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DN Editorial: CARD GAMES: Pa.'s dealing the green kind to foreign investors in a fundraising scheme

A new idea being pursued by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is complicated and troubling on many fronts.

IT'S complicated.

That describes a lot in life, but when it describes government schemes to get money, especially for public works like roads, we get nervous. And a new scheme being pursued by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that will award green cards for foreign investment is complicated and troubling on many fronts.

In order to pay for a connector between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 95, according to a report in the Inquirer, the commission will borrow $200 million from overseas investors who, in exchange, will get one green card for every $500,000 invested under a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services visa category called EB-5 that leads to permanent residence in two years. The investments must create at least 10 jobs within two years.

But EB-5 visas are targeted for commercial enterprises, not government entities, so brokers working on the deal for the commission created a new Delaware Valley Regional Center that will get the money from investors and issue the money as loans to the Turnpike Commission.

Bad enough that this sounds like a crazy Ponzi scheme that removes these transactions from public accountability. But the very notion of granting fast-tracked green cards to rich investors is hardly the kind of immigration policy we can support: Do we want to encourage further economic divide in this country by opening our borders only to the rich? (The program sets aside 10,000 EB-5 visas each year.)

The EB-5 program is not without its problems. There has been lax regulation and oversight on the numbers of jobs created, which is understandable, since U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which manages the program, is already stretched. In fact, a 2005 Government Accountability Office report criticized the backlog of EB-5 investors who are still waiting for permanent resident status, some for 10 years.

Then there's the commission itself, whose sole job seems to be finding places from which to borrow money: It currently has a staggering $7 billion debt. The state Auditor General charged commission officials last year with "flimflam finance" to cover its increasing debt incurred to meet its obligation to give $450 million a year for public transit. The commitment to public transit was supposed to be offset by tolling Interstate 80, but the federal government rejected that plan. Now, the commission keeps borrowing. Another state Auditor General report also criticized the commission for lax oversight of expenses incurred by commissioners.

Too often, the open-sesame term "job creation" is all it takes for the giveaways to start flowing. Recently, Gov. Corbett gave Shell $67 million a year in tax credits for the promise of 10,000 to 20,000 jobs over 25 years. In 1997, the state gave Kvaerner $400 million to revitalize shipbuilding; two years later, Kvaerner said it would stop building ships.

Raising revenues through hikes in the gas tax have been taken off the table by Corbett, who continues to insist on not raising taxes. But taxes at least have a promise of holding our leaders accountable. Complicated schemes that remove accountability and that shield government from being fiscally responsible are a bad payoff for the promise of no taxes.

There's no such thing as easy money. Everything comes with a price, but at least with a tax hike, we get to see what that price is, and we know who's paying it.