But research credit refund checks are poor fiscal stewardship
The millions Iowa gives to companies that do not pay state income tax is about the same amount of 1 percent in state school aid.
That’s one takeaway from the latest annual report from the state on Iowa’s Research Activities Credit (RAC). That tax credit is used far less to ease taxes than to shovel subsidies to big corporations outside the budget process, whether they pay taxes or not.
The report shows that in 2015, 248 companies had $50.1 in claims from this tax credit. Because the credit is refundable, companies get the full benefit no matter how much they owe (or don’t owe) in taxes. And the report shows that of those claims, 75 percent, or $42.1 million, were paid as checks to 186 companies that paid no corporate income tax to the state.
As we note in a summary by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, each percentage-point increase in Supplemental State Aid for schools costs about $41 million to $43 million (Iowa Association of School Boards estimate).
What’s more, the largest claimants — 20 corporations receiving over $500,000 from this credit — took the lion’s share of the benefit with $43.9 million overall (about 88 percent).
Many millions are spent this way every year, outside the budget process. These companies don’t have to compete for what are supposedly scarce public dollars needed for critical public services such as education, health care, environmental protection and public safety. The latter types of spending must compete in the budget process.
The Research Activities Credit is only an entitlement. And except for the occasional lawmaker willing to stand up to restore some accountability, there is silence from the General Assembly.
This is perfectly legal. In fiscal policy terms, however, it’s a scandal, because it is legal. Lawmakers refuse to even consider whether to take this spending off autopilot.
When they claim the state is too strapped for money to provide more for school aid or human services, lawmakers should admit they let corporations take what they want first.