[Update: Having passed the House Committee on Appropriations on a 19-0 vote, the measure is now awaiting action on the floor of the House of Delegates, likely within days.]
Legislation ratifying the Virginia government’s effort to lure online giant Amazon to Arlington and Alexandria is halfway home, with the state Senate voting 35-5 Jan. 21 on an economic-incentive package worth up to $750 million to the company.
Boosters of the bill estimate that, over 20 years, the government will net about $3 billion in tax revenue from the agreement, making it worth the outlay.
“This is a deal that wins for everybody – it is a gold mine and a huge plus,” said state Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the Senate minority leader.
“For every dollar invested by the state, the state will recoup six dollars,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th). “The benefits will persist for years to come.”
A small cadre of conservative Republican senators opposed the measure, suggesting the funding was better spent on infrastructure and technology upgrades in distressed areas of the commonwealth.
“Investment in technology needs to be at home first,” said state Sen. Ryan McDougal (R-Hanover), who abstained on the bill in a Jan. 16 committee vote and voted against it on the Senate floor.
State Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke County) decried the package as “not a good use of tax dollars at all.”
“Of course Amazon wants to come to Northern Virginia. Lots of folks want to come to Northern Virginia. Usually, we don’t have to pay them,” he said, asking whether it was fair to have existing Virginia retailers help subsidize one of their major competitors.
But supporters, like state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), said the entire commonwealth stands to benefit.
“We need to look at this as a catalyst – how to make the most of this opportunity,” she said. “There are direct benefits to all Virginians.”
That was a theme echoed by state Sen. Charles Carrico (R-Bristol), whose district is about as far away, geographically and politically, from Favola’s as two could be in Virginia.
The measure “makes sense for Virginians,” Carrico said.
“This investment can yield a lot of return,” he said.
Amazon announced in November that it would split its “HQ2” facilities between Northern Virginia and the New York City area. About 25,000 direct jobs are expected to be created by the company in each region.
“A lot of work has gone into this,” Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball told members of the Senate Committee on Finance prior to its Jan. 16 vote in support of the incentive package.
“It was a lengthy negotiation,” Ball said, praising the online giant as “a wonderful partner” throughout the process.
Under the incentive package, patroned by state Sen. Frank Ruff Jr. (R-Clarksville) and backed by the Northam administration, Amazon would be eligible for state funds for the jobs it creates in its new “HQ2” facility. The cash would be disbursed after the jobs arrive, not before.
A separate piece of legislation is taking up another key part of the commonwealth’s efforts to lure Amazon: Higher-education upgrades in Northern Virginia.
“We’re really excited” about the prospects of the partnership, said Holly Sullivan, who led the Amazon negotiating team that hammered out the deal.
“The leading driver of our decision [to locate in Northern Virginia] was the talent pool,” Sullivan said, touting HQ2 as a $2.5 billion investment that would augment the company’s 8,500 full-time employees and $29 billion in facilities spread across the commonwealth.
“They’re no stranger to Virginia,” Ball said.
The committee vote was 14-0, with two abstentions and one member absent. And the overall mood was jovial.
“I wonder if we were to vote this down, could we go back to the table and get a sweeter deal?” committee co-chair Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr. (R-Mount Solon) asked Amazon’s Sullivan.
“I guess I could ask the same question,” she retorted.
(“She’s tough to negotiate with,” Hanger chuckled.)
But the Amazon incentives are no laughing matter to some groups, which see them as corporate welfare.
“Amazon is bad for working people, bad for immigrants and bad for democracy,” said Danny Cendejas, an organizer of the “For Us, Not Amazon” campaign. “Instead of using the money to fund affordable housing, transit and education, Virginia is giving it right back to the company.”
Similar complaints have been raised in front of the Arlington County Board, which in coming months is set to vote on its own incentive package for Amazon.