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Editorial: State leaders shouldn't get lost in the Amazon
Georgia doesn’t need to go overboard with incentives in bid to lure retail giant’s headquarters
A tract of land known to locals as The Gulch is shown Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Atlanta. As Atlanta vies to entice Amazon to build its second headquarters on the site, local leaders are studying a proposal to build a $5 billion project with more than three times the office space of New York’s Empire State Building. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Once upon a time, when the Amazon was merely a river in South America, governments would welcome a new business to town by perhaps putting in a road, maybe with a traffic light. Bending over backward was seldom the standard procedure.

But times have changed, and efforts to attract corporate giants and the jobs they bring puts cities and states all-in by offering financial incentives in a poker game where the stakes keep rising.

Georgia is a key player in this corporate recruiting bonanza. The state has lured several huge manufacturers and corporate headquarters in recent years while becoming Hollywood South through tax incentives for the motion picture business.

Now Atlanta is on a list of 20 cities left bidding for a new headquarters for goliath online retailer Amazon, which seeks a second hub beyond its Seattle home. The new site is expected to cost some $5 billion and could bring as many as 50,000 jobs. Competition is intense, with cities sweetening the pot to lure a company that is at the forefront in redefining how Americans shop. So far, the 20 suitors have tossed some $22 billion in tax incentives onto the table.

Georgia’s package is said to top $1 billion, and it’s willing to up the ante. Gov. Nathan Deal has considered convening a special session of the state legislature this summer, if necessary, to increase the offer. Already, one Atlanta developer has proposed a project downtown that just happens to encompass the likely size and $5 billion price tag for the “HQ2.”

Tax incentives are key, too. But a column on Thursday’s Opinion page by Michael Farren, a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said Amazon may also consider other intangibles when deciding on its new home. A few billion in tax breaks may be a drop in the bucket to a company that brought in $175 billion last year and whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the wealthiest person in world history. 

Amazon’s checklist for a new site includes a metro area with more than 1 million people, within 45 minutes of an international airport and access to mass transit; the ability to attract top technical talent; and a site that could be expanded to as much as 8 million square feet in the next decade. It is also likely to weigh infrastructure, schools and other qualify of life issues for its workers. Though Atlanta ranks high in most areas, its horrible highway traffic and limited mass transit may be its Achilles’ heel.

Another factor could be the political environment of the host state. And herein may lie the rub: Politics being what it is, there are those in both parties who could torpedo Georgia’s bid.

It’s already evident that not everyone under the Gold Dome is on the same page when it comes to baiting the hook for Amazon. Some groups say proposed bills that appear hostile to immigrants or gays could make Georgia appear to be intolerant of diversity. Among the bills in the hopper are a move to make English the state’s official language, creation of a non-citizen driver’s license status and a tax on electronic money transfers out of the state, which would affect migrant workers.

And there’s also the endless push to add a religious freedom amendment to the state constitution, a proposal vetoed by the governor in 2016. State leaders are trying to discourage its revival, especially while the Amazon decision remains in the balance. Yet all four Republicans running for governor have signed a pledge backing such a plan, and its supporters aren’t easing up.

We don’t favor any of these ideas, on merit. Religious freedom is covered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and immigration reform is a national priority that needs to originate in Washington, not Atlanta, and aim to solve the problem of undocumented residents, not just drive them elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, lawmakers still have a job to do, and retain the right to introduce and debate these topics and allow them to fail or pass on their own. If the Amazon decision drives every item on the legislative agenda, the tail is wagging the dog.

The aforementioned bills lead some to wonder just how committed some political leaders are to attracting Amazon or other outside companies. One state senator and GOP candidate for governor decried how a flood of newcomers could fill the new jobs and strain infrastructure, even though it’s likely the extra revenue from the taxes those workers pay would help fund such services. 

Unspoken in such concern is that workers who migrate from the “Left Coast” would more likely vote Democratic and could tilt the state’s political balance enough to, as one Georgia Tea Party member said, “turn the state blue.” Any plan that dilutes a party’s strength by introducing new voters who favor the other side is going to face opposition, no matter who is in control.

Democrats, meanwhile, seem less on board with handing out tax goodies to corporations, and would rather see money spent on government services for voters who support their candidates.

Some may think it cynical to see political motives in every issue. But just as a leopard can’t change its spots, politicians are driven to win elections, and their stance on any policy will be held up to the light to see how it wins or loses votes. That’s just the nature of the beast.

In the end, Amazon will come here if the fit is right. Leaders in Georgia and Atlanta need to ease off the gas and earn the bid based on the state’s strengths already in place: Great climate, a world-class airport, a ready workforce and Southern hospitality. Tax incentives will help, but there’s no need to raid the piggybank to lure 50,000 jobs when Georgians still need good roads, schools, police and hospitals.

Georgia’s bid is out there, it’s competitive, and Amazon knows what it would be getting. It’s time to let it ride and go about conducting the state’s business.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.