Screenshot: Amazon

Envoys for Amazon are now fanning out across the United States and Canada to evaluate 20 cities vying to house its new headquarters. In competing to give Jeff Bezos the sweetest possible incentive package, state and city leaders are thirsting to provide corporate welfare on a massive scale. Yet local residents have largely been left in the dark on what this unprecedented bidding war might end up costing.

Amazon has insisted on secrecy for this round of its selection process, with competing cities inking nondisclosure agreements as they compete to give handouts to a $650 billion company. And it’s left local media and good-government advocates flailing for answers.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, records requests by ABC affiliate WRAL have been denied by several state agencies. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has encountered similar secrecy in Georgia. Chicago Deputy Mayor Bob Rivkin—the city’s point person for the “sweepstakes”—chided the Chicago Sun-Times for even asking about the multibillion-dollar project. “What about, ‘I can’t talk about it’ don’t you understand?” he said.

What’s more, city and state governments have also been cagey with the first-round proposals that got them to this point, according to a new report by Good Jobs First, a corporate accountability group. Among the 20 finalists for HQ2, it said, information about the extent of tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, and other public subsidies vary widely. The potential long-term costs of enticing Amazon to invest $5 billion are mostly unclear.

From the report:

  • Only Toronto and Boston released all of their bid documents. Both cities outlined existing incentive programs that Amazon could qualify for, but did not specify their value.
  • The total costs of Maryland’s and New Jersey’s offers [$5 billion and $7 billion, respectively] are known because each state considered special legislation to expand or create tax breaks for the project.
  • Five cities released some of their bid documents but without the subsidy values: Denver (but some estimates are known), Montgomery County, Nashville, Philadelphia (estimates were leaked), and Washington DC.
  • In five additional places, subsidy values have been announced but the full bid documents remain undisclosed: in Austin, city officials said they offered no set amount of subsidies; Columbus released a letter that outlines city’s incentive offer; California’s governor disclosed the value of the state’s financial support for Los Angeles bid; Newark subsidies were approved as a part of the state legislation package, but the city never released the actual document it submitted to Amazon; New York City officials said they did not offer any new subsides to Amazon but admitted the company could benefit from existing programs.
  • In five cases, some information about incentive costs has been leaked: Chicago, Miami (only partially), New York City, Philadelphia (vague state and local estimates) and Pittsburgh (only state estimates). Atlanta’s costs are “back-of-the-envelope” estimates.
  • We know almost nothing about the bids from Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, northern Virginia, Raleigh, or Pittsburgh.

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The opacity is particularly galling given that a development of this size would undoubtedly alter the fabric of any community. When CNBC asked several local leaders about that lack of accountability at the United States Conference of Mayors in January, their responses were almost identical. “It’s like a poker game,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told the news outlet. And it must be nice to play with someone else’s money.