Posted tagged ‘Iowa Fiscal Partnership’

Leveling the playing field

December 11, 2014

Small business owners get it: They follow the rules, but preferential treatment for giant companies puts them at a disadvantage.

Case in point: Lora Fraracci, who had an excellent guest opinion in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about practices big companies use to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The problem is not exclusively an issue with the lax U.S. tax code. It is a big problem at the state level as well.

Ms. Fraracci runs a residential and commercial cleaning business. As she noted:

“As a small-business owner in Des Moines, I play by the rules and pay my taxes to support our American economy. I create jobs that will continue to support our local economy. When the playing field is so uneven it makes it hard to realize this dream.”

The issue has been receiving some national attention, but many may not realize the prevalence of this problem and its extension to state taxes. While Ms. Fraracci and other small businesses, or Iowa focused businesses, follow the rules, large companies they may serve can find a way to either (1) avoid the rules, or (2) block stronger rules.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has written about these issues for some time, and the reports are on our website.

The biggest Iowa breaks come in two ways: tax loopholes and tax credits.

Tax loopholes have been estimated to cost the state between $60 million and $100 million a year. Loosely written law is an invitation to big companies’ lawyers and accountants to find ways to lower their firms’ taxes. Multistate firms can shift profits to tax-haven states and avoid taxes they otherwise would be paying in Iowa. That creates the uneven playing field Ms. Fraracci sees.

Iowa could fix this by adopting something called “combined reporting,” which the business lobby has fought tooth and nail when proposed in the past by Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. Many states — including almost all our neighbors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska) — already do this. See our 2007 report, which remains relevant because Iowa has refused to act.

Tax credits are particularly costly, rarely reviewed with any sense that they will be reformed. This is illustrated best with the Research Activities Credit, which provides a refundable credit to big companies to do something they are likely to anyway: research to keep their businesses relevant and competitive.

In 2013, that credit cost $53 million, with $36 million of that going to companies that paid no state income tax in Iowa. The default position must be that this is wasted money, because it is never reviewed in the regular budget process the way other spending is examined every year — on schools, law enforcement, worker protection and environmental quality. In Iowa, spending on tax credits is spending on autopilot.

Read here about Iowa’s accountability gap on tax-credit spending.

Looking ahead, as a new legislative session approaches and we hear repeatedly that things are tight, keep these points in mind to better understand the real fiscal picture facing Iowa. The more small-business owners understand this, the more likely pressure can build for real reform.

Owen-2013-57  Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Job 1 for Day 1 — putting Iowa families first

November 6, 2014

As election dust settles, priorities remain clear for Iowa families

Now that the votes are counted, the real work begins. Job 1? It could be any of a number of areas where solid research and analysis have shown better public policy could make a difference for a more prosperous, healthier Iowa. Take a step back from the TV ads and “gotcha” politics and these issues come clearly in focus.

In Iowa, research shows solid approaches to economic prosperity for working families include:

In Iowa, research shows a fiscally responsible approach to both find revenues and do better with what we have includes:

  • Stopping tax giveaways to companies that pay no income tax — which occurs at a cost of between $32 million and $45 million a year through one research subsidy program alone, even though there is nothing to show this spending boosts the Iowa economy or produces activity that would not occur anyway. http://www.iowafiscal.org/big-money-big-companies-whose-benefit/
  • Reining in unnecessary “tax expenditures” — tax breaks, tax credits and other spending done through the tax code — could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for public services. A five-year sunset on all tax credits would force lawmakers to review and formally pass renewals of this kind of spending, now on autopilot. The last attempt at real reform fell woefully short. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-credit-reform-glass-half-full-maybe-some-moisture/
  • Plugging tax loopholes — a $60 to $100 million problem — would pay for a 2 or 3 percent annual increase in state per-pupil funding of K-12 schools. Twenty-three states, including 4 of 6 Iowa neighbors, don’t permit multistate corporations to shift profits out of state to avoid Iowa income tax and contribute their fair share to local education and other state services. http://iowapolicypoints.org/2013/05/22/will-outrage-translate-into-policy/
  • Reforming TIF — tax-increment financing, which is overused and often abused by cities around the state, has caught lawmakers’ attention in the past and should again. Like many tools that provide subsidies to private companies and developers, it should be redesigned to assure subsidies only go to projects with a public benefit and only where the project could not otherwise occur. Further, it should be designed to assure that only the taxpayers who benefit are the ones footing the bill, which is a problem with current TIF practice. http://www.iowafiscal.org/category/research/taxes/tax-increment-financing-tif/

