More transparency on biz handouts — eventually

Think opening the books on public business doesn’t bother corporations? Think again.

While transparency is good, and will result from a new law passed last year, lawmakers made a mistake in not having the new legislation take effect immediately.

Effect of transparency law
Research credit claims spike just ahead of disclosure law effective date

Lawmakers ordered annual public disclosure of recipients of the Research Activities Credit with claims exceeding $500,000.

Instead of an immediate effective date, the law carried a July 1 effective date. That gave companies two months to get their claims filed before the information gathering would begin — a temporary window to avoid disclosure. Some jumped through that loophole, to the tune of an estimated $25 million.

The Iowa Department of Revenue reported on this in its December Contingent Liabilities report for the Revenue Estimating Conference. After estimating RAC claims for FY2009 at $45.5 million and $46.1 million in August and October reports, that number spiked to $70.8 million in the December report.

The DOR report itself attributed the spike in the estimate to the new transparency law:

There was also a dramatic increase in the amount of Research Activities Tax Credit claims in FY 2009. The majority of the increase in FY 2009 claims is a result of corporations filing claims early, before the July 1, 2010, effective date for a new disclosure requirement for Research Activities Tax Credit claims exceeding $500,000. As a result the estimate for FY 2010 was lowered to account for those claims moving forward a fiscal year. (emphasis added)

The graph above shows where the steady upward trend in RAC claims broke sharply with passage of the disclosure law, claims spiking just ahead of the law taking effect, and the projected one-year reduction before the trend returns.

Think opening the books on public business doesn’t bother corporations? Think again. When public business is tied too closely to private business, as we see with the RAC, taxpayer accountability suffers.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Watching your quarters — transparent state finances

Companies receive secret checks. That’s business as usual in Iowa, where corporate giveaways are out of control.

Getting a handle on where corporate subsidies go can be slippery business.

When you put your money in, do you see where it goes?

It’s an important question for taxpayers, and it’s one the Iowa General Assembly may address further this spring.

The so-called “Research Activities Credit,” or RAC, has become an annual drain on the state Treasury of $30-40 million and is projected to reach past $60 million in a few years. But the biggest cost is not simply tax revenues lost to a credit against taxes owed. The biggest cost of the RAC is in its poorly named “refund” program. If a company can claim a credit larger than its taxes owed, it gets what’s called a “refund” — for taxes it never had to pay.

These “refunds” averaged about 92 percent of claims from 2000-05, and in 2005 averaged $3 million per recipient. That is money that never has to go through the regular budget process, scrutinized by legislative committees and weighed against the state’s priorities. If it were a grant, or a regular budget item, you would see where that money goes. But since it’s rewarded through the tax system, you don’t. The companies receive secret checks.

That’s business as usual in Iowa, where corporate giveaways are literally out of control.

Maybe this will start to change. A new law passed last year could be a critical first step toward transparency of subsidies to private corporations. Recipients of RAC claims above $500,000 will be named, with amounts received, in an upcoming report from the Department of Revenue.

You’ll be able to see where at least some of the money is going, and count your quarters — a half-million dollars at a time!

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Move now to improve Iowa’s lousy water quality

It is only a matter of political will to set strong water-pollution limits that are enforced, and to try out some innovative programs.

Teresa Galluzzo

A new report researched for us by economics professor Cathy Kling and PhD candidate Subhra Bhattacharjee of Iowa State University documents that Iowa’s water quality is poor, primarily because of agricultural pollution, and evaluates two newer approaches for improving water quality that have been used in the Midwest.

One of the primary findings of this report is that no matter how well we structure our water-quality programs, if they are not backed by tough pollution limits they will not improve water quality.

Governor Culver last week in his Condition of the State message did not mention Iowa’s significant water-quality problems. Obviously, Iowans are suffering from being out of work and being involved in wars abroad, and those issues rightly take precedent.

However over the last several decades, whether or not we are in a bad budget year, Iowa has not taken the measures necessary to improve our water quality.

Given the current poor economic climate, Iowa could take steps to improve water quality without impacting our budget. We could heed one of the primary recommendations of this report and increase our limits on pollution. That would not cost the state anything.

Further, the researchers learned many lessons from the two programs they studied for this report: water-quality trading and wetland banking. They created a significant list of dos and don’ts for how to structure these programs in Iowa and recommended that we establish pilot projects to try out these approaches. Taking such measures would allow us to begin improving water quality at a very small cost to the state.

