Best of #StateReads: United States of Subsidies

By: - December 5, 2012 12:00 am

This week’s collection of #StateReads highlights the size and questionable effectiveness of tax breaks that states and local governments give to companies; explores the shortcomings in Arizona’s policies for sex offenders; and explains why more than half of Florida high school graduates are not ready for college-level courses.

These examples of extraordinary journalism about state government were recommended in tweets using the #StateReads hashtag on Twitter and in email submissions to [email protected].

“United States of subsidies” — The New York Times

States and localities across America give companies at least $80 billion in tax breaks every year, but in many cases do not know how effective they are, writes Louise Story (@louisestory). The most generous state for corporate tax breaks is Texas, where the tax breaks are more than half the size of the state budget. Defenders of the tax breaks there say they have helped Texas create more jobs than any other state, but the size of the incentives raises “questions about who benefits more, the businesses or the people of Texas,” Story writes. She noted, for example, that Texas also has a greater percentage of people in low-paying jobs and living in poverty than most states. (Readers who are interested in states’ use of tax incentives can also see the Pew Center on the State’s April report, “Evidence counts: Evaluating state tax incentives for jobs and growth.”)

“Unwanted, unsettled and unaccounted for: Homeless sex offenders” — The Arizona Republic

Roughly one third of the 5,700 sex offenders living in Arizona’s largest two metropolitan areas had an unverified address at some point in 2012, reports Michelle Ye Hee Lee of the Republic (@azcentral). The task of tracking sex offenders after they are released from prison is a tough one, as many are homeless or change addresses frequently. They are often shunned at home and have difficulty finding a place to live. Lee’s ongoing series also points out that Arizona is far from the only state struggling with the challenge. “States from California to Massachusetts see similar situations but are taking different approaches to try to solve the politically vexing policy problem,” she writes. “None has found a comprehensive solution.”

“13th grade: How Florida schools are failing to prepare graduates for college” —Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida

More than half of Florida high school graduates who took placement exams two years ago were not ready for college, report Lynn Waddell and McNelly Torres (@WatchdogDiva). That means they would have to take, and pay for, additional classwork once they reached college, and they would not receive college credit for the remedial coursework. Florida’s 52 percent of students requiring make-up college classes is significantly higher than the national average of 40 percent, and Florida’s rate is on the rise. “That meant nearly 30,000 students – high school graduates – had to take at least one remedial course in college,” they wrote in a separate piece with Sarah Gonzalez (@GonzalezSarahA).

“Before Hurricane Sandy, no advocate for New York’s utility ratepayers” — Huffington Post

Unlike neighboring New Jersey, the state of New York has no state watchdog advocating on behalf of utility customers, writes Matt Sledge (@mgsledge). New York Governor Andrew Cuomo consolidated the agency that had been assigned to the task into the Department of State this spring, and the department has not yet set up a contract with an outside group to champion ratepayers. Utility oversight took on even greater importance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which left millions of New Yorkers without power, Sledge notes. The lack of expertise could hurt ratepayers if power companies ask customers to pick up the tab for the vast damage caused by the storm.

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