In Iowa, research shows a healthy environment and smart energy choices for Iowa’s future includes:

  • Putting teeth into pollution law — which means reforms in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to eliminate pollution in waterways. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140717-nutrient.html
  • Allowing local government to regulate frac sand mining — When it comes to cigarettes, guns and large hog facilities the Iowa Legislature took away the right of local government to listen to citizen desires. The General Assembly and the Governor should let democracy thrive and not take away local control of sand mining.
  • Encouraging more use of solar electricity in Iowa — Jobs are created while we confront climate change if we build better solar policy in Iowa. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/110325-solar-release.html
  • Promoting local food and good food choices with school gardens — and a pilot project to offer stipends to Iowa school districts could encourage both learning and better nutrition. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140514-school_gardens.html

None of these issues are new and it’s not an exhaustive list. But these were big issues for our state before the election and remain so, no matter who is in charge.

Together, we can build on the solid research cited above and lay the foundation for better public policy to support those priorities.

Owen-2013-57   Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Issues in Waiting: Tax-Increment Financing Reform

October 2, 2014

Basic RGBThis is an excerpt from an interview with IPP’s Peter Fisher on “The Devine Intervention,” KVFD-AM 1400, Fort Dodge. Host Michael Devine discussed tax-increment financing, or TIF, with Fisher, whose reports on this issue have prompted many to call for reform. TIF is one of Iowa’s “Issues in Waiting” — issues discussed year after year, but not resolved. The quotes below are actual quotes from the interview; the questions are paraphrased.

What was the idea behind tax-increment financing, or TIF?

It was originally a tool to help cities redevelop blighted or declining areas and what it did was allowed a city to capture more of the tax revenue from redevelopment when the city undertook some project to try to turn around a declining neighborhood. If they were successful, businesses would come in, the tax base would go up.

And what TIF did was allow the city to use not just the city taxes on all that growth, but the county and school taxes as well for some period of time to pay the city back for their expenses for this project, for redevelopment. And in the long run the county and school districts were better off. The cities got their money back, they got more tax base. That was the idea.

How did the implementation of TIF look?

It worked that way for quite a while. And then about 20 years ago we opened the door to just about anything cities wanted to do by saying well it doesn’t have to be a blighted area, it doesn’t have to be a redevelopment. It just has to be “economic development.” And just about anything cities do it turns out they can call “economic development” and finance with TIF.

Is there a consequence if TIF is abused?

Not really — as long as they are doing something within the law. The county and the school district don’t have any say on whether the city is going to divert their taxes to the city’s TIF fund. And there’s no state regulation either, other than the court system.

To hear the full interview, click here.

For more resources from Peter Fisher and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about TIF, click here.

Policy choices are about quality, not quantity

May 28, 2014

The headline on my doorstep today says, “Legislature continues trend of passing fewer bills.” That lead story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette notes that for the fourth straight year, a divided Iowa Legislature has passed fewer than 150 pieces of legislation.

Ah, numbers. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em. But in this case, they don’t make a lot of difference.

What matters are the words and the policies embodied in those 150 or fewer bills. It’s about quality, not quantity.

What have those bills included in recent years? Here are some key points:

  • A commercial property tax overhaul that is tainted by big benefits to huge out-of-state retailers that need no help and pay too little in Iowa tax as it is.
  • An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that improves tax fairness for low- and moderate-income working families across Iowa.
  • Funding to assure a tuition freeze remains for a second year in regents institutions.
  • A small boost in child care assistance for working students, making them eligible for the benefit so they can get skills for better paying jobs to sustain their families.