The point is there are ways to address water quality, even without a significant state expenditure. It is only a matter of political will to set strong water-pollution limits that are enforced, and to try out some innovative programs. Iowa needs to find this will to improve our lousy water quality and thus quality of life and economy.

Posted by Teresa Galluzzo, Research Associate

PDF of full report, 16 pages, or executive summary, 2 pages

Still good advice — accountability and balance

All tax credits, not just the film credit, demand scrutiny heretofore ignored.

It’s good to see more and more acceptance of the idea of accountability and balance to meet Iowa’s needs.

Everything must be on the table in budget decision-making, as Governor Culver insisted in his Condition of the State message earlier this year, and we have seen signs that this sensible, balanced approach could be taking hold in the Statehouse.

For many years, the budget hawks at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership have been making the pitch. One such report, in 2006, “Looking Behind the Curtain,” challenged Iowans to consider how to review the giant — and often secret — business subsidies that were draining the state of revenues needed to meet Iowans’ needs.

As noted then by the Des Moines Register, in a December 22, 2006, editorial:

Public dollars are the public’s business and should come with public accountability. Lawmakers should ensure that. They can get ideas about how to start by picking up a copy of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership report. [Click here for the executive summary of the report.

Late in the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure to permit limited

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

public scrutiny of Iowa’s generous research subsidies that have allowed some of Iowa’s largest corporate operators not only to avoid income tax, but to receive state checks in the millions while school districts are facing cuts.

The scandal around the state’s film-credit program has contributed to the recognition by the Governor, legislative leaders and many in the media that all tax credits, not just the film credit, demand scrutiny heretofore ignored.

This has extended as well to business advocates. In fact, an economist for the business-oriented Tax Foundation succinctly made the point in a Register story on Sunday, that “the bottom line” is that these subsidies cost money.

“The big problem is that politicians and taxpayers tend to see them as a tax cut, but the correct way to look at them is that they are really government spending through the tax code.”

If a rose is a rose by any other name, a tax credit is spending whatever you call it. Like any spending, there should be a good reason for it, and with tax credits, it is not a given that they can be defended. It is long past time for review and reform.

The Governor has set up hearings for Tuesday in Cedar Rapids and Wednesday in Urbandale for advocates and experts to weigh in on the value — or lack of same — of many such subsidies. Click here for the agenda, time and location of each meeting.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Beyond estate-tax scare tactics

“The multimillionaires and billionaires who walk among us have already been well cared-for, thank you, by many politicians who want to pretend they’re looking out for the dead.”

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

It is time to get past the scare tactics that have now become common any time Congress discusses the federal estate tax.

The multimillionaires and billionaires who walk among us have already been well cared-for, thank you, by many politicians who want to pretend they’re looking out for the dead.

The estate tax has steadily declined since 2001, with the top rate falling from 55 percent to 45 percent now, and exemptions rising from $1.3 million per couple in 2001 to $7 million this year. That means $7 million is tax-free. Not surpringly, only two-tenths of 1 percent of all estates are required to pay any federal tax at all on an inheritance.

This is not good enough for some, who push for repeal or so-called “compromises” that are tantamount to repeal. Meanwhile, our federal deficits are mounting and creating debt that will fall to the children of middle-income America, if not the grandchildren of dead billionaires.

As stated this week by Chuck Marr, federal tax policy director for the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley stated that “it’s a little unseemly to be talking about doing away with or enhancing the estate tax at a time when people are suffering.” What the senator said remains true today: given the current economic crisis and the human anguish it has caused, it would be more than “a little unseemly” to shrink what remains of the estate tax.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has produced a good factual summary of how the estate tax affects people in every state. Here are some of the key numbers for Iowa:

IOWA
Number of Estates Owing Tax
: 2006 — 237; 2007 — 158; 2008 — 225
Percentage of Estates Owing Tax: 2006 — 0.9 Percent; 2007 — 0.6 Percent; 2008 — 0.8 Percent

Those estates that do pay tax represent windfalls to beneficiaries of vast fortunes, the contents of which in large measure were never taxed before.

Is it a greater priority to absolve those beneficiaries of the need to contribute to public services — and make everyone else in the United States borrow billions more from overseas to pay for it — or to establish reasonable rules once and for all to assure the very wealthiest in the nation pay taxes?

Do we pass on millions tax-free to the heirs of American aristocracy, or do we pass on billions or trillions of debt to America’s teen-agers?

How can these be difficult questions?

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director

When corporations write their own tax laws

As an IFP report noted, Iowa could put up signs: “Welcome, Multistate Corporations: Cheat on Your Taxes Here.”

