billion for Amazon to choose Newark and Georgia's $1 billion to boost the Atlanta area's chances. Did those regions' leaders sign the same sort of confidentiality agreements that Greater Pittsburgh's leaders say they did? If those regions' leaders did, why do they apparently feel they can make such figures public, while Peduto and Fitzgerald don't?

State officials have been similarly tight-lipped. Yet the head of Philadelphia's Chamber of Commerce says Pennsylvania's Amazon incentives could top $1 billion. With the Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philly regions all bidding, are state “sweeteners” the same for each? Or is the state offering more on one region's behalf than another's? Will taxpayers statewide be told how one Pennsylvania region's state incentives compared to those for the other two regions if one is chosen? Or if Amazon chooses some other location?

Not just taxpayers deserve to know how much regional and state leaders propose to take from them and give to Amazon. Don't existing Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philly businesses — indeed, all Pennsylvania businesses, and all businesses besides Amazon considering locating or expanding in the Keystone State — deserve to know how what Amazon's being offered compares to what they are, or aren't, being offered?

Don't all Pennsylvanians deserve those details so they can make informed judgments about whether these incentives' tax dollars would be better used to make the economic climate better for all Pennsylvania businesses, rather than to lure just one business, despite how big that business is?

With taxpayers statewide potentially on the hook for $1 billion or more, and with other regions' incentive numbers already out there, isn't Pennsylvanians' right to know what's being done with public money getting short shrift? And doesn't that secrecy create an informational void for misinformation and speculation to fill?

It all boils down to a couple of fundamental questions: What's the big secret? And why all the secrecy?

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