Without putting up a fuss, Wal-Mart has quietly written a check to the taxpayers of Ohio for $1.7 million for a job creation tax credit the company received eight years ago, but failed to fulfill. The refund to taxpayers comes roughly one month after it was widely reported that Wal-Mart was shutting down an optical lab in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, destroying 650 jobs. The company said the closing would allow it to expand its optical operations in Indiana and Arkansas and create 100 jobs. But that was of no consolation to the Ohio workers. Before the Ohio layoffs, Wal-Mart owned and operate four optical labs in the U.S., employing more than 1,900 workers. The optical labs are in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Dallas, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Crawfordsville, Indiana. On March 29, 2009 Sprawl-Busters reported that economic development officials in Ohio were investigating the sudden closure of Wal-Mart’s optical lab in Columbus, to see if the retailer violated the terms of a tax agreement with the state. On March 27th, Wal-Mart shut down its lab and threw 650 ‘associates’ out of work. Eight years ago, this optical lab was created with a $1.8 million job-creation tax credit — a form of corporate welfare that helps Wal-Mart reduce its operating costs vis a vis its competitors that do not have tax subsidies. The lab, which makes eyewear sold in Wal-Mart vision centers, was closed by the company as an apparent cost-cutting move. A state official said at the time that the Department of Development was reviewing its agreement with Wal-Mart to determine if the state can recoup some or all of its taxpayer’s money. “We’ve spoken to the company and expressed our disappointment,” a state official said. Wal-Mart would not discuss the terms of its agreement with Ohio, but said it would work with officials to resolve the situation — which means to get the story out of the headlines. This week, roughly one month after the lab’s demise, Wal-Mart wrote out a check for $1.7 million as partial repayment for its $1.8 million subsidy. A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development called Wal-Mart’s prompt repayment ‘responsible.’ “We’re very pleased that Wal-Mart responded so quickly to this,” the spokesman told the Columbus Dispatch newspaper. “Wal-Mart was very good to work with us on refunding this tax credit.” Wal-Mart has said it will continue to operate an optical-accessories distribution center in the Columbus area, leaving only 70 workers on site.
The group Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit research institute, has been working on legislation that would allow the state to reclaim tax subsidies that are not fulfilled. Such recoupment, called ‘claw back,” would give Ohio the authority to financially penalize companies that fail to keep their end of the job-generation agreement. According to Policy Matters, a budget bill pending in the Ohio legislature does just the opposite — — it loosens reqirements on companies like Wal-Mart to make the state program more competitive with giveaway programs in other states. “The repayment doesn’t answer the concerns of the employees,” explained a spokesman for Policy Matters, “but the fact that we have this rule in state law, and that the company was required to pay the money back, shows that the state can be serious about not giving money away when it’s not needed.” The Columbus Dispatch estimates that Ohio has given companies more than $1.7 billion in tax incentives over the past decade with the promise of nearly 200,000 jobs, but the state has no records of how many jobs these welfare payments actually produced. On May 25, 2004, Sprawl-Busters reviewed a report from Good Jobs First, which found that Wal-Mart had benefited “from more than $1 billion in economic development subsidies from state and local governments across the United States.” The Washington, D.C. based research group released its 65 page report, “Shopping for Subsidies”, which uncovered more than 240 cases in which the building of a Wal-Mart store was helped by corporate welfare. For years, states and municipalities have thrown corporate welfare at Wal-Mart, in an attempt to lure the company to their jurisdiction. In many cases, these special tax deals were not necessary at all, and amounted to little more than a corporate subsidy that gave Wal-Mart another financial advantage over its smaller competitors. In the case of eyewear, Wal-Mart is the manufacturer and the retailer. It even controls the medical personnel that recommend the vision products — its “doctor partners.” Wal-Mart noted that any eyewear orders previously sent to the Columbus lab will now be redirected to one of its three other lab locations. “It’s a shock,” one 7-year Wal-Mart optical lab worker told the AP. Wal-Mart apparently informed workers at the lab that rumors about closure and layoffs were just rumors. “They just hired people six weeks ago, and we got raises last month,” the employee complained. One lab worker said she had been making $16.50 at the lab, which is significantly higher than the regular, full-time hourly Wal-Mart workers in Ohio, who the company claims make $11.28 per hour. “I’m very angry because they dogged us out,” another lab worker told the media. “They shut us down with no warning, no nothing. They didn’t have to do this.” To soften the focus on job reductions, Wal-Mart has promised to give these workers pay and benefits for 60 days, and help them relocate to positions at other Wal-Mart’s or Sam’s clubs. But such positions would likely entail a significant reduction in take-home pay. Readers are urged to email the Ohio Department of Development Interim Director Mark Barbash at: http://development.ohio.gov/contactus/ContactInfo.aspx?id=2 with the following message: “Dear Director Barbash, You call Ohio ‘the state of perfect balance,’ but how balanced was it to throw nearly $2 million in tax breaks to Wal-Mart — which made nearly $13 billion in profits last year? Ohio did not have to offer welfare to the largest retailer in the world. Now we ‘see’ the results of subsidizing their optical lab. 650 Ohioans have had their family budgets thrown out of balance. It’s fortunate that Wal-Mart quickly ponied up the money, but state law needs to be tightened, not loosened, regarding these claw backs. Ohio should use some of this Wal-Mart repayment to help provide financial support to the 650 workers who are now unemployed. That would come to $2,769 per worker, or roughly 4 weeks of extended pay per employee. If Wal-Mart will not invest in the future of these workers, at least Ohio can use the misdirected taxpayer’s funds to help these families survive the recession.”