Although he's criticized Louisiana's practice of poorly conceived giveaways to industry — primarily in the form of lavish tax breaks — Gov. John Bel Edwards has just poured more state money into a dubious deal okayed by his predecessor, Bobby Jindal. That says a lot about the political difficulties in reforming state government's so-called "economic development" policies, which are too often neither economical nor development-driven.
The latest example is Foster Farms, a chicken processing plant that was the beneficiary of a big state subsidy in 2009: $40 million for the company to buy the closed facility in north Louisiana.
By comparison, the $500,000 state expansion grant for the plant recently approved by Edwards is, to pardon the expression, chicken feed. The company promises to create about 40 new jobs.
Obviously, these are not high-tech jobs. They are not the big-paying jobs in Louisiana's petrochemical manufacturing plants. Those generate substantial spin offs in the private economy.
The "economic development" for Farmerville means jobs there, though they pay on average $22,000.
Is this worthy of a state subsidy? What happened to free enterprise?
What happened is politics, and government using taxpayer money to look good in "economic development."
The Advocate's 2014 series "Giving Away Louisiana" looked at the chicken plant deal. (By the way, the owners of Foster Farms are no relation to former Gov. Mike Foster.) Even the state's chief dealmaker at the time, Stephen Moret, acknowledged that it looked dubious but that IBM or General Motors are not very likely tenants for a closed poultry plant in Union Parish.
But few could have predicted that, after what Gov. Bobby Jindal paid in 2009, that Edwards would now compound the state's investment in a low-end jobs deal.
As "Giving Away Louisiana" reported, there are a lot of subsidies. Some of them, such as the "enterprise zone" grants, allow tax benefits for low-end retail jobs. Even the Department of Economic Development at the state level has opposed those, but such is the power of private interests getting "free" money from the state, the grants remain in place.
Accounting rules have changed, forcing governments and businesses to make more disclosure of the benefits given and received, but reform of the subsidies has not gained any traction at the State Capitol.
The payback in jobs for any industrial subsidy is limited because of automation. Still, the economic case can be made that a big-paying job in a petrochemical plant is a plus, and the purchases of goods and engineering and other services by a plant is a positive. Most people would probably not think of taxpayer subsidies for lower-end jobs as "economic development."
In Farmerville, the poultry plant not only employs about 1,000 workers but is also keeping a lot of chicken farmers in business. Good for them. But the reality is that, as for Jindal, Edwards' commitment to this grant is cheapening the brand for "economic development."
One day, it might not make an easy sell for a hefty check from taxpayers.
The Foster Farms poultry processing plant in Union Parish is undergoing a $30 million expans…