Archive for the ‘Budget and Tax’ category

Two numbers say so much

March 6, 2014

Two numbers say so much: 140 and $36 million.

Last year, 140 companies paid no income taxes in Iowa but — through the tax code — received $36 million in research checks.

Those two numbers alone tell us two things: We have a problem with transparency, and we have a problem setting priorities.

We know those two numbers because Iowa’s Department of Revenue is required every February to report on the use of the state’s Research Activities Credit.

We don’t know enough about what’s behind those two numbers — the problem of transparency. As it’s public money, the assumption should be that we are owed full information about where every dollar is spent (a case made well by The Des Moines Register in a recent editorial). Cities, schools and counties are required to disclose this routinely.

In fairness, some lawmakers worked hard in 2009 to assure the transparency that we do have, passing a good law that required the annual reports. Before that, we had even less information. Big business fought hard to stop the law, and failed. And because we have the law, we can make several noteworthy observations that are detailed in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder, and get some insights on who benefits, as in the table below.

Table3-RACrecipients-w

But the annual reports do not tell us — or indicate with certainty — which companies receive the benefit as checks, how much each receives or how the money is used. There is no evidence of jobs created. There is no evidence of need or of public benefit, or return on the public investment.

There is no point where we say, “Enough already. You know, Company X, you had $200 million in profits last year — we don’t really think your shareholders need Iowa taxpayers’ help when our schools can’t keep up with costs and our city water systems need updates and our roads have potholes. And, by the way, your company and your employees are better off if we take care of those priorities before we give money to you.”

This exposes the problem with budget priorities: This spending is done outside the budget process. Spending on the RAC is decided before the Legislature even convenes. It’s automatic. The decision has already been made for 2015, and 2016, and so on, and we don’t even know for sure how much it will cost — though the Revenue Department projects it to grow precipitously.

State law provides that companies are entitled to that money regardless of any other pressures on state budget choices — including cuts to education. Example: In 2013, Iowa spent that $36 million to help companies that contributed no income tax, but for the current fiscal year that started in July 2013, the state reneged on its commitment to the school funding formula. The state fell more than $60 million short of its share, leaving property taxpayers to pay it — in the same year, by the way, that legislators boasted about property-tax reform.

I think I know where we could have found $36 million of that lost school funding.

A special state panel that reviewed all Iowa tax credits in 2009 singled out the so-called “refundability” of the RAC as a special problem. It recommended eliminating refundability for big companies, which have dominated the spending on this credit. And it also recommended putting a sunset — an automatic elimination — on all tax credits after five years. To keep them going, the Legislature would actually have to take a vote on them. That is accountability.

As it stands, our Legislature does not touch this issue. Meanwhile, big and immensely profitable companies are sucking dollars away from our local schools, state universities, community colleges, local police, county mental health services, environmental quality programs and enforcement, wage and hour enforcement … well, you get the idea.

That is the budget choice being made, because our state is happily spending on autopilot with no proof of a public benefit.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

A taste of transparency

February 11, 2014

This week we will get a taste of what transparency could look like for the hundreds of millions of dollars that Iowa spends through the tax code.

We’ll only get a taste, to be sure, as what we’ll see won’t be enough. But, thanks to a law that passed against difficult and powerful lobbying interests in 2009, we do get that taste — a glimpse into who benefits from Iowa’s largest and most generous business tax credit.

It’s the Research Activities Credit (RAC), a costly little gem that has provided big companies some big checks from the state — in some cases even when they pay nothing in income tax. The Iowa Department of Revenue projects the cost of this credit to grow by more than half in the next five years, from $52.4 million to $80.3 million.[1]

projected growth of RACCould this be a shrewd investment for the state? Not likely, or at least that must be the presumption, as the beneficiaries have neither shown nor had to show the state’s real taxpayers what they get in return for the giveaway. Click here for a look at the recent history on this credit.

Projected RAC costs tableThe economic development gurus defend the RAC with little more than a “trust us” argument, which of course is not a strong enough argument for public schools, or state universities, or community colleges, or cities with law enforcement and infrastructure challenges, or counties with mental health services and emergency response challenges.

And the costs just keep rising for the RAC and many other business tax credits, with virtually no public accountability. What little that is available will come in the Department of Revenue report that is due yet this week. It will show the total amount of claims, the total amount paid as checks to companies that do not pay state income tax, and will identify companies with over half-a-million dollars in claims. Stay tuned.

