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Commentary: Amazon wants its HQ2 in utopia — and tax breaks, too

Forget El Dorado, Brigadoon, the Emerald City, Seven Cities of Gold or Shangri-La. The city of Amazon, USA, is a shimmering on your horizon like a barely visible holograph from the future. Above it is a sign in otherworldly neon: All This Could Be Yours.

Amazon is looking to locate a spanking new 50,000-employee headquarters somewhere in North America. To put the promise in perspective, it’d be like moving another San Marcus — population 53,000 — to, say, San Marcos.

That’s no random conjecture. San Marcos would appear to meet the handy wish list provided by Amazon to prospective suitors: It’s on a major highway, within 45 minutes of an international airport and within 30 minutes of a population center of 1 million. (I know, it may take longer to get to downtown Austin, but hey, we’re talking real estate wheeling and dealing, so we’re allowed some wiggle room.)

VIEWPOINTS: Central Texas has incentives — but what can Amazon return?

Amazon would also like to know what kind of incentives you might offer to lure it to your town or city. “Incentive” is a word that means, “How much will you tip us in advance before you have any idea whether the promised services will actually be delivered?”

You can find out more about incentives offered as lures to businesses by visiting and searching for books such as “Rethinking Property Tax Incentives for Business.” Amazon’s blurb for the book reads: “While there is little evidence that these tax incentives are an effective instrument to promote economic development, they cost state and local governments $5 billion to $10 billion each year in foregone revenue.”

Hurry, though, if you want a copy. At the time of this writing, Amazon said there was only one left in stock. Curious, this sudden interest in the book.

Amazon tells its suitors not to arrive for a date with it in any old, rusty rent-a-wreck. Before you ring the company’s doorbell, corsage in hand, let it know how much time you need to acquire a new car and a new suit of clothes. “We acknowledge a project of this magnitude may require special incentive legislation in order for the state/province to achieve a competitive incentive proposal.”

It’s possible Texas has already knocked its towns and cities out of Amazon’s Dating Game. Amazon CEO Jeff Wilke was one of the business leaders to criticize Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s “bathroom bill” that would have discriminated against transgender folks. It failed, but it is, sadly, the thought that probably counts.

COMMENTARY: What is Texas lacking for Amazon HQ? Honor for LGBT rights.

Then, of course, there’s the seven — or is it eight? — times the federal courts have found Abbott and the Texas Legislature discriminated against minorities with voter suppression efforts. The effort of state leaders to intimidate Hispanics with a new anti-immigrant law can’t help, either.

So, maybe it won’t even matter if a Texan comes a-courtin’ in a Tesla and a tuxedo, Amazon might look on him as an empty suit, morally speaking.

Texas leaders like to say the state is “business friendly.” Turns out businesses mean something entirely different by the term. Businesses want a diverse, educated and healthy workforce that recognizes their responsibilities to themselves, their families, co-workers and communities.

In other words, businesses want communities with excellent public schools and affordable, world-class universities that turn out folks who think, challenge and invent. They want communities with clean and safe environments that their employees will feel good about moving to with their families.

Who wouldn’t want the well-paying, clean energy jobs like those promised by Amazon? It’s a great company — although we should wish it to be less threatening to the future of publishers and authors.

And here’s the thing: If a state, town or city could present Amazon with the kind of political, cultural and economic environment described above, it’s a good bet the company wouldn’t even ask for additional incentives, like property tax breaks.

It would be like investing the incentives directly in the people so businesses like Amazon could thrive, which in turn would help the people flourish in an unending virtuous cycle. It’s an idea anyway.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.

Smith, a longtime political journalist, is an author and director of Progress Texas.

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