GAO: 1st storm tax breaks slow to help hardest-hit

Published 5:26 pm Thursday, July 17, 2008

After the devastating hurricanes of 2005, Congress approved billions of dollars in tax breaks to stimulate construction, but the program was slow to help the hardest-hit areas, a federal report said Wednesday.

The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act was supposed to help the region quickly get back on its feet, but the Government Accountability Office found that many businesses in the hardest-hit areas were in no position to apply for the tax incentives because they were dealing with more urgent problems.

Instead, businesses and investors that fared better in the hurricanes — in other words, those farther from the coast — were able to get in line first and take advantage of the incentive program, the GAO said. The GAO is Congress’ investigative arm.

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“State officials we interviewed acknowledged that the first-come, first-served approach led to awarding bond allocation to projects in less damaged areas in the GO Zone,” the GAO said.

Those businesses were “ready to apply for and issue bonds” before those in more damaged areas, the GAO said.

However, as time passed more businesses in the hard-hit areas applied for the cheap financing, the GAO said.

The legislation, known as the GO Zone Act, was based on a tax incentive program set up for New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The GO Zone offered $15 billion in tax-free bonds to developers to finance commercial projects like hotels, shopping centers, houses and manufacturing plants. But it included a large swath of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and made businesses far from the epicenter of disaster eligible. Each state has administered the tax breaks.

So far, about 87 percent of the $15 billion in bonds has been allocated and the program will cut federal revenues by about $9 billion from 2006 to 2015, the GAO said.

The GAO did not make any recommendations to change the program in its report to Congress.