Common sense, stability in tax reform

Statement of Beth Pearson, Iowa Policy Project
Public Hearing on Income-Tax Reform • Iowa House Chamber • March 31, 2009

Beth Pearson
Beth Pearson

Thank you, and good evening. In my capacity as a researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, I evaluate potential budget and tax policies according to whether they make our overall fiscal system more sound and help support our shared public priorities.

In general, good changes to our tax system are ones that make it fairer, more competitive, more stable and secure, and easier to understand. We want a system that provides sufficient revenue to fund essential public services, but we want it to generate that revenue in a way that respects a taxpayer’s ability to pay a tax and doesn’t distort an individual’s private economic decisions.

The income tax reform proposal now before you goes a long way in moving Iowa’s overall tax system — comprised of income, sales, and property taxes — in the direction of these basic principles. Let me talk about just two of those principles: competitiveness and fairness.

First, competitiveness. When profits dip for a small business owner during a recession, their income tax bill goes down automatically. Even those small business owners lucky enough to have steady profits in these tough economic times will likely see a tax decrease as a result of this proposal. The Tax Policy Center, a project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, found that, nationwide, seventy percent of taxpayers with small business income earned less than $100,000 in 2009. Assuming the same distribution holds true for Iowa, that would mean that more than 70 percent of taxpayers with small business income in Iowa would see an average tax decrease under this proposal. I think that makes it a more competitive system.

Second, fairness. There’s no question that there are particular types of households who benefit the most under this package: low-income working families with children. In addition to seeing lower income tax rates, these families also stand to benefit from expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps make work pay by targeting tax assistance to income earners with children, as well as expansions in the child and dependent care credit. So, yes, this package does offer a disproportionate share of its benefits to low-income families who are sending their kids to child care every day so that they can hold down a job in a tough economy. I think that makes it a fairer system.

Most tax changes made during the past 20 years in Iowa haven’t held up when scrutinized according to good budget and tax principles. But this proposal offers us an opportunity to take a step in the direction of common sense and fiscal stability, and I urge the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign this bill.

See the Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis (3-page PDF) of the legislation, Iowa Income Tax Reform: An Emphasis Upon Sound Principles.

Help economy, fix revenue problem

Today’s startling report from the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference removes any doubt about the impact of the recession on top of routine tax-cutting: Iowa has a big revenue problem.

Now, more than ever, Iowa needs to put reality into the rhetoric that everything is on the table in this fiscal crisis, and that points to three immediate responses:

• Use stimulus money to restore funds already cut from the budget;

• Restore funding and avoid further cuts where possible to help the economic recovery and to keep services going at a critical time;

• Recognize that stimulus funds and tax reforms are necessary to bridge the revenue gap created by the recession.

Iowa needs to fight off the temptation to cut budgets further. Budget cuts can damage the Iowa economy, creating more layoffs, at the same time they deny needed public services when more Iowans are hurting.

REC projections today painted a more dire picture than the one that led the governor to slash spending across the board by 1.5 percent for this year and propose 6.5 percent cuts in many services for next budget year, beginning July 1.

The projections mean Iowa has a $130 million larger gap for this year, and a $270 million larger gap for fiscal year 2010. Besides addressing the current budget-year gap, the governor and legislators will have to put a fiscal 2010 budget in place assuming those REC projections.

Many Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports have detailed the revenue roots of Iowa’s current fiscal challenges. Of particular concern are the explosion in corporate tax expenditures, including many giveaways that provide no accountability to Iowa taxpayers that they money is being spent as intended, or that experience has validated that intent.

In the current situation, there can be no more excuses for ignoring the revenue side of Iowa’s budget problems. See IFP’s news release today.

Stimulus: A reminder of what it is, and isn’t

It’s easy to forget amid all the political talk about “stimulus” that it’s an economic concept, not a political one.

So, from the view of one of the country’s leading economists, Mark Zandi of Moody’sEconomy.com, here is an estimate of what $1 of public investment returns to the economy. The graph below shows the change in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for each dollar invested by various federal actions.

As you can see, a dollar can return well over its value if invested well, and can return far less with other choices.

zandi3Relative Economic Impact of Different Federal Actions

Mr. Zandi made that analysis in written testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Small Business in July 2008.

Interestingly from this graph, Mr. Zandi’s analysis is that the four categories of spending in this list of 13 items provide the biggest bang for the taxpayer’s buck. At the top of the chart, a temporary increase in Food Stamps returns $1.73 for each dollar invested; extending unemployment benefits returns $1.64; raising infrastructure spending returns $1.59, and general aid to state governments returns $1.36.

By contrast, tax-cutting returns far less, in some cases far less than the $1 cost to start out.