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Sunday’s New York Times asks a poignant question: What’s the record for shutting a loophole?

What caught the Times’ attention was about as brazen a move as we could expect from the shady-deal wings of corporate America: The tobacco industry, facing a 20-fold tax increase on roll-your-own cigarettes to help support the Children’s Health Insurance Program, just changed the label of a product to avoid the tax. Noted the Times:

Companies simply remarketed roll-your-own as “pipe tobacco,” which is taxed at one-tenth the rate and is not subject to any definitive distinction under the law. The result is that roll-your-own companies, while a small part of the cigarette industry, quintupled their output of pipe tobacco in just five months to 1.7 million pounds — enough to roll 42 million packs of cigarettes.

The evasion could cost the government more than $30 million a month in revenues, according to the Associated Press. But the potential cost to the public is far greater, since studies show higher cigarette taxes have proved to be an effective way to discourage children from smoking.

The new fear is that the gimmickry of rolling your own and using flavored (“pipe”) tobacco — now banned in packaged cigarettes — could prove irresistible for youngsters experimenting with life. And with death.

So, in one fell swoop, the industry effectively rewrote tax law on its own, without the help of Congress or the President, and not only defied the intent of Congress in finding a way to pay for better health for kids but found its own way to worsen kids’ health and drive up costs of health care.

There are lessons here for Iowa, not in terms of health policy so much as tax policy. Not that the Hawkeye State has ever been in any danger of setting records in the closing of tax loopholes. At this point, just shutting loopholes on the books for a generation would be nice, and beneficial to Iowa residents and small businesses.

For years, Iowa has allowed multistate corporations that do business here to effectively set their own tax rates. At the same time businesses complain about their income tax rate, most don’t pay it — because of legal but excessive tax breaks on the one hand and apparently legal shenanigans on the other, many businesses find ways to avoid taxes the law was designed to collect. As the cuts we’re seeing to critical public services attest, there is a cost to our generosity to big corporations.

As IPP’s Peter Fisher noted in the 2007 Iowa Fiscal Partnership report “Leveling the Playing Field,” we could just as easily put up signs at the borders: “Welcome, Multistate Corporations: Cheat on Your Taxes Here.”

By Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Why health reform matters — especially in rural Iowa

Iowa’s 1.2 million rural residents need increased access to affordable, quality health insurance

2009-AC
Andrew Cannon

On the eve of her marriage, Suzanne Castello, a Grinnell resident, looked forward to quitting her job at a community college and working the family farm with her husband full time.

Though Castello had enjoyed good health benefits at her off-farm job, her husband had been covered through an insurance plan purchased on the non-group, private market for a number of years, and they assumed that adding her to the plan would not be a problem.

Due to a previous miscarriage and a chronic jaw ailment, Castello was denied coverage. Around the same time, Castello and her husband learned that she was pregnant. The Castellos continued to search for an insurance plan that would cover her and had some luck, though the plans that would agree to cover her had a 10-month pre-existing condition exclusion — no insurer would cover the pregnancy.

Castello enrolled in COBRA — the federal legislation that allows workers to continue their job-based coverage for up to 18 months, COBRA enrollees must pay 102 percent of the premium cost.

“We were hemorrhaging money, but we didn’t qualify for Medicaid,” Castello said. “It really rankles me that we’re seeing something as fundamental as childbirth as kind of like, ‘Would you like dessert with that meal?’ There’s a double-standard between group policies and individual policies, which cover most farmers.”

Though the pregnancy was complication-free and Castello has enjoyed good health since then, finding affordable insurance is still a challenge for her.

“Right now, I have the flavor-aid version of an insurance policy – it’s high-deductible, high cost-sharing. It’s basically just coverage for catastrophic events, because the deductible is so high,” Castello said.

“It’s irksome that I’m a healthy person and I can’t get decent health insurance.”

———

Nearly 20 percent of America’s uninsured live in rural areas. Of those, if they do not have insurance through an employer-sponsored plan or public coverage, such as Medicaid, they have to buy a plan on the non-group market. This is especially expensive, as the costs are not spread across a larger group of employees and their families.

Nationally, only 8 percent of the population receives its insurance through the non-group market. In Iowa, up to 37 percent of rural residents get insurance this way, subjecting them to high premiums for less-regulated plans that can deny coverage for a pre-existing condition for up to 12 months.

Iowa’s 1.2 million rural residents need increased access to affordable, quality health insurance.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate.

See Cannon’s IPP Snapshot: Health coverage in rural Iowa.