Tax increment financing (TIF) is the most widely used local government program for financing economic development in the United States, but the proliferation of TIF is puzzling. TIF was originally created to support urban renewal programs and was narrowly focused on addressing urban blight, yet now it is used in areas that are plainly unblighted. TIF brings in no outside money and provides no new revenue-raising authority. There is little clear evidence that TIF has done much to help the municipalities that use it, and it is also a source of intergovernmental tension and a site of conflict over the scope of public aid to the private sector.
Yet, the expansion of TIF makes sense in light of the basic structure of American local government law. Studying TIF can illuminate central features of our local government system. TIF succeeds—in the sense of its widespread adoption and use— because it, like local government more generally, is highly decentralized; reflects and reinforces the fiscalization of development policy; plays off the fragmentation of local governments and the resulting interlocal struggle for investment; and fits well with the entrepreneurial spirit characteristic of contemporary local economic development policy. A better understanding of TIF contributes to a better understanding of the political economy of American local government.