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.
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.