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Political nerds and TV binge watchers of all stripes will gather around the TV (or laptop) this weekend to watch the much anticipated release of Season 3 of the Netflix original series House of Cards. While the show follows the shadowy manipulations of Frank Underwood, the company and producers behind the show have done some manipulating of their own to get millions in generous tax breaks from the state of Maryland for the production of its third season.
Last year, the producers of House of Cards played hardball with Maryland lawmakers by threatening to “break down our stage, sets and offices and set up in another state” if they did not receive millions more in tax credits. Pairing this stick with a carrot, the House of Cards producers brought in Kevin Spacey to meet with “star-struck” lawmakers and push for the passage of more tax breaks for the TV series.
The trouble for Maryland lawmakers is and continues to be that the film tax credit program lavishing House of Cards with millions in tax breaks provides very little economic benefit to Maryland taxpayers—in fact, the entire program has cost the state $62.5 million since 2012. A recent study by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services found that the film tax credit in Maryland only brings in 10 cents for every dollar that it provides in economic benefits.
Unfortunately, the lawmakers in Maryland are reflective of lawmakers across the nation, who keep falling for the siren call of film producers and ponying up ever larger tax credits to companies in hopes of creating a lasting film industry in their state. Leading the pack, Louisiana spent over $1 billion on its film tax credit program from 2002-2012, yet the state still has very little to show in terms of permanent jobs and economic development benefits from the program.
In spite of all of the evidence against film tax credits, Maryland lawmakers, fearful of “losing” the Netflix series, decided to give in and increased the size of the credits for House of Cards, bringing the total amount of tax breaks that the show has received to a whopping $37.6 million. What makes these tax breaks particularly galling is that Netflix is already exploiting the stock option loophole to such an extent that it paid nothing in federal or state corporate income taxes on its $159 million in profits, even before it received the new cache of tax breaks.
The tax swindle that Netflix is running with the production of House of Cards would be enough to make Frank Underwood proud.