OPINION: A tax break for the stars

July 31, 2014 From The Albany Times Union, courtesy of the Associated Press
Stephen Colbert's upcoming late night show will be subsidized by $16 million in taxpayer credits and grants
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There is something about hearing “Live from New York,” or something to that effect, on TV. Or seeing the New York City skyline as the backdrop on an iconic talk show. Or having stars like Angelina Jolie, Ryan Gosling, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman tread the same ground as we mere mortals. It does a New Yorker proud.

And, yet, we’d venture that more than a few New Yorkers winced at the news that “The Late Show” will stay in New York when Stephen Colbert takes over as host next year — with the help of up to $16 million in taxpayer-supported tax credits and grants.

Prestige isn’t quite the same when you have to pay for it, is it? Especially when it’s your tax dollars, going to a successful TV show and a network that posted a record year last year — $3.2 billion in operating income on revenues of almost $15.3 billion.

Of course, it’s not just prestige that makes New York shell out money to enterprises that clearly don’t need it. TV shows mean jobs and, on shows with studio audiences, something for tourists to see and do.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

But that doesn’t really take the edge off the realization that the “Late Show” break alone is more than enough to close the entire budget gap of a struggling small city like Albany, or save more than 100 teaching jobs in a state in which districts have been laying off educators and cutting programs. And, while the economic development argument sounds like it makes sense, not everyone in government thinks that’s so.

At $420 million a year, the film production tax credit is one of the state’s biggest tax incentives, second only to its program to clean up and reuse old industrial brownfields — another program in which money has been going to enterprises that often don’t need it. The New York State Tax Reform and Fairness Commission concluded that, while it has had a positive effect in generating jobs, “it does not appear to pay for itself in its current form.” It recommended scaling it back by $50 million.

A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that, among the 39 states that have some kind of film or TV credit, several — Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Wisconsin — have ended or defunded them, while others have pared them back. Still, some, like Hawaii, have increased them. A new one started this year in Nevada.

Maybe the answer is for all of us to threaten to leave New York unless we get a tax break commensurate with our economic and intrinsic value. We could all have a personal New York impact, based on such factors as how much we make, how much we spend, how many people benefit from the gift of our presence, how well liked we are, and so on.

Of course, the richer and more popular you are, the bigger your tax break will be. Sort of the way it is now.

The Albany Times Union, courtesy of the Associated Press

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