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DETROIT FREE PRESS

Cap Movie Tax Breaks? Might As Well Kill 'em

By Mitch Albom

If you can name one other Michigan business that grew from $2 million to around $125 million last year - in the worst economy since the Depression - I'll shut up.

If you can name one other Michigan business that, in its baby stages, elicited plans for $140 million in new studio investments, I'll keep quiet.

If you can name one other Michigan business that created this much excitement and this many people scurrying to learn new skills, I'll stand down.

But if you can't, then maybe you should be the one to cool your jets.

I'm talking about Michigan's movie business.

And I'm talking to state Sen. Nancy Cassis.

Cassis was the only legislator in the Senate or the House to oppose last year's tax incentives that made Michigan the most attractive state to do movies, TV shows or digital gaming. Since then, she seems to be on a mission to prove she was right.

Cassis constantly criticizes the tax breaks, threatens to slash them, even complains on radio that we are Motown, not Tinseltown.

This is her right. And it might be harmless diatribe if not for the fact that Cassis chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which means she can push legislation on such issues with more force than most.

Last week, she introduced a bill that would cap the total movie credits at $50 million a year.

She might as well kill it altogether. To get the jobs, we need the movies

Cassis, a Republican from Novi, not only wants the cap, she wants to slash the incentive from 40%-42% to 35%, and require a minimum 90% of all film crew personnel be from Michigan. She sweetens this by increasing the tax break for infrastructure from 25% to 30%.

Now, I have no personal problem with Cassis. But when it comes to the movie business, she does not know what she's talking about.

If she did, she would realize that a $50-million cap effectively chases films away. No successful tax-incentive state has a cap like this, because no studio wants to be the last film in, then find out the money is gone. They can't plan that way. They just won't come.

Besides, if we got three projects of, say, $70-million budgets - major films, but hardly "Spider-Man"- that would use up all the credits for the year. This makes Cassis' infrastructure increase laughable. Why on Earth would someone want to build a studio when you can make only three films a year? That's like limiting flying to three airplanes, then inviting people to build a new airport.

And we can't demand 90% Michigan crews because right now, we don't have that many qualified film workers. We'd like to. We're training people as fast as possible. But the best way to train is to get on a film at a low level, and since we'll chase films out with this ridiculous demand, there goes your training opportunities. Casting a wary eye to Michigan

Now, I know Cassis' beef. She doesn't like our tax money subsidizing this business. Hey, we'd all prefer if we didn't have to lure it this way (although plenty of other states eagerly do so).

But look around. How many new industries are coming to Michigan on their own? How many of our existing industries are shrinking? How many of our young, creative minds leave the state, never to return?

The movie/TV business is growing. Remember that word? Growing? Young people flock to it. And the digital gaming business - which we've barely scratched - is twice the size of the movie business. This all means future jobs, homes, increases in everything from hotels to carpentry to music to transportation. We've already seen it working.

But we have to let it grow. We can't plant a flower then stomp on it. That is what Cassis is doing. Hollywood is a small town; only a few dozen people make most of the financial decisions. Trust me, they've all heard Cassis' threats. They get scared. They see Michigan as unstable. Can you blame them? We pass something last spring, and now we want to slash it?

Because of this, Cassis - and her cosponsors - already have done enormous damage, even if her bill fails, which it likely will as the governor has promised a veto.

So maybe, out of respect to creative workers, businesses, schools and the other 140-plus legislators who voted for these incentives, Cassis can back off for a bit and watch the great things that come.

Maybe you want to tell her yourself. Her contact info: senncassis@senate.michigan.gov and 888-38-NANCY.

Unless you've got another business that's done what this one has so far.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.