[1] Iowa Department of Revenue, Tax Credits Contingent Liabilities Report, December 2013, http://www.iowa.gov/tax/taxlaw/1213RECReport.pdf

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Watch tax spending more closely

February 4, 2014

Iowa is behind — not that we didn’t already know that.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines several aspects of what states do in budget planning. Particularly noteworthy in the report for Iowa is its poor attention to the impact of tax expenditures — spending through the tax code. When we have a tax break on the books, such as a credit or exemption, it has an impact on the budget bottom line the same as if the lost revenues were spent on the other side of the ledger.

Most of this spending, as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has shown over the years, is on autopilot. These breaks exist year to year, never requiring renewal — unlike the kind of spending we do through direct appropriations, where critical services are subjected to annual scrutiny to exist or not for another year.

Here’s why it matters, according to the executive summary of the CBPP report:

When recessions occur, states must scrutinize all forms of spending.  An important tool for this is oversight of various tax expenditures (tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that reduce state revenue), which in many ways function as spending through the tax code. This will enable states to make sound choices between the most essential tax expenditures and those the state can forgo. For example, states can regularly publish tax expenditure reports that list each tax break and its cost. And states can enact sunset provisions so that tax breaks expire in a specified number of years unless policymakers choose to extend them.

The problem in Iowa is not a lack of analysis or data. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) has produced solid tax expenditure studies in 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are found here on the DOR website. And there is considerable information outside those formal studies that illustrate overall costs — primarily a so-called “tax credit contingent liabilities report” offered three-to-four times a year by DOR for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Furthermore, a number of important tax expenditures have been the subject of in-depth reports to the legislative committee charged with reviewing tax credits.

So in what way is Iowa behind the curve? The CBPP report lists 10 ways states can better budget for the future, including one on the tax-expenditure oversight issue:

Oversight of tax expenditures:  expiration dates for tax expenditures after a set number of years to subject them to regular scrutiny of their cost and effectiveness, in addition to tax expenditure reports that list the costs of individual tax breaks.

Such expiration dates are called “sunsets.” A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Culver in the wake of the 2009 film-credit scandal produced a set of strong recommendations for reform, among them a five-year sunset on all credits. This proposal was ignored.

Furthermore, a review of tax credits on a five-year rotation set up by lawmakers in response to that panel’s recommendations has produced no apparent policy change; this perhaps is not surprising since the committee that reviews the credits has not issued findings that the credits are meeting the intent of policy, or producing a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

With ALEC, it’s not just ‘Who?’ but ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

January 10, 2014

Some Iowa legislative leaders are taking issue with claims that all Iowa legislators are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

See these links:

All of this calls to mind the words of the great comedian Groucho Marx, who is widely quoted:

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Groucho presumably was never a member of ALEC — like many Iowa lawmakers now protesting claims of their inclusion. But regardless of who belongs to ALEC, the bigger issue is whether ALEC belongs at the public policy table.

Iowa Policy Project analysis has refuted the value of legislative initiatives promoted by ALEC, which is essentially a bill mill backed by corporate interests. IPP’s Peter Fisher and the national group Good Jobs First, in their 2012 report “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” showed that states following ALEC proposals were likely to show worse economic results than other states.

As Fisher noted at the time:

“We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.”

This recalls another quotation:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

No, that is not the ALEC mission statement. Again, they are words widely attributed to Groucho Marx.

But if the shoe fits ….

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

A better choice for full-time investigator

December 16, 2013

Today’s Des Moines Register reports that the big push by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz to crack down on voter fraud is proving what he doesn’t want: that it’s not a problem in Iowa.

A full-time criminal investigator is on the job with five guilty pleas to show for it. Kind of makes you wonder why we bother, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, wage theft is a pervasive problem in America and, as we have shown, Iowa is no exception.

Yet Iowa has only one full-time position for enforcement of wage-and-hour rules even though the Iowa Policy Project has shown violations are pervasive and other states do more. Wage theft deprives Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, when wages are not paid or underpaid, tips are skimmed by employers, and employees are misclassified as “independent contractors” to avoid taxes, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. It also deprives the state of tax revenue and deprives law-abiding businesses of an even playing field.

Budgets are a statement of values. We focus our finances — in the home and at the State Capitol — on what we think is important. Surely making sure hard-working people are paid what they are owed is on that list.

It defies good budgeting sense to devote a full-time criminal investigator to a phantom issue, particularly when those resources could be put toward sensible budget choices, such as enforcing worker protections. When unscrupulous employers know we’re not even watching them, we effectively encourage the very behavior we don’t want in Iowa.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

The $54 question

November 25, 2013

Breaking news out of Des Moines is that many Iowa taxpayers will be eligible for an extra $54 tax credit.

