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If Illinois wants 4,000 new auto jobs, Rauner needs to approve tax credit plan

The possibility of 4,000 well-paying jobs coming to Illinois should have the Rauner administration bursting with excitement, but instead the development is being greeted with a discouraging shrug.

Last week, the Tribune asked about Illinois' chances of winning a new U.S. factory being built by a Toyota-Mazda venture. The governor's spokeswoman declined to specifically comment on the factory but provided this disquieting response: "We should be an economic power, but unfortunately years of mismanagement, red tape and business taxes have hurt the state's business climate."

Not exactly a winning endorsement that screams, "Wow, sign me up!"

Nor does it reflect some of Illinois' inherent and considerable commercial strengths as a transportation hub and automotive powerhouse.

So here's hoping Gov. Bruce Rauner and his economic development team temper such critiques and start ginning up greater enthusiasm for wooing the Japanese automakers' project and other business.

Indeed, Rauner has an opportunity to show he's the real deal by approving new legislation for a revamped economic tax credit plan for companies known as EDGE — short for Economic Development for a Growing Economy — a program that has lapsed during his administration.

Without a blend of top-level government enthusiasm and EDGE credits, Illinois doesn't stand much of a chance against the 10 other states competing for the massive auto plant, a $1.6 billion investment that Toyota-Mazda expects to be up and running by 2021.

It would be a shame if Illinois failed to make a good faith attempt to lure this plant. The facility is expected to require at least 1,000 acres, making it a whopper of a site.

Already, some regional economic development groups in the western suburbs are in the hunt, and larger downstate areas are sure to follow.

Provided it's properly constructed and woven into the area selected, this factory promises to generate wads of new tax revenue and create economic opportunities for surrounding towns and communities.

Does Illinois have a chance with Toyota-Mazda? It should, provided its leaders get going.

One of the state's greatest strengths is its central location, which is money in the bank for these auto manufacturers that ship cars far and wide.

Those regions that have enough land to accommodate this massive site also sit close to many crucial transportation arteries: air, rail and highways located within a Midwestern state that's already an established U.S. and international transportation nexus.

While neighboring Michigan is best known for its auto-making prowess, Illinois is no slouch when it comes to building cars and parts.

Fiat Chrysler's Belvidere plant is assembling Jeep Cherokees, after a recent $350 million retooling of that plant. Ford's factory on Chicago's Far South Side makes the Taurus and Explorer vehicles.

Northern Illinois is also home to hundreds of small and midsize auto aftermarket parts makers and suppliers.

Approving EDGE tax credits, which the General Assembly is sending to the governor's desk, would serve as a strong signal to Toyota-Mazda that Illinois is serious about them.

It won't go unnoticed by that carmaking duo that, between 2010 and 2015, Ford got at least $25 million from the EDGE program that recently expired. That EDGE effort allowed employers to keep a small portion of state taxes provided they hit benchmarks for facility improvements and retention or creation of jobs.

Ford credited EDGE with helping to keep 2,600 workers at its Far South Side plant and adding a new shift of few thousand more employees.

The new EDGE bill is a bipartisan plan that lowers the tax credits but still offers incentives for worker training and new employment.

I circled back to the Rauner team to ask for a clarification of its initial reaction to the factory possibility. One reason for the team's reticence is Toyota-Mazda's insistence that the terms of any deal remain under wraps.

We'll see how that works out.

Gov. Rauner will coordinate with his commerce department and Intersect Illinois, a state-backed nonprofit economic development group, to market Illinois for any opportunity, said spokeswoman Laurel Patrick.

In an email to me, she added: "Keeping all that in mind, it also remains true we need fewer regulations, lower workers' compensation costs and lower property taxes in order to attract more jobs to our state."

But isn't it also fair to say that Illinois' problems are pretty well-documented and it's highly unlikely that Toyota and Mazda aren't aware of our shortcomings?

For sure, the other states competing for this plant will do their share of Illinois bashing.

Look, I don't want Illinois to give away the store with incentives the way Wisconsin is poised to do with a $3 billion package for electronics giant Foxconn. What's more, I'm not suggesting Rauner & Co. lie or downplay the nagging political drama in Springfield.

Yet, an important part of the governor's mandate is to also highlight his state's commercial strengths, especially when a big hiring opportunity arises like the Toyota-Mazda project.

In this case, Rauner should focus on making the case for what Illinois' workforce and business base are capable of accomplishing.

He won't lose any political ground and may even gain some.

But Gov. Rauner won't win this giant automotive factory, or much of anything else, by constantly positioning Illinois as a crummy place to do business.

roreed@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @reedtribbiz

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