What have those bills not included in recent years? Here are some noteworthy omissions:

  • No overhaul of the personal income-tax system to better balance tax responsibilities for all taxpayers regardless of income, or to assure revenues are kept adequate to meet costs of critical services.
  • No greater accountability on spending that is done through the corporate tax code, outside the budget process.
  • No increase in the minimum wage, stagnant at $7.25 for over six years now.
  • No broad expansion of child care access for struggling families who don’t make enough to cover costs, but make too much to receive assistance.
  • No move to battle wage theft, which we have estimated to be a $600 million annual problem in Iowa’s economy — not including the $60 million lost in uncollected taxes and unemployment insurance.
  • No long-term answers for funding of education at all levels, violating the promise of law for K-12 schools, and leaving a legacy of debt for many college students and their families.

Those are not exhaustive lists, but a statement of priorities established by agreement, stalemate or inertia. We covered some of these points in our end of session statement. Some will like the overall product of recent years, some will not. Few will ask how many bills were passed.

At least one theme weaved by this record cannot be disputed: Iowa is on record that we will not ask the wealthy and well-connected to do more. We pretend more often than not that we can meet our obligations to the citizens of Iowa without investing in the public services they require, that if we just keep cutting taxes all will be well. Every now and then we’ll say something about opportunity for all and mean it, but we’re not ready to make that a long-term commitment.

Sometimes, not passing something says as much about legislative priorities as passing it.

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

Why the tuition freeze matters

May 2, 2014

A bright spot in the just completed session of the Iowa Legislature is that lawmakers for the second year in a row have assured a tuition freeze at Iowa’s Regents universities.

The 4 percent increase in state funding for FY2015 is an important investment. It means current students will be able to keep a little more money in their pockets, and prospective students will have greater access to higher education at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa.

For now, the state has stalled its trend toward sharp tuition increases — a trend similar to what’s happened at public colleges and universities across the country. A new report from the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities found that from FY2008-FY14 state funding per student at Iowa’s Regent universities decreased by 23.8 percent, leading to a 12.2 percent change in average tuition after adjusting for inflation — $854 more a year per student.

It’s a simple equation: When state funding goes down, tuition goes up and/or resources to help students are reduced. Iowa Fiscal Partnership research has shown these trends in our state, as noted in the graph below covering tuition vs. state support of Regents institutions from 2001-13.

tuitionvsstateaid

These trends shift the cost of education from the state to the students and their families. The result is that students take on more debt or have fewer choices among institutions, if they choose to attend at all. At low incomes, some students may simply choose not to enroll even though education might be what they want, and necessary to their career goals.

Excessive student loan debt has broad economic implications. It is associated with lower rates of homeownership among young adults, it can create enough stress to decrease the probability of graduation and reduce the chance that graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will go on to graduate school.

The economic importance of higher education will continue to grow, as getting a college degree is increasingly a prerequisite to enter the middle class. And beyond those who receive the degree, everyone in the community benefits when more residents have college degrees. An area with a highly educated workforce attracts better employers who pay better wages and this can boost an area’s economic success.

Strong state revenues offer a time to reinvest in higher education, and to return funding of services to pre-recession levels.

IPP-gibney5464  Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate

First Iowa Tax Day with expanded EITC

April 30, 2014

Almost unnoticed as Iowans file their state income taxes today is that many thousands of families are benefiting from a newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Iowa legislators last year passed and Governor Branstad signed an expansion of the working family credit, doubling it from 7 percent of the federal EITC to 14 percent for 2013, and bumping it to 15 percent for this year. The increase was barely mentioned by the Governor when he signed it as part of a larger package of tax changes. Yet, as we noted recently — the boost is “arguably the most important legislation he signed last year.”

arguably the most important legislation he signed last year: doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. – See more at: http://www.iowafiscal.org/ifp-news-statement-on-governors-address/#sthash.NzN7o0IR.dpuf

New data from 2012, compiled by the Brookings Institution, sort out by legislative district the number and percentage of tax filers who benefit from the federal EITC, on which the state credit is based. We have put that information into a new Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder; the two-pager is available here. In the map below, the golder and greener the district, the greater its constituents use the EITC. In the green areas, over 20 percent of filers use the EITC.

130506-EITCmap

Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is an important tool in making work pay for low-income households. We have shown how a further expansion could better fill the gap between low-wage income and a basic-needs household budget, as well as improve Iowa’s tax treatment of low-wage families.

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

 

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


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