Houston Loves Big Business. How Much Should Big Business Now Love It Back?

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Even before the damage from Hurricane Harvey is tallied, big corporations are breaking out their checkbooks.

Chevron, an energy giant with several offices in the Houston area, pledged $1 million to post-Harvey disaster relief efforts. So did Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical, two companies with facilities hit by the storm. Companies in less regional industries also donated: Amazon offered to match $1 million in donations to the American Red Cross, while Verizon promised $10 million. Walmart, which took a front-line role in the clean-up after Hurricane Katrina, sent truckloads of emergency supplies to the affected area.

In all, corporations have pledged more than $65 million to help clean up the wreckage from Harvey, according to a Wednesday morning estimate by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

That is an impressive figure, and a sign that corporations are capable of stepping up in a crisis. Hurricane Harvey may be one of the costliest natural disasters in American history, according to initial forecasts. Moody’s Analytics has estimated that the storm’s damage may be as much as $50 billion, though it is hard to know at such an early stage.

As Houston recovers, its business community should feel especially compelled to help. That is partly because Houston and the surrounding area, as well as the state of Texas, have been generous to big business in recent years, showering companies with tax breaks, subsidies and other perks in an effort to keep them happy and create new jobs. Houston has benefited from the presence of large corporations, adding thousands of jobs and becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in America. But those companies have benefited, too — sometimes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The help Houston has given businesses over the years raises an important question: What is the moral obligation of big companies — especially those that have benefited from a region’s largess — after such a major disaster?

Bob Mitchell, the president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, an organization that represents local businesses, told me that Houston’s big businesses are generally “very supportive” of the local community. But he said the hurricane’s aftermath would offer the true test.

“What’s going to happen in the weeks and months to come?” Mr. Mitchell asked. “To me, that’s more important than what’s happening right this minute.”

Business leaders have talked a lot lately about civic responsibility. Numerous executives condemned President Trump’s inflammatory comments about the racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, Va., this month, and several corporate leaders, including Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, have urged companies to exercise “moral responsibility” for helping the communities around them.

The donations announced for Harvey relief are generous by the standards of corporate philanthropy. Some of the donations are smaller, though, than the amounts many companies have gotten from the region’s generous economic development programs.

Chevron has received $3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, a statewide grant program designed to attract business investment and incentivize job creation in the state. Last year, Houston’s city council signed off on a $6.5 million tax break for Fairway Energy Partners, which planned to build underground oil storage facilities. Harris County agreed last year to give Amazon a 10-year, $1.8 million discount on its property tax bill for building a 855,000-square-foot warehouse.

A Chevron spokeswoman said that the company “is proud to have created jobs that added millions of dollars in economic benefit to Houston and the State of Texas.”

Many state and local governments have offered lavish incentives to corporations to attract new business and create jobs. The most notable recent example was Wisconsin’s eye-popping gift of $3 billion in tax credits to Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer.

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