Any legislation created by Congress with the promise of helping the rich get richer by providing for them to help the poor is bound to be challenged from its birth, faced with a mix of believers, skeptics, opportunists, and cynics.
So it is with the Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZ) provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that will permit those owing capital gains tax to delay, reduce or even totally avoid those taxes by investing in special funds designed to start businesses and provide other steps to help economically distressed communities.
And now the OZ legislation, signed into law by President Trump three days before Christmas in 2017, a sort of holiday gift to taxpayers and, significantly, a bipartisan one, is drawing a lot of scrutiny from critics who contend it is turning out to be merely a tax break for billionaires and focused far more on real estate projects than on job creation.
Supporters counter that much of the criticism has a political ring to it a year before the presidential election in which Trump could point to it as an example, albeit a rare one, of Congressional bipartisan progress.
Meanwhile, officials in most states, including Washington, have been slow to roll out examples and promote projects the act has made possible with its capital gains tax breaks. Nor has there been much creativity on the part of state leaders to convince some of those wealthy investors to look at potentially winning projects, or in maybe putting state funds into projects that, coupled with the tax breaks, could become attractive for major investors.
The "politics" accusations are coming because Congressional opponents are starting to discuss what they see as the need for changes, including a possible effort to terminate zones that are not sufficiently low income. That was one of the key criteria for census tracts to gain OZ eligibility in the original list put together by the Treasury Department.
A recent high-visibility example of the criticism was a New York Times article that rained vilification down on Michael Milken, alleging that he tried to take advantage of the Opportunity Zones tax incentives to enhance the value of some of his Nevada property.
The Times article indicates that Milken, still widely recalled more as the billionaire king of junk bonds who went to jail than remembered for his decades of philanthropy since then, sought to press the Nevada governor and state officials to get the Treasury Secretary to classify the tract as an OZ.
There no real evidence that Milken did that, and there was no effort to paint any of his actions as illegal even if he had.
The parcel was eventually included in the eligible census tracts, despite Treasury's concern that the residents were too well off to get the designation. Once included it was selected by the governor as one of the state's Opportunity zones.
Ironically, that Reno area OZ parcel in which Milken owns about 700 acres, contains many of the potential job-creating aspects of what proponents of the tax break indicated they hoped would come about, including a planned tech incubator where smaller companies could set up operations and seek investors.
My longtime Latino friend Ralph Ibarra, a fan of the Opportunity Zones idea from the outset who has delved deep into the details of the tax-break legislation, says he felt it was a "golden opportunity" to provide a chance for investors to get involved to achieve good ends.
"if you want to get investors to act in their enlightened self-interest you incentivize them in ways they understand and that's by offering them the opportunity to get a return," said Ibarra, who has shared several ideas on how he might get involved in ways that would generate returns for his clients and causes from OZs.
When I mentioned the Times Article on Milken to Ibarra, who as president of DiverseAmerica Network helps corporations with diversity issues and small businesses with access to opportunities, he said he didn't see a problem.
"Using your influence in that way is no different than the Port of Tacoma going to the governor and saying 'it would be helpful if you designated the Tacoma Tide Flats as an Opportunity Zone so we can attract capital to some projects.'"
"In fact, I did it myself when I looked at every potential opportunity zone from Seattle to DuPont, intending to try to influence the process, then went to the Lieutenant Governor's office and suggested ones I thought should be selected. I said 'respectfully here are tracts that I believe are worthy of being selected because of the lack of equity capital for small and distressed firms in those areas.'"
Ibarra's point was he was seeking to use his influence with the lieutenant governor because of projects he had been involved with relating to the state's second-highest elected official.
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