This is the result of one of the most short-sighted pieces of legislation passed by the Iowa General Assembly in recent years. Lawmakers created what they called the “Taxpayers Trust Fund,” which we should call the “Giveaway Slush Fund.” It’s a pot of money to dole out to taxpayers and boast about at election time. Chances are, the “givers” won’t give you the whole picture.

Their game is an illusion, a political parlor trick: Hold down funding for key priorities, such as K-12 education, or universities, and then when revenues create a surplus, call it an “overpayment” by taxpayers.

Does anyone really believe their spin? The $120 million to be given away represents easily $120 million in services that could have been provided. For K-12 alone, a little over half of it could have been used this year to fully pay the state’s share of allowable growth at the 4 percent level lawmakers authorized. Instead, state funding only supports half of the state share.

By shortchanging school districts with funding for only 2 percent allowable growth this year despite strong revenues, lawmakers compounded a trend of squirreling away big dollars while claiming poverty. This way, they have given themselves $120 million to spend on dessert — the Giveaway Slush Fund — by choosing not to pay the state’s share of the bill for the meat and potatoes: school aid.

One Iowa columnist who has seen through this is The Des Moines Register’s Rekha Basu, who noted Sunday: “Doling out money piecemeal is a gimmick that may bring smiles to some faces but it can’t take the place of sound and consequential actions.” She’s right.

Is it really worth it to you to receive the $54, instead of putting adequate and appropriate funding back into our education system? Or cleaner water? Or safer streets? Or, well, you get the idea.

Give me a break. On second thought, don’t.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

A new look for the first of the month

November 1, 2013

All right! The first of the month! Always a big day for those living paycheck to paycheck. And November 1 is no exception.

Yet, for those working low-wage jobs and receiving SNAP benefits, November 1 is not as good as October 1. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which many know as Food Stamps. And it’s under constant attack.In Iowa, the more than 420,000 people who count on food assistance can count on less this month than they received a month ago.

Same goes for SNAP recipients across the country, as benefits drop with the expiration of small improvements that were passed in the 2009 Recovery Act.

SNAP benefits in Iowa have averaged about $116 a month per recipient — about $246 per household.* That works out to just about $1.30 per meal per person. Take a look below at what happens to that supplemental benefit when the modest improvement from the Recovery Act goes away today.

 SNAPmonthlyCut-1-31-13

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3899

Our economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession. And if it’s not enough that this Recovery Act improvement is expiring before the work is done, recognize that some in Congress see right now as a time to whack away further at SNAP benefits as a new Farm Bill is negotiated.

Now, we might not like to hear that some 13 percent of the state’s population is receiving food assistance. But you don’t address that issue by just cutting benefits to those people who are stuck in low-wage jobs, or are children, or are seniors, or are disabled.You need to make the jobs better, which starts with an increase in the minimum wage and pressure on Iowa businesses that pay low wages to do better. If we want a higher-road economy, we need to put a better foundation under it.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

* Iowa Department of Human Services, Food Assistance Program State Summary for September 2013, Report Series F-1.

Why is the dream fading?

October 7, 2013
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

“American dream is fading for middle class”

I took this headline from the October 7 Cedar Rapids Gazette. You can imagine what the article says — that many Americans’ faith in a brighter tomorrow has been eroded.

What is not mentioned in the article are simple numbers — 50 percent of all income in the country goes to the top 10 percent and nearly half that goes to the top 1 percent. There is just not much income left for the vast majority of us.

Statistics on income distribution come from two sources, the Census and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Data from both agencies say about the same thing. We are a very unequal country and it is getting worse.

The newest data I found comes from a University of California-Berkeley economist, Emmanuel Saez, and available on his website. IRS data shows that the top 10 percent, families with more than $114,000 per year in income took home 50.4 percent of all income in U.S. in 2012. This is the highest percentage ever recorded for this group in a data series going back to 1917.

The top 1 percent — families above $394,000 per year in income — took home 23.5 percent of all income. Their share was slightly higher in the late 1920s, but not much.

If you want more bad news for the middle class, Saez’ analysis shows that the top 1 percent of families captured just over two-thirds of the overall growth of real incomes per family over the period 1993-2012. The 99 percent shared the remaining third. So why is that American Dream fading?

Posted by David Osterberg, Founding Director

Blowhards can’t shut all of us down

October 1, 2013

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

For a couple of weeks, I’d planned to take today off. Doctor appointment, work in a few errands and odd jobs around the house, etc.

Now, wild Tea Partiers couldn’t keep me away.

No way I’m going to choose to take a day off when people I know are being forced to stay home, all for the sake of politics, and bad politics at that.

