The price of adding a single full-time job under Nebraska's largest business tax incentive program ranges from $24,500 to a whopping $320,000, according to new review of the program.

Job creation is a major goal of the decade-old Nebraska Advantage Act, which provides tax perks to companies that meet specific requirements. Another aim is bringing more financial investments to the state, including new businesses.

Yet a review by the Legislative Audit Office showed just nine of 78 companies with Advantage Act projects as of 2014 were new to Nebraska.

Those findings were included in an 80-page audit report released to the public Wednesday.

"Maybe we didn't create the jobs that we thought, but we certainly invested in the state of Nebraska and infrastructure," said Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, chairman of the Legislature's Performance Audit Committee, which oversees the audit office.

The 78 incentivized companies as of 2014 had earned nearly $736 million in benefits through the Advantage Act, according to to the report. Nearly two-thirds of those benefits were tax credits on investments such as new construction, while 16 percent were credits on pay for new workers.

Locally, companies have eyed Advantage Act benefits for major projects like Sandhills Publishing's planned 42,000-square-foot "Cyber Center," Zoetis' recent $60 million plant expansion and Monolith Materials' effort to make Lincoln its manufacturing headquarters.

Incentives play a "key role in Nebraska's ability to grow its economy," said Barry Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We still think the Advantage Act is working well," he said. "Does it need to be reviewed? Of course it does."

Renee Fry, executive director of the OpenSky Policy Institute think tank, said the report raises questions about whether tax dollars are being used as efficiently as possible.

"This is especially true as we face a large budget shortfall that will make it difficult to maintain investments in schools, public safety and other state priorities," she said.

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr said lawmakers need to decide: "What do we want the Advantage Act to be?"

That might include limiting its scope or narrowing the window of time for businesses to receive incentives once a project is complete.

"If you're still receiving Advantage Act money nine years later, it's no longer being used to pay for that project," Harr said. "It's just lining people's pockets."

One overarching theme of the report — and a frequent complaint by some lawmakers — is lack of usable data on the incentives, and ways to measure it.

Auditors were unable to answer key questions about the Advantage Act due to discrepancies in the way state agencies maintain data. And the law itself doesn't include any specific measures for assessing its performance.

As a result, auditors said they were unable to make "'yes' or 'no' judgments" about whether the program works.

In estimating the cost of each job created under the Advantage Act, auditors gave a wide range because some things were unclear — including how many new positions should be attributed to the Advantage Act versus natural growth, and what share of the program's benefits were aimed at creating jobs versus other investments.

"We'll have to do a lot of explaining about what that really means," Watermeier said.

Other job growth measures offered mixed results.

Incentivized companies saw higher-than-average growth in full-time workers in 10 of 15 industry sectors, and workers at those companies saw higher average wages in 12 of 15 sectors.

And in seven sectors, incentivized companies also appeared to be doing better at bringing new people into the workforce — hiring more workers who had previously filed for unemployment benefits.

Data for all 78 companies wasn't available, but auditors estimated 68 of the incentivized businesses added a combined 2,968 full-time workers between 2008 and 2014, boosting their workforce by 11 percent.

Auditors stressed that those numbers are estimates, however.

Much of the data available from the state departments of Revenue and Labor lists full-time equivalents, which can include multiple part-time workers doing the work of a single full-time employee.

"We don't know if they're actually hiring full-time people or not," Watermeier said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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