Film tax credit is a flop


The gravitational pull of the stars is surprisingly magnetic, strongly intoxicating. Faster than you can say Jennifer Lawrence, serious-minded people get all rubber-legged.

I’ve seen it up close. When big-name Hollywood actors make the occasional visit to the Globe, reporters capable of putting the toughest of questions to the most powerful of politicians can melt like tittering teenagers.

Newton native John Krasinski, of “The Office’’ fame, stopped by a few years ago and I thought I’d have to finally learn how to use one of the portable machines that shocks the heart back into normal rhythm.

The entire town of Plymouth fell under the spell of “moguls” who promised to bring Hollywood East to the woods of the South Shore in 2009. That spell was broken after our Spotlight Team reported that their supposedly solid financier was a con man, a faker who now resides in a federal prison in North Carolina.

I bring up the stars-in-our-eyes factor now because there’s a renewed and real debate underway about whether to kill the multi-million dollar handout Massachusetts taxpayers give to Hollywood production companies every year, in the form of a bogus tax credit that no longer makes sense if it ever did.

“It’s a bad thing for taxpayers,’’ Governor Charlie Baker’s chief economic development officer, Jay Ash, told me this week. “It’s a tax loser. This is not a hard choice for us. Why would we perpetuate something that’s losing the state money?’’

That’s a good question and one that will be the focus of intense debate as budget writers at Beacon Hill consider how to dig themselves out of a $1.8 billion hole. This tax credit should be tossed out when the first shovel hits the ground.

Think tanks across the political spectrum have assailed the tax break as a giveaway that has never lived up to its promise. Simply put, the film tax credit pays for 25 percent of wage and production expenses, in exchange for promised jobs and revenue.

The calculus is bleak. Since its inception in 2006, the administration says taxpayers have lost $169 million. The state Department of Revenue said that deal cost the state $78.9 million in 2012, the latest year figures are available. Most of the economic benefits — and most of the jobs created — went out of state, the department said.

I spoke with an official at the Motion Picture Association of America Friday who predicted a nuclear winter for the Massachusetts film industry if the tax credit is killed. And he questioned the methodology of the bipartisan economic reports which pronounce it a boondoggle.

Let’s see. Democratic and Republican administrations have called it a dog, as have independent analysts. But Hollywood now says it has crunched its own numbers only to find that it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Gee. I’m so star-struck that I don’t know what to say except: I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

There are real jobs at stake here. I don’t dismiss or diminish that. If this were a time of plenty, fine. But this is wasting money when there’s no money left to waste.

Baker wants to use the money saved by killing the film tax credit to help put more money into the hands of low-income working families. That’s good politics, but the tax credit should rise or fall on its own and, considering competing needs, it should fall.

Just ask Linda Spears, the new commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, what she could do with an extra $80 million a year. She’ll likely start salivating.

All of this seems like an easy choice to me. But House Speaker Bob DeLeo, Beacon Hill’s self-appointed indispensable man, wants to keep this subsidy. Seems he’s talked to the owners of some sandwich shops which sell lots of Italian grinders whenever Tom Cruise comes to town.

Look, I like those telescopic photos of Ms. Lawrence and co-star Bradley Cooper alighting from their trailers on the set in North Reading as much as anybody.

But not at this price.

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