The shutdown of the federal government is an affront to self-government, to the concept of democracy in a republic.

Worse, it will have a real impact on real people. Not just the employees, some of whom are friends who live in my community — West Branch, the birthplace of President Herbert Hoover. Some are employees of the National Park Service, running and maintaining a national park; some work at the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, part of the National Archives. But it also affects the rest of us. We all benefit from their work, some more directly than others.

Just yesterday on my way to work, I passed one of them working on railings of a bridge that children in our community cross on the way to school. She and some of her co-workers have kids in our schools, or have in the past. Wonder if she’ll be working tomorrow, I thought.

The national parks are, as a friend of mine pointed out this morning, some of the best places our country has to offer and we employ people to maintain them, preserve them and share the stories they hold. These federal employees — like those who preserve our physical and financial security — are routinely assailed by some who portray them as unnecessary and wasteful, among other things.

The portrayals say more about the portrayers than about their targets, the people we hire to do what needs doing.

And what they do needs doing, in practical terms certainly, but also because they remind us more of what unites us than of what divides us.

OK, now I’m off to my doctor’s appointment. But I’ll be back to work afterward, because blowhards in Washington can’t shut all of us down.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Hyperbole Alert: The drumbeat to cut corporate taxes in Iowa

July 24, 2013
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

TWELVE PERCENT!

The figure practically screams at you, even when it’s not in all caps, when the conversation comes to corporate tax rates in Iowa.

Here’s the thing: It’s not a real number. Not really.

That is what is known as Iowa’s “top marginal rate” on corporate income tax. And it’s not a real number because it simply does not — cannot — reflect what a business pays on all its profits. Yet that is the implication when people (especially politicians) or corporations complain about it.

A top Iowa columnist, Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, this week discussed the political battles over Iowa’s latest gigantic subsidies to Egyptian fertilizer company Orascom. In his piece he expressed a note of concern about the hyperbole in those battles. Then, he turned the discussion to Governor Branstad’s desire for cuts in corporate income taxes.

It is in that discussion where the hyperbole typically has been the strongest in Iowa. We are often told — as Dorman noted — that Iowa’s top corporate income tax rate is the nation’s highest. Note the emphasis added on “top.” More on that in a moment. Dorman also noted, accurately, that Iowa “has four brackets and a tangle of special interest credits.”

Because of the latter, any serious concern for our corporate friends should evaporate. Because they’re really being taken care of quite nicely, thank you, by their friends in the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office.

Now, about that “top rate.” It applies only to Iowa-taxable corporate profits above $250,000. Iowa doesn’t tax any profits from sales outside the state, so the rate doesn’t apply at all there, which for many businesses is a significant share of profits. For all taxable profits below $250,000, rates are lower — 6 percent on the first $25,000, 8 percent on the next $75,000 and 10 percent on the next $150,000.

Before these rates kick in, the business gets to deduct half its federal income tax from taxable income, and may have other deductions or ways to shelter income from state tax.

Then, after the rates are computed and the taxes determined, the tax credits enter the picture — and state revenues exit. The state just expanded the potential for those credits by $50 million, raising the cap on a select group of credits. In the case of the Research Activities Credit, these credits not only erase all tax liability, but offer state checks for the remaining amount of the credit. Through that program in 2012, Iowa paid out almost $33 million to 130 firms that paid no income tax, because those companies had more credits than tax liability.

And you can bet the corporate execs and their accountants fully understand all these nooks and crannies in our tax code. But if you want to give them a free million or so, they’ll take it. They are smart folks, and they have proven themselves to be more skilled negotiators than Iowa’s economic development moguls.

Want to talk reform? Then recognize the real problems — that we receive less in corporate tax than we used to, and that a lot of corporate tax is not collected because of the swiss-cheese nature of our tax code. That gives us all something to talk about.

Just be ready for the hyperbole from those who don’t want to change that part of our system.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


For more information about Iowa business taxes, see these Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports:
— “Reducing Iowa Commercial Property Taxes,” by Heather Milway and Peter Fisher, April 24, 2013.
— “Amid Plans to Relax Limits, Business Tax Credits Grow,” by Heather Gibney, April 16, 2013.
— “Corporate Taxes and State Economic Growth,” by Peter Fisher, revised April 2013.
— “A $40 Million Budget Hole: Persistent and Growing,” IFP backgrounder, February 25, 2013.
— “Tax Credit Reform Glass Half-Full? Maybe Some Moisture,” IFP backgrounder, revised March 23, 2010.
— “Single Factor to Consider,” IFP backgrounder, April 2, 2008.


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