Henrico County, my home county, is conducting an inexpensive public policy experiment. If it pans out, the county could improve its competitive posture as a manufacturing location. If it doesn’t, the county hasn’t lost much and can always revert to the previous status quo.
County Manager John A. Vithoulkas has included a 70% cut to the county’s machine & tools tax in next year’s annual budget from $1 per $100 in value to $0.30, a measure that will cost the county an estimated $1.5 million a year in revenue. The cut appears poised to pass, reports Ted Strong with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It received no opposition in last week’s legislative budget hearings.
“In the long term, this should lead to more manufacturing jobs, which will add more revenue to the county’s coffers,” Vithoulkas said. “We are competing for jobs in the world market now. And we aim to not just compete, but to win.”
The move will help the county capitalize on increased activity in the manufacturing sector, especially “on-shoring” or the repatriation of manufacturing jobs to the United States from abroad, said Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority. “We’re serious about attracting manufacturing jobs to Henrico County, and I think this is proof of that.”
Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, described the tax as one of the biggest impediments to manufacturing expansion in Virginia. The tax discourages companies from spending on new equipment that will make them more competitive. “Capital is like water. It flows to the lowest point,” he said.
I’m not totally convinced that the tax cut will make a difference, and it will be hard to determine if it is a decisive factor even if Henrico does attract new manufacturing investment. But I think it’s worth a try. On-shoring is a major trend, and Virginia localities should try to exploit it. As labor costs rise in China, many companies are thinking about pulling some of their manufacturing operations back to the U.S. The trend is especially strong in energy-intensive industries that can take advantage of super-low natural gas prices.
But I have two questions. First, will the surging value of the U.S. dollar hurt Virginia (and the rest of the nation) as a manufacturing platform? The economic commentary is almost unanimous that manufacturing will be one of the hardest-hit sectors. As long as Europe and Japan persist in competitive devaluations of their currencies as a tool to stimulate their economies through their own versions of Quantitative Easing, U.S. manufacturing will suffer.
Second, will Virginia be in a position to exploit natural gas prices? Virginia produces very little of its own natural gas; it relies upon pipelines to bring in gas from the Gulf Coast or (in the future) the Marcellus Shale gas-producing areas of the country. Virginia is bumping up against the ceiling of its gas capacity.
During a February cold snap, Virginia Natural Gas, the AGL Resources subsidiary that distributes gas to the Hampton Roads area, was hard pressed to keep the gas flowing. “Every valve was open,” Ken Yagelski, managing director of gas supply, told me in a recent interview. “We were utilizing all the capacity resources we had to serve our customers.” The company curtailed service to all 108 of its customers who had contracted to have their gas supply interrupted in exchange for a discount in rates. Those customers were prepared for the interruption, so no harm was done, but Yagelski says the incident could be a prelude to the future.
Demand for natural gas in in VNG’s service area is growing one or two percent yearly. VNG is looking to the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a venture in which it is a partner, to supply the gas for the next generation of growth. But the routing of that pipeline has proved to be incredibly controversial, and there is no guarantee at this point that it will be built. If it isn’t, supply curtailments likely will become more frequent and, at some point, VNG would have to stop taking new customers.
VNG serves Hampton Roads, but would-be industrial customers in the Richmond region would be just as concerned about the reliability of gas supplies.
Bacon’s bottom line: Attracting new manufacturing investment through lower machine & tool taxes is no slam-dunk, and it would be unwise to create expectations that it will lead to sudden success. But if the spike in the value of the dollar proves to be temporary and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline does get built, Henrico’s bet should be one well worth taking. At the very least, a broad-based tax cut that benefits incumbent businesses as well as newcomers is vastly preferable to doling out subsidies and tax incentives to bribe one specific company to invest here.
(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on March 23, 2015)