A couple of months ago I wrote: "If you're worried $4 million is a lot of taxpayer money to give a company that only two years ago emerged from bankruptcy and has reported yearly net losses since then, take heart: At least it's not as much as the company pays its top executives."
I suppose that bears updating today. Just add: "or as much as the $15 million to $20 million the company wanted."
Last week, we found out that Spectrum Brands asked for much more than it got in state financial incentives as part of its consultant-driven, identity-concealing search for a new corporate headquarters.
I can't decide if this reflects well on the agency that ultimately provided Spectrum with only a $4 million forgivable loan, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Four million isn't chump change, after all, especially for an existing Wisconsin company whose search ultimately led to a planned "move" of all of five miles from Madison to Middleton.
Then again, it's hard to fault a government agency for its bargaining prowess when it has little choice but to play the cloak-and-dagger game big business likes to play when it's extracting public dollars for corporate purposes.
Modern corporate site searches strike me as something of a cross between mafia-like extortion — give us money or you get hurt (economically) — and a CIA covert operation complete with code names — "Project Infrared," in Spectrum's case.
According to WEDC spokesman Tom Thieding and WEDC emails, the agency was dealing with a company that didn't disclose its identity or where it was from until six months or more after it contacted the agency and two months after it made its desire for state incentives clear.
To me, that would seem to put the state in something of a sticky position: Woo a phantom too strenuously and you could end up looking like a pushover once that phantom appears in the flesh. Play hard ball and you risk losing what might be a lot of jobs and a significant economic shot in the arm.
In a statement, WEDC chief executive Paul Jadin argued that there are never any negotiations with a company until the company discloses its identity in a signed request for financial incentives.
What takes place prior to that are "generic responses" about incentives based on state formulas set by the legislature or past Commerce Department officials, he said.
Still, "Where a consultant is involved, we risk being disqualified if we do not respond," he said.
When I worked as a reporter in Illinois, I heard a handful of rationales for why big companies like to keep their site-selection machinations secret — from not wanting existing employees to worry about their jobs to not wanting to be flooded with calls from contractors hoping to build their new facilities.
There may well be some truth in those, but it's also true that knowledge is power, and I can't help but think the less knowledge a government negotiating partner has, the more power that accrues to the corporation.
Besides, call me old school, but if you're going to have your hand out, the least you can do is introduce yourself.
Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or firstname.lastname@example.org, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.