COLUMBIA --- Tea party activists and conservative policy groups on Wednesday called for more detailed disclosure in the state's economic development deals in the midst of questions about a sales tax collection break for online retailer Amazon.com.
State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, introduced a bill calling for that type of disclosure and said he'll attach it to every bill tied to economic development, including the upcoming debate on a break that will shield Amazon from collecting sales tax on sales to South Carolina residents.
Amazon told legislators that it will stop building a 1,249-employee distribution center in Lexington County if it's forced to collect the taxes.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation putting the break on the books for five years and sending it to the Senate floor for debate. Competing retailers, who collect online and store sales taxes, said the legislation gives Amazon an advantage by leaving it up to consumers to follow a 60-year-old law and report their own purchases.
Davis said South Carolina taxpayers aren't benefiting as much as they should from deals arranged in secret with little accountability on businesses to deliver benefits.
"If you want to come to South Carolina and you want a special tax break and you want tax credit, be prepared to talk about that in front of the people. I don't like the secret deals," Davis said.
Davis said state spending on those deals soared from $34 million in 1998 to $525 million in 2008 and he questioned the payoffs.
"Have we seen per capita income go up? No. Have we seen unemployment go down? No. This isn't working for us. We need to put a stop to this," Davis said.
Amazon says it was promised the tax break by the state's economic development dealmakers. Legislators on Wednesday argued, however, that the state Commerce Department only said it would try to get the break passed and couldn't commit the Legislature to acting.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday the Amazon deal is bad policy and creating problems in the state's other economic development dealmaking because the state is picking sales tax winners and losers.
"I'm selling companies every day on the fact that we have a competitive playing field -- and as we are sitting there talking about picking one over the other," Haley said.
At the same time, she said she frets over the image of a state not making good on a deal.
"But to say that we need to do this in the name of 1,200 jobs? How are you going to say that to these other stores that employ 28,000 people or to Tanger Outlet who just did 350 jobs?" Haley said.
She is concerned about the lack of financial forecasts on the Amazon project.
"You can't put a price on bad policy in a state because it's not just about Amazon," Haley said. "I want Amazon to be here. ... I just don't want to give them an unlevel playing field against all my other great businesses in this state when we don't have to."
Haley opposes Amazon legislation, but she has said she'll allow the bill to become law without her signature if it reaches her desk.