Do solons ram incentive bills through far too quickly?

Published 1:16 pm Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Let’s hope that the almost universal approval by Mississippi lawmakers to spend $175 million to lure two new companies to the state turns out exactly like it’s drawn up.

It continues, however, to be troubling that these huge expenditures of taxpayers’ money get rammed through in a matter of hours, with lawmakers basically trusting that Gov. Haley Barbour and his people have done their due diligence.

There’s almost no other expenditure legislators make that gets rubber-stamped this quickly. But when it’s an economic development project, checks and balances basically get thrown to the wind in these rushed-up special sessions. …

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The state is basically betting taxpayers’ money that these two companies — California-based Calisolar and North Carolina-based HCL Clean Tech — have a winning business formula.

The promise of more than 1,800 jobs is great. So is the promise that of the $175 million in state help, $155 million will get paid back.

But both of these promises are contingent on these companies being successful. Both are engaged in relatively novel endeavors. Calisolar makes silicon metal that is mostly used by the solar panel industry. HCL Clean Tech turns wood chips into industrial sugars that can be used for detergents, cosmetics, fuels and lubricants, among other products.

Although both projects have a certain buzz about them because of their reportedly high wages and high-tech processing, that doesn’t mean they will be commercially successful. Some high-tech companies fail, too, as evidenced on the eve of Mississippi’s special session, when a California-based solar manufacturer, Solyndra, announced it was going out of business, leaving 1,100 workers jobless.

Until Mississippi gets paid back the loans it is giving Calisolar and HCL Clean Tech, the state is essentially a non-voting partner in their business enterprises. Although certainly the Mississippi Development Authority and Barbour put time into studying whether these were good investments for the state, it would have been more reassuring if lawmakers had done their own independent verification of the math.

Neither the governor nor the companies want that, of course. That’s why they use the pressure of a special session to force lawmakers to decide quickly, yes or no. They know that few lawmakers are going to risk voting against anything that creates this many jobs, even at the initial cost to taxpayers of about $100,000 apiece.