Boeing may be a boon for Charleston, but the plane manufacturer is being used in the Upstate as an albatross around the neck of at least one politician in a heated GOP primary.
The aerospace leader announced last October that it would bring its second Dreamliner facility to North Charleston. There are jobs already on the ground, building at the site near Charleston International Airport. And the company is expected to provide at least 6,000 jobs when it becomes fully operational in 2016. As many as a dozen parts and equipment suppliers are also expected to set up shop nearby, possibly doubling the number of jobs.
Around these parts, it's hard to swing a cat and not hit a politician taking some sliver of credit for landing Boeing. But the company wasn't wooed by Southern charm alone.
The state is expected to pay about $360 million for construction costs at the Boeing site. The company will also get $25 million in income tax credits and $33 million for employee training. Charleston County is also offering tax breaks on Boeing equipment and property while juggling the added cost on schools and infrastructure. The bang for all those bucks is expected to come from the company's $3.8 billion payroll over the next 15 years, according to state estimates.
For the American Future Fund, this is a sweetheart deal and corporate welfare. The national conservative advocacy group prides itself on protecting free markets. In March, the group launched a website, BoeingBailout.com, with a logo that included a large jet hoisted up by little Palmetto trees (a la the Twitter "fail whale" that appears when the social network is down).
TV and radio ads in the Upstate are attacking the incentive package. In one ad, we're told that truck you hear in the background is hauling money down Interstate 26.
"Nine hundred million dollars in tax breaks and debt financed by Upstate taxpayers and hauled off to Charleston," the announcer states.
If anyone mentioned in the ad gets it worse than Charleston, it's Boeing attorney Leighton Lord. Now a GOP candidate for attorney general, Lord is referenced as the author of this "corporate welfare deal."
Lord is in the thick of a primary fight against Robert Bolchoz and Alan Wilson. None of the three men hail from the conservative Upstate region, so those votes are highly coveted.
AFF spokesman Nick Ryan says the commercials are about the incentives, not election-year politics. The ads ran exclusively in the Upstate because that's where the message was most effective, Ryan says. He also says that Lord is mentioned several times in the ad because of his role in the negotiations and not because of his campaign, even though the ad reminds listeners that "you've seen him on TV."
The Boeing incentives were overwhelmingly approved by the state legislature. Charleston County Council approved local incentives, but the Boeing Bailout site only listed three names amongst "The Players": Lord, Boeing CEO James McNerney, and Gov. Mark Sanford. But they didn't act alone, and everyone else involved is more than happy to let you know it.
Between "Issues" and "News" on his website, GOP Congressional candidate Tim Scott has a category titled, "A Thriving Economy." The headline on the next page is one word: Boeing.
Scott, now a Statehouse representative, touts his role as Charleston County Council chairman in attracting Boeing suppliers Vought Aircraft and Alenia Aeronautics. Boeing eventually acquired the companies, and it's the Vought facility that is providing the bones for local Boeing expansion in North Charleston.
Current County Councilman Paul Thurmond, a Republican who's also running for the 1st Congressional District seat, plays up the county's direct role in cutting local taxes as part of the larger statewide incentives package.
Asked last week about how the state can grow jobs, gubernatorial candidate Gresham Barrett, who can't take much credit for the Boeing deal, pointed to the aerospace company as a game changer.
"One of the reasons a titanium plant is going to locate in Laurens, S.C., is that they know Boeing is going to be here," he told The Index Journal. "Hopefully the next head of the Savannah River Site will be an aerospace industry leader because Boeing's here. There's a carbon fibers plant that is thinking about coming to South Carolina, and one of the reasons they are thinking about coming to South Carolina is because of Boeing."
Even gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, a foe of targeted tax incentives, has had a tough time balancing her principles with the employment boom the manufacturer may offer.
"Boeing was a huge win for South Carolina," she said in a January debate when pressed on her support for the state incentives. She then turned her answer into another question that goes down a little easier for conservatives. "Why aren't we giving those tax incentives to small businesses already here?"
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Last week, Lord took on the AFF, calling for the group to debate him on the merits of the deal and to come clean on who was behind AFF's entrance into South Carolina politics.
"I challenge any member, donor, or leader who actually calls South Carolina home to debate me face to face on the merits of Boeing's investment in South Carolina and the process that brought thousands of jobs and opportunities to all of our state," Lord said.
Ryan told the City Paper that AFF might consider expanding the campaign, but Lord was claiming victory by the end of the day as the website was closed and YouTube videos of the commercials were pulled from the popular site.
"I had hoped the American Future Fund and its out of state special interest backers would answer my questions and meet my challenge, but I cannot say that I am surprised by their deafening silence," Lord said in a statement. "I said before 'those involved in questionable behavior are afraid of having a light shined upon them.'"
AFF may have leashed its dogs and headed back to the Midwest, but the Boeing deal still has some well-placed detractors right here at home.
The ads may not have raised the necessary ire in the Upstate, but it has raised interest. A Greenville news crew traveled across the state on Monday to hear news of another 150 Boeing jobs here in the Lowcountry.
After the announcement, they asked the governor what's in it for the Upstate. He pointed to BMW's Spartanburg plant.
"People would say that is not just a phenomenon that helped Greenville-Spartanburg," Sanford said. "That's something that helped every county in South Carolina."
Similar to AFF's stated mission, the S.C. Policy Council has been an advocate for smaller government and free-roaming capitalism for nearly 25 years. It wasn't involved in the ads, but shares concerns about the incentives offered to snag Boeing.
Council President Ashley Landess says the group has stayed out of the electoral fallout of the Boeing decision.
"Our focus has been on the process and whether we should be doing that," she says. "We have a lot of questions, including the final cost to taxpayers."
Those results won't be known for years. But the cost to politicians could be determined in the June primary and November's general election.