A bill heading for Gov. Bruce Rauner's desk would reinstate Illinois' premier corporate tax incentive program and, some argue, could help the state edge out other Midwestern contenders for projects heavy on job creation.
Rauner plans to sign the bill, spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.
Illinois has been without its sometimes-controversial EDGE program — short for Economic Development for a Growing Economy — since May, when the previous version expired.
The new program would still provide tax breaks for companies that promise to create jobs in Illinois, as it always has, but comes with tweaks. There's credit for the cost of training new employees and investing in low-income areas, plus provisions that allow small businesses easier entry into the program.
To be sure, some experts say the state still has work to do in the economic development arena.
"There are a lot of improvements," said Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. "The most important thing is we've eliminated an embarrassing situation where Illinois had no real economic development tool."
EDGE sunset right when Taiwanese electronics-maker Foxconn was looking for a place in the Midwest to make a multibillion-dollar investment, Maisch said.
Foxconn, best known for making Apple's iPhones, announced plans last month to build a plant in the southeast corner of Wisconsin that could employ up to 13,000 people.
Wisconsin is pouring out incentives for the company. Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill last week that would lay out $3 billion in tax credits for the electronics giant, exempt it from certain environmental regulations and repair highways around the plant.
Though Maisch said it's impossible to know whether EDGE would have made a difference in Foxconn's decision — and others have speculated Illinois stands to benefit from its proximity to the plant — it still hurt.
"The fact is it didn't even allow us to be in the game," he said.
Incentives like those EDGE doles out can help level the playing field when a project like the Toyota-Mazda plant is on the line, said site selection expert Bradley Migdal of Cushman & Wakefield, who is not involved in the Toyota-Mazda search. But Illinois needs more to seal the deal.
Robust training programs could help rope in manufacturers, Migdal said. Additionally, incentives need to be usable, he said. For many manufacturers these days, their biggest projects aren't necessarily huge job creators.
"EDGE is a great tool. As a resident of the state and as a consultant that helps companies make decisions, it's something that was needed," Migdal said. "But I don't think it's the end-all, be-all. I still think it needs a lot of improvements to the program."
The bill passed in the Illinois House in June and in the Senate on Sunday, receiving broad bipartisan support in both chambers. If Rauner signs the bill into law, the new program would expire June 30, 2022.
Concerns swirled that the previous version of EDGE was too expensive given the yearslong budget crisis ensnaring Illinois, but many fear that without it, jobs could be lost to neighboring states with more appealing tax breaks.
"It's important to have an economic tool that actually makes the difference between a company selecting Illinois as opposed to another Midwest state," said state Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, a sponsor of the bill.
The Rauner administration made changes to the previous EDGE program, shutting down job incentives that his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Pat Quinn, allowed for job retention. Rauner also halted a practice that let dozens of companies collect millions of dollars in tax breaks for creating jobs at one office while eliminating a greater number of jobs at another location.
A Chicago Tribune investigation in October 2015 highlighted the practice. The Tribune found at least 37 agreements in which Illinois companies were rewarded with tax credits after hiring employees in one location while firing a far greater number of workers at another site.
The bill passed Sunday contains a provision that lets the state take back the credits if a company stops operating and intends to shut down its project. That money can then be reallocated to develop the workforce and expand opportunities for the unemployed, women and minorities.
New to this bill are provisions that would let smaller businesses access a credit that previously skewed toward large firms, Maisch said.
For example, if an applicant for the credit has more than 100 employees, the project must result in a capital improvement investment of at least $2.5 million in the state. There's no capital investment requirement for companies with 100 or fewer employees.
It also requires smaller businesses only create a number of new jobs equal to 5 percent of their total workforces.
Additionally, it offers credits for employee training and for retention.
"Retaining the jobs you have is really job (No.) 1," Maisch said.