(Host) Should public dollars be used to help private businesses? Only if the public interest is served, says commentator Allen Gilbert.
(Gilbert) Is it right for state tax dollars to go to a private group advocating for private businesses? Is it right for state tax dollars to go to a private association of ski areas looking to increase sales? Are the governor and his deputies correct to say, “We’re mystified” when they’re asked whether such cozy relationships are proper?
Increasingly, it seems that the notion of the “public interest” has been hijacked and made to serve private interests.
The Vermont Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Ski Areas Association are asking for special favors to help their members. The Chamber wants state funds to help develop the import-export trade. The Ski Areas Association wants half a million bucks to buy advertising to promote skiing.
This comes at a time when IBM wants a special deal on how much it pays for electricity. And when Entergy Nuclear is negotiating a special deal so it can “supersize” the nuclear power plant it owns in Vernon.
Most business groups are usually in the “get government off my back” camp. The less government, the better. So it’s curious that private businesses are in Montpelier asking for the government’s help. The rationale? The Chamber and the Ski Areas Association say that by having the government serve their members’ private interests, the private member businesses will serve the public interest. More tax dollars will flow into state coffers, and jobs will be saved, or created.
Private business is essentially asking us, the public, to invest in their ventures. They want us to be stockholders. But we’ll never own any shares. And that’s the rub.
Whenever public money is used for private interests, there must be objective, measurable standards to gauge whether the public interest is being served. Without standards, the public treasury stands available to anyone who can pry open the right doors in Montpelier. Got a friend on one of the appropriations committees? A couple hundred thousand dollars for, say, marketing is no problem in the horse-trading that builds and passes budgets. No one’s going to buck the logic that you need to spend money in order to make money.
But someone should. Markets are supposed to be free of outside interference. Theoretically, that’s how they function best. When government intervenes in the free market, there should be a demonstrable public interest for doing so. If there isn’t, red flags should go up.
Remember the Champlain Flyer commuter rail project in Chittenden County? Government intervened to create a service that didn’t exist in the open market of transportation alternatives. The intervention came only after exhaustive study and review.
Ultimately, continued public scrutiny killed the project. It can be argued that what appeared to be a losing venture would, in the long run, have been a great investment. But the point is that no part of that project occurred without intense public review.
The same sort of public scrutiny should be applied to the granting of public money to promote import/export businesses, or the ski industry. Support should depend on demonstrable evidence that the public good – not just the private good – is being served.
This is Allen Gilbert.
Allen Gilbert is a writer active in education and civil liberties issues.