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

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.

It’s the revenues, Iowans

Iowa’s declining revenues are at the root of the state’s budget problems, leaving Iowa open to the impact of the recession. In fact, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership released a report today detailing the role of revenue changes in our state’s budget crisis.

Iowa’s general spending grew at the same rate as the economy in the 1990s, but after the 2001 recession, spending never caught up to the levels of the growing economy — even though it has increased slightly over the past three years.

State spending in 2008 was 5.45 percent of the economy, 16 percent lower than it was in the 1990s.

Beth Pearson, an Iowa Policy Project research associate who co-authored the report, said tax reductions between 1996 and 2004 have contributed to Iowa’s budget crisis. These breaks cost the state an estimated $650 million in forgone revenue in 2004 alone.

Iowa policy makers need to keep a long-term focus, and to consider all spending, including spending through the tax code.

For more information on the report, visit our website at: www.IowaPolicyProject.org, or find the report here. For timely updates, follow our IaPolicyProject Twitter account.