Economists generally agree that effective economic stimulus initiatives follow the “three T” principle: policies must be TIMELY, TARGETED and TEMPORARY. These are important principles to remember as Iowa’s leaders decide how to use the federal stimulus dollars provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) signed recently by President Obama.

Help for 1.1 Million Iowans

Sorting out items in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the economic recovery package signed by President Obama — one promises help to over 1.1 million Iowans.

The Making Work Pay Credit is a tax credit of up to $400 per worker. It is available to all workers earning up to $95,000 and married couples earning up to $190,000. There are other elements to it; the credit:

  • • phases in at the same rate as Social Security taxes
  • • is reduced by the amount (if any) of the family’s Economic Recovery Payment, a one-time payment of $250 for recipients of Social Security, SSI, and certain other benefits.
  • • doesn’t apply to workers claimed as dependents by other taxpayers.

According to the Brookings/Urban Tax Policy Center, 110.7 million taxpayers nationwide are eligible for the credit. In Iowa, this is estimated to cover 1,113,000 taxpayers.

The Making Work Pay Credit is not the only credit targeting help to working families at lower incomes. Some families — those with children and low or moderate incomes — also will receive help through expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

Source of data: Arloc Sherman, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Tax Aid in Recovery Package Would Reach Large Numbers of Workers in Every State.” Updated Feb. 26, 2009. http://www.cbpp.org/1-21-09tax3.htm

New peek at secret checks

The Iowa Department of Revenue has released its 2006 Tax Credit Claims Report.

According to the report, during tax year 2006, Research Activity Credit (RAC) claims were $30.5 million — with 70 percent of that in so-called “refunds.” Important to note: These “refunds” don’t “refund” anything. Rather, they are what the state pays companies that can’t use all of their tax credits because they don’t owe enough tax.

And, by the way, these payments are state secrets — secret checks to companies that don’t pay corporate income tax in Iowa. We only get to know the overall amount of them, but not who gets what. It would be different if these checks came from direct appropriations, through the regular budget process.

This is an example of spending through the tax code that is costing the state of Iowa many millions of dollars each year. By 2012, the RAC is expected to cost the state over $100 million – part of the growing problem of ballooning tax expenditures that have weakened Iowa’s revenue structure.

The new report from Revenue also notes that the supplemental RAC – separate awards provided by the Department of Economic Development – cost the state $13.4 million in 2006, with most of that ($13.1 million) in “refunds.” Governor Culver has proposed doing away with that spending to save the state $13 million in the FY2010 budget.

See the full Department of Revenue report.

Tighten loose belts on largest waists

It might surprise Iowans to learn that state general fund spending has declined as a share of the economy. That is the reality — even if it’s not the common rhetoric heard from the State Capitol.

But one area of state spending is spinning out of control: spending through the tax code on business development projects. Business tax credits have grown from $144 million in fiscal 2006 to $243 million last year. The Department of Revenue projects this figure to spike to $406 million next fiscal year.

These credits might not be reviewed by the Legislature as it builds its budget. This kind of spending is done through the tax code, not the regular appropriations process. Once enacted, these credits are not subject to annual reauthorization and can grow well beyond what anyone expected, and for activities not intended when they were passed.

Business tax credits in Iowa are on autopilot. We cannot afford this, and the current budget crisis offers a good time to address it.

See the new paper, “Iowa Budget Belt-Tightening: Fosusing on the Largest Waists,” from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership at http://tinyurl.com/d8rkm2.

Federal stimulus impacts on Iowa

Here is a look at some of the impacts of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act in Iowa:

FMAP (Medicaid percentage increase) FY2009-11 — $550.0 million

State Fiscal Stabilization (Flexible block grant) — $ 86.0 million

Education/ Child Care:

State Fiscal Stabilization fund (education) FY2009-10$386.4 million

Title 1 (supplemental support) — $65.3 million

IDEA (special education state grants)—$120.9 million

Child Care & Development Block Grant FY2009-10 — $18.1 million

Child Support FY2009-10 — $27.2 million

Unemployment Insurance (UI):

UI Benefit Increase ($25/week) — 212,422 recipients

UI Emergency Extension to 12/09 — 27,600 new beneficiaries

Employment Services FY09:

Youth Services — $5.2 million

Dislocated Workers — $6.3 million

Adult Activities — $1.6 million

Making Work Pay Credit — 1,110,000 taxpayers

Food Stamps FY2009-13:

Benefit Increase — $161 million and 279,000 recipients

Administration — $2.7 million

Child Tax Credit (tax year 2009 — lowers threshold to make credit available to families at $3,000 earnings):

Number helped lowering $8,500 threshold — 133,000

Number helped lowering $12,550 threshold — 156,000

Emergency Shelter Grant Pgm FY091 Add’l Funds — $16.8 million and 4,500 households